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Bowel Health—For Seniors

The primary signs of a digestive system imbalance are bowel health issues that compound as we age. In fact, bowel issues are among seniors’ top complaints, along with joint and mobility challenges.

Seniors can find themselves facing colitis, irritable bowel, sluggish digestion, cramping, gas, and occasional constipation and diarrhea, all of which make for uncomfortable and unpredictable bowel movements. These concerns are often due to several “triggers.” As the last stop in the digestive process, the bowel feels the effects of any imbalance along the way. Digestive enzymes can help support these issues.

A Look at Healthy Digestion

Each point along the digestive process is critical to bowel health, especially as we age:

  • Digestion begins in the mouth where amylase and ptyalin begin predigesting food.
  • Food then passes down the esophagus to the valve entry leading into the stomach.
  • The stomach does very little nutrient absorption. Hydrochloric acid (HCl) and enzymes liquefy food here and pass it through another valve to the upper section of the small intestine, the duodenum. It’s very important that the stomach has enough HCl to properly break down food at this stage.
  • Once in the duodenum, food (chyme) receives more enzyme digestion via enzymes from the pancreas, a vital enzyme producing organ.
  • 90% of nutrients from food are absorbed along the small intestine walls which house a mixture of mucus, immune cells, beneficial bacteria that aid digestion and support immunity, and cells that make enzymes and absorb nutrients. The small intestinal wall is the main portal for tiny, well-digested nutrients to pass through and into the bloodstream.
  • Finally, remnants of food are passed into the colon where water and some nutrients are absorbed and feces are formed. Fecal matter (stool) gradually becomes firmer as it approaches the rectum for elimination. Healthy stool is about 2/3 water, undigested fiber and food, and about 1/3 dead and living bacteria that naturally inhabit the colon.

The healthy digestive system should be eliminating stool 2-3 times daily (about once for every meal eaten). Most people are going less than once a day, however, a sign of a significant bowel imbalance.

Bowel Health Problems Along the Way

Time takes its toll on the digestive system, which is why seniors tend to suffer from bowel health problems more frequently. Decades of a poor diet, stress, medication use, and inadequate digestive care all add up to bowel issues that can become chronic if not addressed.

  1. Hurried eating. Improper chewing of food puts undue strain on the stomach.
  2. Inadequate HCl and enzyme production. Certain medications such as acid blockers can affect production of hydrochloric acid in the stomach, and age can reduce the pancreas’ natural enzyme production. An enzyme/HCl supplement made with plant based enzymes (like the enzymes we get from raw fruits and vegetables) taken with meals helps to boost enzyme and HCl levels for proper food breakdown and acid indigestion support.ǂ
  3. Intestinal bacteria imbalance. Both the small intestine and the colon should house far more beneficial bacteria than harmful microorganisms. As we age, however, levels of beneficial Bifidobacteria decline. Bifidobacteria live almost exclusively in the colon where they regulate healthy bowel movements. A high-Bifido probiotic supplement at 80 billion probiotic cultures helps to replenish levels of Bifidobacteria and relieve occasional irritable bowel, constipation, and diarrhea, and also support the many immune cells in the intestines.ǂ
  4. Leaky gut. NSAIDS, parasites, chemicals, stress, and a poor diet can all lead to increased intestinal permeability, known as leaky gut. The small intestine allows larger particles and toxins to leak into the bloodstream, setting up a chronic “silent” inflammatory response that can aggravate bowel health imbalances, blood sugar issues, immune concerns, and more.
  5. Bowel upset. In addition to probiotics, bowel health supplements containing other nutrients help to nourish and soothe the intestinal lining and provide healthy bowel support.ǂ Amino acids such as L-glutamine aid in nutrient digestion and help to repair the intestinal lining. Herbs such as slippery elm and fenugreek soothe and relax the bowel for more comfortable elimination.

Bowel Health Triggers to Watch Out For

  • Lactose intolerance. This occurs when lactose (milk sugar) is not thoroughly broken down in the small intestine and arrives in the colon intact. Here it feeds bacteria and gives rise to irritating byproducts that cause cramping, gas, bloating, diarrhea, headaches, and acne. If you suspect a lactose intolerance, eliminate dairy from your diet (check all foods for dairy ingredients) to see how you respond.
  • Gluten sensitivity. This condition occurs when the small intestine reacts against gluten proteins found in wheat, rye, barley, and oats to produce symptoms as diverse as gas, bloating, diarrhea, depression, anemia, muscle cramps and joint pain. A stool test can help determine a gluten sensitivity in its earliest stages.
  • Excessive stress. Many of us do not realize how stressed we are on a regular basis. Stress releases hormones such as cortisol and others that slow or almost stop digestion, resulting in constipation and slow digestive transit time. Rarely do people attribute their digestive issues to stress, though it is one of the primary causes. Regular relaxation by whatever healthy means work best is as important for bowel health as it is for mental and emotional well-being.
  • Poor fiber intake. Getting enough soluble and insoluble fiber from foods and fiber supplements (35 total grams recommended each day) directly benefits bowels by removing toxins, moving waste along, and feeding beneficial bacteria in the colon. Many Americans are consuming less than 1/3 of the fiber they should be getting for optimum digestive health.