Ask The Dr.

Four ways a healthy microbiome keeps you young.
Aspen Snowmass boasts over 100 restaurants that offer dishes made with farm-fresh prebiotic foods like garlic, onion and asparagus, which balance the gut’s microbiome. Photo by Lobostudio Hamburg.

By Dr. Frank Lipman 

Our bodies are amazing, living, breathing machines. With good care and maintenance, they can run beautifully for a long, long time. But why is it that some bodies seem to run better, and longer, than others? Why do some folks age rapidly, growing old before their time, while others seem perpetually youthful? When it comes to aging, how slowly or rapidly your body does it depends on a lot of factors, some of them genetically determined. But many of the most important drivers of aging are under your control, even if you don’t realize it. They’re affected by the lifestyle choices you make every day.

So, if your goal is to slow down the aging process, there’s lots you can do to put the brakes on. One of the most important anti-aging moves you can make? Stopping inflammation. I’m talking about the fire that burns in cells throughout your body, wreaking enormous havoc and making you old and tired, and quite possibly sick, way before your time. To tame the flames and boost your body’s natural anti-aging powers, start here:

MEET YOUR MICROBIOME—YOUR WELLNESS CENTER. OK, you may have heard of the microbiome, but you may not be aware of the pivotal role it plays in health in general, and aging in particular. For starters, our bodies rely on the microbiome—the community of trillions of beneficial (and not-so-beneficial) bacteria housed mainly in our guts—to help digest food, produce vitamins and other health supportive compounds, and generally keep gut health on track. What else is going on in that microbiome of yours? Roughly 70 percent of your immune system lives there, housed in and around your gut, so keeping your microbiome functioning at its peak has a massive ripple effect, impacting all aspects of health both in the short and long terms.

One big way the microbiome maintains a healthy gut is by nourishing the cells of the delicate gut wall, which, in many places, is a single layer of cells. Your gut wall functions as the primary internal barrier between your body and the food that comes into it from the outside world. So protecting the integrity of that barrier—making sure the bad stuff doesn’t get dumped into the bloodstream to cause trouble anywhere in the body—is absolutely essential.

MIND (AND) YOUR MICROBIOME. The gut is also often referred to as “the second brain” because tucked into the walls of the digestive system is what’s called the enteric nervous system—two thin layers of more than 100 million nerve cells lining your gastrointestinal tract. This “brain in your gut” helps manage your digestion, mood, health and even the way you think, and the microbiome serves as its feel-good factory. For instance, most of the brain chemical serotonin—which promotes emotional well-being, self-confidence and good sleep—is made in the gut, and most of that is made by your gut bacteria. So, when your microbiome is in good shape, chances are your gut, and the rest of you, is too. As a result, you are more likely to feel calm, balanced and well-rested—all major wins on the anti-aging scoreboard.

AN UNBALANCED MICROBIOME AND A LEAKY GUT INFLAME BODIES—AGING THEM FAST. When your bacterial community is in balance, your gutwall is strong, intact—and it’s all-systems-go. But, when it’s out of balance, and you have too many bacteria making pro-inflammatory metabolites rather than anti-inflammatory ones, that’s when the problems start. The fragile, one-cell-layer-thick woven gut wall loosens and leaky gut develops, leaving tiny spaces where harmful bacteria, toxins and pieces of partially digested food can break through the wall, and leak straight into the bloodstream. With leaky gut, what happens in Vegas (the gut, that is) doesn’t stay in Vegas—and you pay the price. It triggers aging, with disease-promoting inflammation spreading throughout the body and causing symptoms like joint pain, skin rashes, moodiness, anxiety, depression, brain fog and hormonal issues. Not exactly what you want if you’re looking to stay youthful and vibrant.

An imbalanced microbiome is also more likely to cause the gut immune system to overreact to various foods, like gluten, and in the process trigger or worsen inflammation. It’s now being shown that inflammation that has its roots in the gut contributes to conditions like heart disease, diabetes and dementia—the dreaded and most common “diseases of aging”—all of which have a major inflammation component. And a not-up-to-snuff microbiome may be the important reason for an inflammation response that goes into dangerous overdrive in any number of situations—for instance, in the case of autoimmune diseases, now epidemic. In those, the immune system goes so haywire, it attacks the body’s own organs. So don’t chalk up all the bad things that can happen to you as you get older as the “natural” consequence of aging. An imbalanced microbiome may be behind a lot of it, and lucky for us, there’s a lot you can do about it.

LEAK-PROOF YOUR GUT, AGE-PROOF THE REST OF YOU. With this in mind, your anti-aging mission is to reverse any gut dysfunction that may be occurring by balancing the microbiome and protecting against leaky gut and the aging inflammation that follows on its heels. How to do it? Start by upgrading your diet, and adding some of these positive lifestyle behaviors that heal, seal and protect.

  1. Seed your microbiome with food-based prebiotics (garlic, onions, leeks and asparagus, stalks and spears).
  2. Chow down on probiotics (fermented foods) every day.
  3. Repopulate and reinoculate your gut with a daily high-quality probiotic.
  4. Lay off refined carbs, sugar and gluten, all of which undermine gut health.
  5. Try an elimination diet, to give your gut time to rest and heal.
  6. Choose organic and farmers market ingredients.
  7. Give your microbiome a break by fasting for at least 12 to 14 hours overnight.
  8. Drink plain, unflavored, water, at least four big glasses a day, and make yours filtered or spring.
  9. Sleep well, getting at least seven hours a night.
  10. Reduce stress every day with a regular meditation practice.

Achieve enduring wellness with the help of my best science-backed anti-aging techniques in my new book, The New Rules of Aging Well: A Simple Program for Immune Resilience, Strength, and Vitality.