Are you inflammation aging? Power of prebiotic dietary fibres & gut microbiome to keep the gold in your golden years

Aging is a natural process that everyone has to deal with, however, in today’s modern world, we are dealing with a phenomenon “inflammaging” – where chronic inflammation in the body causes premature aging and several diseases associated with the process of aging. But don’t worry feeding your gut microbiome with prebiotic dietary fibres is the key to keeping the gold in the golden years.

What is Inflammaging?

“Inflammaging” is a word that combines “inflammation” and “aging” and highlights the strong association between chronic inflammation and aging. Inflammaging is a chronic low-grade inflammation that develops with advanced age and is believed to hasten the process of biological aging and worsen many age-related diseases.

While inflammation is a natural and essential response to protect against pathogens and infections and from any harmful stimuli, prolonged inflammation (chronic inflammatory state) can be damaging.

Inflammaging is the result of certain modern day lifestyle factors, including physical inactivity, Western diet, poor sleep quality, stress, and exposure to toxins. To a certain extent, some of these factors can’t be avoided, like the toxins in the air we breathe, however, many of them are within our control, such as the food we consume and the way we manage stress.

As we age, our immune system begins to fail in four fundamental ways –

  • The immune system becomes slower to respond, thus increasing risk of getting sick.
  • It can become negligent, where its ability to detect and correct cell defects also declines thus, allowing abnormal cells — either infectious agents or cancer cells — to grow unchecked.
  •  Our body may heal more slowly as there are fewer immune cells in the body to promote healing. Or,
  • It can become overzealous, turning on the body and attacking normal tissues, as occurs in autoimmune diseases. Many forms of arthritis, connective tissue diseases, and allergies are autoimmune diseases.

When the body is undergoing chronic inflammation, we’re exposing it to premature aging and diseases like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, multiple sclerosis, atherosclerosis, heart disease, type-II diabetes, osteoporosis, and several other diseases.

While the concept and study of inflammaging remains in its infancy, the premise has likely never been more universally applicable than during the COVID-19 pandemic. We have witnessed how COVID-19 has disproportionately affected older people with substantially severe disease outcomes. Diminished immune response due to inflammaging is also known to predispose older adults to infections and flu-related complications. Thus, compared with younger people, the elderly are far more likely to contract infectious diseases.

Experts searching for causes of inflammaging describe multiple potential mechanisms. Among several other factors associated with the development of inflammaging, including inflammasome activation, increase of cells with senescence-associated secretory phenotype (SASP), accumulation of reactive oxygen species and functional decline in autophagy and Mitophagy, gut microbial dysbiosis has also gained a lot of research attention given its close association with chronic inflammation.

Gut microbiome and inflammation

An increasing number of scientific studies suggest a close association of inflammaging with changes to the gut microbiome, the communities of microbes that live in the gut and perform a variety of functions. The microbiome changes in response to variety of stimuli, such as diet, lifestyle, infection, immune response activation etc. The composition of the gut microbiome differs significantly between young and aged individuals.

Age-related gut dysbiosis, the microbial imbalance in the gut, favours a shift toward pro-inflammatory microbes and a decline of beneficial microbes such as those that produce beneficial metabolites like butyrate. Butyrate is an important energy source of colonocytes (colon cells) and helps keep the intestinal barrier strong. Such undesirable alterations lead to inflammation and weaken the intestinal barrier, allowing the inflammatory components to enter the blood circulation. Such a cascade further feeds the inflammatory cycle to continue its loop (read more here). Inflammation from dysbiosis interferes with the ability of the immune system to function properly and creates an environment that is conducive to chronic inflammation and other age-related diseases.

The health of the immune system is supported by a healthy gut, which includes a complex interplay of symbiotic relationships between the various bacteria that make up its microbiome. The loss of bacterial diversity and the decline of beneficial bacteria species during aging lead to a compromised gut barrier and dysbiosis, which, in turn, increase bacterial infiltration into the body and trigger chronic inflammation.

From inflammaging to healthy aging possible with healthy diet & lifestyle choices

While we can’t stop the aging process, we can be proactive in avoiding premature aging by limiting inflammation in our bodies. Appropriately, among others, the diet is one of the best-known factors that has the power to significantly influence the microbiome – it’s composition and function. So, a key to turning the path from inflammaging to healthy aging is the dietary and lifestyle choices we make.

Good news is that we can help fight inflammation through our diet by eating certain foods and avoiding others. Pro-inflammatory foods that encourage inflammation include ultra-processed foods that are nutrient-deficient and carry high content of saturated fats, refined carbohydrates and are devoid of dietary fibres and essential micronutrients. In contrast, the typical anti-inflammatory diet emphasises fruits, vegetables, lean protein, seeds, whole-grains, and healthy fats. A diet that is rich in dietary fibre and prebiotics is vital as they feed the beneficial microbiota and encourage production of variety of anti-inflammatory metabolites like short-chain fatty acids including butyrate, propionate, and acetate.

Without a doubt, stress is necessary to protect ourselves from potential threats, however, the stress we’re experiencing nowadays has very damaging effects on our health. When cortisol levels are frequently elevated, the body becomes chronically stressed, thus increasing inflammation. In fact, the elevated levels of inflammation in the body caused by chronic stress, suppresses the immune system significantly.

While there is plenty about modern life that makes our day-to-day easier, it also presents many stressors that have adverse effects on our health. In this fast-paced lifestyle we’re living in where we need to juggle 101 things, take time to breathe and relax. Meditate, exercise, walk in nature and enjoy quality time with your loved ones to disconnect, to reconnect.

To close:

There are no guarantees with anything in life — but aging is a reality. We can make this time of life as good as it can be by actively protecting our health.

Don’t let this modern-day lifestyle make you inflammage sooner than you should be aging! Feed your gut right and keep your gut microbiome happy with prebiotic dietary fibre to keep the gold in your golden years. Happy Aging!

By Dr Tanvi Shinde, PhD