Researchers now believe that boosting the health of the gut microbiome may be the secret to living healthier in old age. In a study published in the journal Nature Communications, researchers looked at how fecal transplantation from young mice to older ones stimulated the gut microbiome and revived the gut’s immune system.
The gut, more so than many other internal organs, can be severely weakened by the effects of aging, and many age-dependent changes to the gut microbiome have been linked to inflammation, frailty and an increased susceptibility to potentially life-threatening intestinal disorders. As you age, these changes to the gut microbiome happen just as your gut’s immune system fails to function at peak efficiency. Before the results of this study, undertaken by immunologists from Cambridge’s Babraham Institute, were published, scientists weren’t entirely sure whether those two changes to the gut microbiome were connected.
Marisa Stebegg, lead researcher, said that the gut microbiome is made up of hundreds of different bacteria that are essential for optimal health. These gut bacteria play a role in metabolic function, brain function and in the immune system’s response to threats such as foreign pathogens.
“Our immune system is constantly interacting with the bacteria in the gastrointestinal tract,” said Stebegg. “As immunologists who study why our immune system doesn’t work as well as we age, we were interested to explore whether the make-up of the gut microbiome might influence the strength of the gut immune response.”
In this study, the researchers either co-housed young and older mice in order to stimulate their natural desire to sample the fecal pellets of other mice, or they directly performed fecal transfers from young to older mice. This boosted the gut immune system of the older rodents and it partly corrected their age-related decline. Michelle Linterman, one of the researchers, remarked that co-housing alone was enough to make the gut immune response of the aged mice nearly indistinguishable from that of their younger roommates.
A healthy gut means a healthy life
What this study showed is that the decreasing quality of the gut’s immune response is not irreversible. This immune response can be strengthened by challenging it with the appropriate stimuli. For older mice, it meant co-housing with and sampling the fecal matter of younger mice. For humans, it may be a healthy diet that involves the consumption of probiotics. (Related: Gut bacteria “signatures” predict how the body will respond to poor food choices, predicting risk for diabetes, heart disease.)
Furthermore, the study is relevant because it confirmed the link between the effects of the aging and deteriorating immune system and the age-related changes that occur within the gut microbiome. Interventions, if you want them to be successful, have to focus on having a positive impact on the composition of the gut microbiome.
The food you eat can nourish the gut bacteria. These bacteria then produce the nutrients your body needs to strengthen the immune system and fight off pathogens. This immune response needs to be kept at peak performance and this can be done through eating foods that specifically nourish the gut microbiome, such as probiotics.
Other studies support the theory of Stebegg, Linterman and their team. One such study, published in the journal Scientific Reports, found that feeding fruit flies a combination of probiotics and herbal supplements can prolong their life by 60 percent and protect them from age-related chronic diseases. More research provides even more evidence to suggest that a healthy gut may make the difference between aging poorly and having a good quality of life in your twilight years.