Does Gut Health Matter in Midlife?
This article is written by Hormone Health Associate Antonia de Gier.
It appears that we cannot open a magazine, newspaper or browse online health content without reading about the current buzz topic – “be kind to your gut”, “our guide to a healthy gut”, “why is gut health so important?”
The reality is that our gut health has always been and will continue to be extremely important at any age, from birth to our elderly years and all the time in between. Whether we are born naturally or by caesarean can impact our gut microbiome, and our digestive health is an ever-evolving adaptive part of our neurological, hormonal, immune and stress responses until death.
What happens as we pass through midlife?
As we pass through midlife however, as women we start to notice various changes whilst coping with symptoms of the perimenopause and menopause itself. Sleep quality and quantity can be impacted, stress levels can rise, leaving us feeling more anxious and unable to cope with day to day tasks that would never have previously bothered us, our immune system may not feel as robust and we start to develop more frequent infections such as urinary tract infections or thrush, and often an unknown inflammatory response within the body can lead to unexpected aches and pains. We are all human, and some of us may turn to more caffeine to keep awake, fall for instant sugar hits which we think will “keep us going” and then often a glass of wine or two in an attempt to relax in the evening, a pain killer to aid our aching joints, with all good intentions to restart our healthy habits tomorrow.
How can this affect our digestive health and what can be done to help?
The first thing is to honestly assess our intake of “nutrient strippers”, comprising caffeine, alcohol and high-sugar foods such as chocolate. As these stimulants pass through our digestive tract, they can affect the utilisation and absorption of important vitamins and minerals required for energy production, hormone balance and stress management.
The second important stage is to add various elements; we need to include a vast range of macro (protein, complex carbohydrates – to include a good amount of soluble and insoluble fibre – and essential fats) and micro (vitamins and minerals) nutrients to enhance the function of these different systems within the digestive tract, this can include eggs, lean meat, oily fish, some dairy, as large a variety of fruits and vegetables as possible, particularly leafy green veg, beans, lentils, nuts, seeds and wholegrains. These foods can also help to enhance transit time and add bulk to our stools, making them easier to pass.
Why is our digestive tract so important?
Our digestive tract, the primary functions of which include the digestion, absorption and assimilation of the food we eat and the elimination of any waste products, is known as the barrier to the rest of the body. Up to 80% of the immune system is centred in the gastrointestinal tract, whilst up to 60% of hormonal output is centred in the gut. It is therefore imperative that this barrier is kept as intact as possible, known as gut integrity. Gut flora/beneficial bacteria or as more recently named the microbiome is key to this integrity and we read a lot about probiotics, prebiotics, and how we should all be taking these in order to protect our gut integrity. There are many different supplements and products available now including pre and probiotics and we can help guide you as to what may be the best suggestion for you. Prebiotic fibre can help to support the healthy elimination of hormones through the digestive tract and can also help to facilitate calcium absorption in the intestines for optimal bone health. Probiotic supplementation, primarily Lactobacillus and BioAcidophilus, can help to enhance the normal function of the digestive lining, can provide non-immunological protection against infection and help to regulate our immune function. The microbiome composition within our digestive tract can have an effect on our immune, metabolic, hormonal and neuronal development and maintenance throughout our life, and vice versa.
Why is optimal gut health during menopause so important?
In terms of the physiological changes taking place during the menopause and the years leading up to it, there will always be a case for optimal digestive health. Recent research shows that the gut microbiota is a key regulator of glucose metabolism, literally meaning how we are able to process carbohydrate food sources and utilise it in the best way we can for maximum energy output. Similarly, gut bacteria are known to produce various communication molecules, certain strains are instrumental in generating certain neurotransmitters, otherwise known as our “happy” hormones such as dopamine and serotonin, all vital for impacting on our mood and our response to stress and motivation at the very time that we can feel these aspects spiralling out of our control. In a trial in 2017, imbalanced gut flora has been implicated in anxiety and depression, with those given probiotic supplementation reporting significant improvements in their anxiety symptoms.
These are just a few reasons as to why gut health is so important at this stage in our lives. As always, no one protocol will suit every individual, and there are many aspects to be considered before embarking on digestive health, such as bacterial balance, symptoms such as food sensitivities, constipation, diarrhoea, headaches and brain fog, mood changes, impaired immune function and low energy, but at Hormone Health we are here to listen, help and provide a tailor-made programme based on your symptoms during the menopause journey.
Article written by Registered Nutritional Therapist and Hormone Health Associate Antonia de Gier