New research is starting to uncover exciting links between the gut and muscle health, as well as blood-glucose control.
And now, as consumers are looking for preventative approaches to staying healthy and adopting a long-term approach to health maintenance, there is great interest in this central conductor.
Anke Sentko, Vice President Regulatory Affairs & Nutrition Communication at Beneo, discusses the emerging science which reveals the gut's wide range of health promoting roles as we reach our golden years.
"The gut has a number of important roles to play in addition to digestion and excretion - it is a hormone producing organ, it has an extensive nervous system and therefore is sometimes called our 'second brain', and it is where approximately 70% of our immune system and the gut microbiota is located.
"The gut wall is the barrier towards the metabolism of the microorganisms. These microorganisms of the gut microbiota create their own microcosmos, their specific gut environment, which influences the microbiota composition and the effects generated by those.
"As a result, the gut is important for the health of the whole body because, over and above managing digestion and excretion processes, it communicates with other organs in the body including the brain. This means immunity, mood, and digestive health are closely linked. Therefore, it is no surprise that good long-term health and inner protection starts with promoting beneficial gut microbiota.
"Ageing means that the cells, organs, blood circulation, brain function etc. in the body lose their optimum function. As people age, their gut microbiome changes, and their inner defence system is weakened. Also, their blood glucose regulation system doesn’t work as efficiently, cognition goes down and other health risks increase. However, gut microbiome research over the past decade has shown that if the microbiota in the gut is steered in the right direction, it can have a preventive and even a potential therapeutic role on healthier ageing."
Dysbiosis and frailty
Sentko explains that, with age, factors such as diet, medication, environmental factors and lifestyle factors can reduce the diversity of bacteria in the gut, thereby knocking the stability of the ecosystem, meaning an imbalance of the microbiota may occur - known as dysbiosis - and this involves a potential enrichment of the potentially harmful bacteria groups.
As well as compromising a person’s inner defence system, new research also indicates that gut dysbiosis in the elderly may contribute to changes in muscle size, their composition and function.
Low skeletal muscle mass is often associated with frailty in older adults which increases their susceptibility to adverse outcomes and negatively affects their quality of life
Looking into how microbiome modulation can therefore impact frailty, one study from the University of Valencia even found that a prebiotic supplement containing a mixture of inulin plus fructo-oligosaccharides could help manage exhaustion and handgrip strength, important aspects of frailty, in participants aged 65 and over.
"Gut friendly foods, such as those enriched with prebiotic inulin and oligofructose, can be supportive in nourishing beneficial bacteria (i.e. Bifidobacteria) within the microbiota as a person gets older."
Discussing scientifically backed prebiotic ingredients, she notes that inulin and oligofructose are the only plant-based proven prebiotics and chicory root fibre is one of the very few proven prebiotics that selectively nourishes the beneficial gut microbiota and supports digestive health, wellbeing, the immune system and weight management.
The blood-glucose factor
Sentko adds there is growing understanding of how developing non-communicable diseases (NCDs), such as diabetes and being overweight, increases with age, and how such diseases and their onset can be influenced by diet and lifestyle related changes.
Again, this is an area where prebiotics could play a key role, according to Sentko: "This has led to more and more consumers making the connection that managing blood glucose levels is a key way to help promote long-term health. Moreover, high blood sugars levels are influencing the immune system negatively. Blood sugar management is increasingly being linked to ageing well, and food and beverage products that lower blood sugar levels are on the rise in this space.
"Chicory root fibres, such as Beneo’s Orafti Inulin and Oligofructose, contribute to a low glycaemic diet by replacing available carbohydrates and enriching the food with dietary fibres. Thus, they can help in the creation of foods and beverages that support blood sugar management."