In the last few years, researchers have discovered more and more about the incredible ways the microbes that live in the gut (and all over the body) impact human health. A balanced community of gut bacteria is now associated with reduced inflammation, a stronger immune system, and better mental health.
But if you’re finding out about gut health only now, in your fourth, fifth, or sixth decade, it can feel like you’re a little behind. Especially since the good bacteria that make up your unique microbiome tend to settle in pretty early in life.
“The biggest programming of the system clearly happens in the first three years of life, including pregnancy,” explains Emeran Mayer, MD, author of The Mind-Gut Connection, via factors like your mother’s diet and stress levels, your delivery method, bacteria in breast milk, and more.
However, there’s good news: Dr. Mayer says it’s possible to heal your gut later in life, since factors like food and stress can alter the metabolites the microbes produce. “My feeling is diet really does play a significant role later in life in terms of providing the fuel that the microbes adapt to,” he says.
And it’s even more important to start working on your gut health, now, since as you age, gut biology can change and become less diverse, explains Partha Nandi, MD, author of Ask Dr. Nandi.
“These changes are related to things like hospital admission, antibiotic use, and dietary changes. As people age, there can be changes in the immune system that lead to constant low-grade inflammation, which may also influence which bacterial species predominate,” Dr. Nandi says. “When there is less diversity in the gut, this gives the opportunity for bacteria that can cause disease to take over.”
Your Gut Health Prescription
So what should you do to start working on your gut health now?
Dr. Nandi recommends centering your diet on whole, unprocessed foods. Gut bacteria especially love plant-based foods filled with prebiotic fiber, like vegetables, beans, nuts, seeds, and some whole grains. “The bacteria that makes fermentation possible may also be beneficial,” he says, so add fermented foods like sauerkraut, kimchi, and Greek yogurt to your regular shopping list.
Healthy fats like omega-3s can also “cool inflammation in the gut,” he says, so incorporate foods like salmon, avocado, and nuts into your diet.
Finally, while the research on how effective probiotics are in terms of affecting your health is still far from definitive, evidence for taking the supplements is getting stronger. Many animal studies have pointed to promising benefits. In a recent one, researchers were able to reverse depressive symptoms in mice by feeding them probiotics. Another recent small study showed taking probiotics significantly reduced both stomach upset and depression in people with irritable bowel syndrome.
“Probiotics will help you rebuild the healthy bacteria so essential to good gut health,” Dr. Nandi says, at any age.