Gut reactions: Good microbes mean good digestion

By on June 1, 2011

By Kimberley Jace  –

At a lunch for midlife women, the conversation is bound to turn to digestion. “I used to be able to eat anything!” someone will exclaim. “But now if I eat a spoonful of dairy, I’m up all night.”

Why does it seem that, after age 50, our digestive systems turn on us? According to the experts, it’s a normal part of aging. Just as you have fewer tears after 50, which can make your eyes feel gritty, you have fewer digestive secretions, too. Your stomach might not be able to pump out the hydrochloric acid it once produced effortlessly to tackle high-protein meals. Digestive enzyme tablets (try the chewables!) can bring immediate relief.

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But after age 50, it’s also easier for the natural flora in your intestine to get out of whack. Changing hormones, antibiotics, and even stress can affect the delicate balance of good and bad bacteria in your gut, leaving you with recurring heartburn, indigestion, intestinal gas, cramping, bloating, constipation, and diarrhea.

Although it may seem counterintuitive, your body needs some bacteria to help you break down your food–helpful microbes called “probiotics” (Latin for “in support of life”). According to the Harvard Medical School’s Family Health Guide, “Since the mid-1990s, clinical studies have established that probiotic therapy can help treat several gastrointestinal ills.”

First, fix your diet
The easiest way to rebalance your digestive tract is to be careful about what you eat. Good bacteria love fiber; bad bacteria feast on sugar. So eating lots of vegetables (which contain what scientists call “pre-biotics”) and eliminating refined carbohydrates from your diet for a week or two might get you back on track.

Consider incorporating foods that are full of probiotics. In a study published in the Journal of Digestive Diseases, 82 percent of participants said their digestion improved after regularly consuming Activia, a yogurt that contains probiotics—although flavored Activia also contains fructose and glucose. Many unflavored, natural yogurts—often sold as “Greek” yogurts—contain active cultures without sugar. Check the labels.

Your local health food store probably offers beverages with probiotic cultures. Kefir has a yogurt-like taste, but contains far more probiotics.  Kombucha, made of fermented tea, tastes like tangy apple cider, and it’s full of probiotics and helpful organic acids. If you get hooked on kombucha, you can ferment it yourself. Look for directions online.

Probiotic pills
The health food store will also sell probiotic supplements (although they are cheaper through mail-order vitamin companies.) Go slowly when adding probiotic supplements to your diet, to give your body time to accommodate the newcomers. Some naturopathic doctors recommend you start with a colon cleansing to “sweep away” overgrown colonies of bad bacteria, giving the probiotics a better chance to take hold. Again, use moderation. To achieve balance here, you must be respectful of your body’s wisdom.

Other probiotic benefits
probiotics are involved in some exciting research. Researchers at Tulane University are conducting a study on probiotics to treat diarrhea in the children living in developing nations.  Mayo Clinic researchers are investigating the use of probiotics to prevent kidney stones. And Tufts-New England Medical Center is studying whether probiotics can help nursing home residents fight off infection.

Kimberley Jace is the editorial director at


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Gut reactions: Good microbes mean good digestion