We all fight the good fight when it comes to combating Father Time and hanging onto our youth and our health. We work so hard on the way up the proverbial hill, but the ride down isn't necessarily any easier. There are some bumps along the road that we all anticipate as we age, such as graying hair, decreased energy, wrinkles on our face and arthritis in our joints, to name a few. But there's not much discussion about the digestion changes that can occur as we reach our "golden" years.
For instance, a decrease in lactase (an essential enzyme for breaking down lactose in products like milk and butter) production is very common for aging adults. In fact, about 65 percent of the global population has a reduced ability to digest lactose after infancy, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Slowing or weakening of contractions in the large intestine, bacterial overgrowth in the small intestine and slower emptying of the stomach are among other common symptoms associated with changes in digestive function that come with age. Medications and age-related illnesses might also trigger such symptoms.
You might find that foods that were once a guilty pleasure eventually become a great threat for discomfort. So what does this mean? How do you pinpoint what foods your body is not reacting well to and what should you do about it? Because the different causes of digestive track issues can produce many of the same symptoms, it can be tricky to get to the root of the problem.
Although an aging digestive system may have a harder time breaking down certain foods due to slower enzyme production, it is possible to develop food intolerances, sensitivities and allergies later in adulthood. More than 20 percent of the population in industrialized countries suffer from food intolerance or food allergy. Although many of the symptoms mirror each other, food intolerances and allergies are two different things:
An allergic reaction occurs when the immune system mistakes a food ingredient as a foreign invader and therefore attacks it, producing high levels of the antibody immunoglobulin E and releasing histamines. The reaction can be life threatening and presents itself through hives, swelling, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, stomach pain, bloating, inflammation irregular heartbeat or restricted breathing. An allergic reaction often requires medical attention. The most common food allergens include milk, wheat, tree nuts, soy, peanuts and shellfish.
Food intolerance is a digestive issue. Although not life threatening, intolerance may result in some of the same symptoms, including bloating, cramping, gas, diarrhea, nausea and joint inflammation and pain. Other symptoms might include headache, brain fog, nervousness and irritability. Intolerance to a food is usually due to a lack of the enzyme needed to break down the particular food. For example, those with a lactose or dairy intolerance don't produce the enzyme lactase. Those with gluten sensitivity have difficulty digesting the gluten protein. While each individual can lack different enzymes to break down the relative food, some of the more common food intolerances are to dairy, gluten, eggs, caffeine, peanuts and corn.
Food intolerances and sensitivities can be as problematic as an allergy. If you suffer from any of the symptoms mentioned above, or suspect that you may have a food allergy, intolerance or sensitivity, the following suggestions are recommended:
Allergy testing – If you are experiencing more serious reactions such as those identified above as being associated with allergies, please see your primary care doctor or an allergist immediately. Skin and blood tests can help detect allergies, which could potentially save your life.
Reduce serving portions – Overeating can cause feelings of discomfort, bloat, nausea and even acid indigestion. As our stomachs empty out more slowly and our elasticity weakens with age, we should reduce our portions accordingly to avoid becoming too full and provoking these symptoms.
Get tested for food intolerance or sensitivities – The elimination diet, eliminating foods and slowly reintroducing them back into your diet one at a time, although helpful, can be a long, grueling process that doesn't always lead to clear results.
Rule out disease – Because of the crossover in symptoms, digestive system issues can be mistaken for more serious conditions. For example, what seems like lactose intolerance can actually be celiac disease or irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Inflammation and joint pain, which are common symptoms of food allergies and sensitivity, could also be caused by arthritis.
Identifying or diagnosing the cause of your digestive-discomfort symptoms is important. While allergies and disease are more serious causes, food sensitivities can be managed by simply decreasing or eliminating the amounts consumed; it doesn't always require total elimination. Either way, staying in tune with your body and being proactive with self-care and good health are the first steps to keeping your older years golden.