The Ageing Gut

As we get older and we strive to maintain at least a veneer, if not a deception, of youthful exuberance, the last thing we expect to hear are compliments about the juvenescence of our digestive process. A perfectly vital gut simply fails to impress, which is a shame because as we age, much more than Botox or sunglasses or anything else that keeps our favourite celebrities looking permanently frozen in time, being able to break down all those tiny morsels that reverberate around our mouths into essential nutrition is what is going to help us defy deterioration with age.

If biology is destiny and we are here to mate with the most powerful and protective member of the opposite sex, rather than seeking a male who is tall and has bulging biceps, any woman who is reading this article and is still shopping around needs to look no further than a male who has a pink, smooth uncoated tongue. Men wasting their time searching for a physical replica of cosmetically enhanced faux Barbie without the scorching intellect, need to redirect their attention to the above mentioned body part if they wish to sire the offspring of their dreams.

A smooth, uncoated, pink tongue is a beacon of intestinal fortitude and competence, signalling the pristine extraction of all the nutrients the body needs to manufacture those hormones that fashion perfect procreation. It’s a neon sign that should be telling us to stop and look no further because we’ve finally hit the genetic jackpot. The perfect tongue should be communicating to our DNA this is the ideal mate with who we can share our genetic material.

An uncoated, pink tongue indicates the initial first phase of digestion, which is the production of sufficient amounts of hydrochloric acid made in the stomach, is successfully underway. Naturopaths have been telling us for years that it all starts with our gut. Keep the gut healthy and the rest will follow suite. Conversely, if our gut is dysfunctional, then a host of illnesses can be a consequence. When we address any of these infirmities, the first thing we need to be doing is examine the gut for any disturbances in function if we want to give ourselves the best shot at tackling anything that is going wrong in our body optimally.

This means that fatigue, anxiety, depression, forgetfulness and all else that can go amiss with our bodies, the incidence of which escalates with ageing, have at their source a gut that is not working properly. It’s with the gut that we need to start by determining exactly what it is that is making our digestive system malfunction. Then, by correcting this disturbance, it might be that much easier to access more energy, feel less anxious, lift the veil of depression and have a clearer mind that is less forgetful.

Science is slowly starting to unravel the connection between gut health and emotional disturbances like anxiety and depression. Just as critically, current research is highlighting the association between our gut function and the core diseases of ageing – cancer, heart disease and dementia. While the cause of all of these is complex, evidence is mounting that disorders of the gut are the central cause of our brains breaking down, clogged arteries, and the growth of those abnormal cells that spawn cancers. If we are going to give ourselves the best chance of preventing the diseases of ageing, the first thing we have to do is ensure that our digestive system is fully operational.

This is easy to do. The gut is a very simple organ. Essentially, all it has to do is break down the food we eat in order to extract the nutrients we need for our cells to energise and our brains to activate. To digest our food we need two essential components; hydrochloric acid, manufactured in the stomach, and enzymes, emanating from the pancreas. As indicated above, it all starts with hydrochloric acid. We absolutely must produce enough of this substance if we want to pave the way for a digestive process that releases all the indispensable nutrients our bodies need. Top of this list is protein, found in meat, fish, eggs and beans. We need protein to make brain chemicals that prevent us from becoming depressed and anxious, to assemble hormones that make us sexual, energised and mentally engaged and our bones must have protein to prevent them from crumbling.

Not only our bones, but all of our organs like our heart, our livers and all the rest need protein to maintain their structure and to replenish their cells that are in a constant state of renewal. Without sufficient protein, we visibly shrink and ossify, becoming a sclerosed, shrunken skeleton of our former selves. We age prematurely, leading to mental and physical incapacity before we are ready. All of this might be preventable if we were producing enough hydrochloric acid and eating sufficient protein.

It’s not only protein that hydrochloric acid digests. Other cornerstone nutrients like iron, zinc, vitamin B12, calcium and magnesium require adequate amounts of hydrochloric acid to be suitably digested. Like protein, these are the nutrients we use to energise our cells and to protect them from decay and rust – insufficient amounts of these will lead to premature ageing, a decline in mental function and accelerated senility.

As we age there is a 30 percent reduction in hydrochloric acid production. This is compounded by two of the most favourite drugs readily and, according to the admonitions of health authorities, hugely overprescribed by doctors – nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications (NSAIDs) and proton pump inhibitors (PPIs). NSAIDs, such as Voltaren and Naprosyn, are used to treat pain and arthritis and even extensively to lower temperatures in overheated babies, while PPIs like Somac and Nexium are doled out like lollies to any patient complaining of heartburn, indigestion or stomach discomfort. Then there’s aspirin, not as liberally recommended as the above two medicinal stalwarts, but promoted nevertheless to prevent heart disease, which erodes the lining of the stomach, further compromising hydrochloric acid production.

Two studies in 2016, detailed in highly prestigious journals, JAMA Neurology and JAMA Internal Medicine, revealed those who take PPIs for an extended period have an increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s dementia and damaged kidneys, might give doctors, and the mothers who liberally give their babies these medications, some pause. Suppressing acid associated with prolonged PPI usage has also been linked with deficiencies of iron, vitamin B12, zinc and magnesium. Consequently, the incidence of osteoporosis and the overgrowth of abnormal bacteria in the small bowel have been traced to extensive administration of these medications.

Already in 2013, evidence surfaced that PPI usage increased the production of beta-amyloid, a protein associated with increased Alzheimer’s risk. Scientists have also found that in a test-tube, PPIs reduce the acid that is produced around brain and kidney cells. What this acid does is break down and help eliminate cellular garbage. With less acid and the accumulation of junk, it’s not difficult to appreciate how dementia and kidney destruction might evolve. While a test tube is a far cry from an actual organ, a Danish American research collaboration in 2017 has further disclosed that long-term PPI usage significantly increases heart disease and stroke risk.

This is not the first time research has revealed that lowering acid production speeds up atherosclerosis, the blockage of our arteries that expedites the development of potentially fatal heart attacks. The endothelium is the lining of our blood vessels, the preservation of which is fundamental for the maintenance of healthy unblocked arteries. Destroy the integrity of the endothelium and a harmful process is set in motion which hastens the development of heart disease. We need a chemical called nitric oxide to safeguard the wellbeing of the endothelium. PPIs lower nitric acid production which deprives the endothelium of a nurturing substance it needs to survive and thrive. Without nitric oxide the endothelium shrivels and the arteries become vulnerable to the fatty toxins which are poised to pounce and poison our blood vessels.

The message is clear. Rather than suppressing acid production, for those wishing to prevent the diseases of ageing by maximising digestive function, we should be aiming to enhance this key substance. Bloating, burping, bad breath and a coated tongue are pointers towards compromised hydrochloric acid production. Even heartburn and reflux, or regurgitation of bitter tasting fluids, might be caused by inadequate rather than excessive production of stomach acid. Bitter herbs such as gentian, globe artichoke, hops and dandelion root can increase hydrochloric acid as can ginger tea.

Dr Michael Elstein is an author and physician at The Eternal Health Medical Centre specialising in anti-ageing medicine, nutrition and dietary therapy. Contact

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