Toxins and aging

We live our lives in a toxic soup – a complex mixture of harmful chemicals and disease causing pathogens. Some of these toxins are of our own making (such as free radicals), while others are acquired from our environment. Fortunately, we have a number of highly developed strategies for intercepting and neutralizing toxins before they can damage crucial systems.

Our intestinal barrier prevents most from getting in. This barrier is made up of digestive enzymes, antibodies and large amounts of fluid and mucus to dilute and neutralize noxious substances. A number of different factors influence the functions of the intestinal barrier.  For example, a diet high in antioxidants and fiber can improve the functions of the intestinal barrier while stress and alcohol reduce them.

Supplement with probiotics for a healthy aging gut

Inside the intestines on any individual, there are more microbes than there have ever been humans walking on the face of the earth – about a hundred trillion, or up to two 2 kilos!

For every cell in an adult body, there are about 10 bacteria. These bacteria are not just along for the ride. They pay their way by performing a number of chores, including fermenting any indigestible nutrients that would otherwise be lost in the stool. During this process they release short-chain fatty acids that are an essential tonic for the cells that line the bowel. Fermentation also lowers the pH to prevent growth of harmful bacteria species, allow better absorption of minerals (such as calcium, magnesium and iron) and improve gut motility.

Bacteria can be significantly modified by what we eat

The makeup of bacteria that line our intestines can be significantly modified by what we eat. Nutrients that support or enhance a health gut flora are called prebiotics (as opposed to antibiotics which kill them).

Another way to get healthy gut bacteria is to ingest them.  This strategy is called probiotic. When probiotics are ingested they quickly establish a healthy, balanced gut flora.

At the beginning of the 20th century, it was suggested that disease and aging could be partly mediated by toxic substances produced by bad bacteria, and that aging as a result could be slowed by helpful probiotic bacteria by out competing the bad guys for food and space. Although their effect on aging continues to be debated, supplementing with probiotics may be useful in certain situations, such as after a course of antibiotics.

Some probiotics also contain bacteria that can lower our cholesterol levels and managing lactose intolerance. Improving intestinal health can also enhance the immune system, improve resistance to infections and reduce symptoms of allergies, such as eczema.

Last Reviewed 02/Mar/2014

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Dr Merlin Thomas

Professor Merlin Thomas is Professor of Medicine at Melbourne’s Monash University, based in the Department of Diabetes. He is both a physician and a scientist. Merlin has a broader interest in all aspects of preventive medicine and ageing. He has published over 270 articles in many of the worlds’ leading medical journals
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