How Important Is Gut Health Anyway?

 

We already know that people who follow a Mediterranean diet have better heart and metabolic health, live longer, and may even have better mental health than others. Now new research has found that older people who followed a Mediterranean diet for a year also had healthier gut microbiomes. In addition, they were also less frail compared to others of their age.

What is a Mediterranean-type diet?

This is a diet rich in vegetables, legumes, nuts, and whole grains. A Mediterranean diet provides a consistent source of key nutrients, including dietary fiber and crucial vitamins and minerals, such as vitamins C, B-6, and B-9, as well as copper, potassium, iron, manganese, and magnesium. Usually red meat and dairy products aren’t included much in this diet.

How the study worked

The study followed 600 older adults in five countries—France, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, or the United Kingdom. The researchers were working with the premise that older people tend to have less healthy gut microbiotas. (This is possibly because they have a more restrictive diets.) After following participants for a year, they found that a Mediterranean diet seemed to improve several things.

The participants had better bacterial diversity in the gut, compared with peers from the control group. In addition, they were less frail. Frailty means that many of person’s functions fail all at once. This leads to widespread, low-grade inflammation that further contributes to poor health. Study participants were walking faster, had better handgrip strength, and improved cognitive functioning.

Why a Mediterranean diet helps

An unhealthy gut corresponds to poorer overall health. It also leads to the faster onset of frailty in older adults. However, by following a Mediterranean diet, participants were able to improve their gut health. Their guts held richer populations of bacteria that produce beneficial short-chain fatty acids. As well as that, their guts had decreased populations of bacteria that produce bile acids. Bile acid is released by certain bacteria. Too much of certain bile acids, is associated with an increased risk of insulin resistance, fat buildup in the liver, cell damage, and even bowel cancer.

For some older people, a Mediterranean diet may not be an option. People with problems like dentition, saliva production, dysphagia, or irritable bowel syndrome will find this diet impractical and hard to follow. The challenge for health providers is to find a way to incorporate parts of the Mediterranean diet as much as possible.