Imagine a factory where the assembly line works in reverse, taking cars and dismantling them piece by piece until they are all but unrecognizable. That’s essentially how your digestive system works. Each time you eat, this disassembly line swings into action, breaking down food into smaller and simpler units that can be used by the body.

Unfortunately, many digestive problems result from an unhealthy lifestyle. Overeating, lack of exercise, failure to consume enough water or fibre-rich foods–these are everyday choices that can cause your digestive system to age prematurely. As a result, digestive organs secrete fewer enzymes that help break down food, and transit time of food through the digestive tract slows.

Digestive Help That’s Easy to Stomach

Though many of my older patients complain of "acid indigestion," they are far more likely to be suffering from a lack of stomach acid than an excess. The secretion of hydrochloric acid declines with age, impairing digestion and making the stomach vulnerable to bacterial overgrowth. Secretion of pepsin, an enzyme required for protein digestion, also declines noticeably.

With fewer defences in place, immunity is weakened and the aging stomach is also more vulnerable to irritation–not only from nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), but also from Helicobacter pylori. Half of all adults over 60 are infected with these spiral-shaped bacteria, which burrow into the stomach lining and are responsible for 70 per cent of ulcers.

To keep your stomach healthy over the long haul, minimize your consumption of caffeine, alcohol and NSAIDs. In addition, supplement with the deglycyrrhizinated form of licorice (DGL), which boosts the production of protective cells throughout the entire digestive tract.

Small Intestine, Big Job

Though some digestion takes place in the stomach, most of the real "disassembly" work is accomplished in the small intestine. The small intestine secretes enzymes such as maltase, sucrase and lactase, which break down sugars into their smallest units. However, the majority of enzymes involved in digestion are provided by the pancreas–lipases to digest fats (with help from bile from the liver), amylases to digest starches and proteases to digest proteins.

The secretion of pancreatic enzymes declines as we enter our middle and later years. This can result in bloating, gas and the passing of undigested food in the stool. Fortunately, there’s a simple solution: supplementing with pancreatic enzymes. For maximum benefit, look for a product that includes all three types of enzymes: proteases, amylases and lipases. The enzymes papain (from papaya) and bromelain (from pineapple) may also be helpful.

Replenish Friendly Bacteria

Healthy intestines are home to billions of friendly bacteria that produce B vitamins and aid in the digestion and absorption of food. These "probiotics" also produce lactic acid, which inhibits the growth of disease-causing bacteria and reduces toxic substances that may cause diarrhea or constipation. Unfortunately, some people–particularly the elderly, patients who take antibiotics and formula-fed babies–are often deficient in these friendly bacteria. One of the simplest ways to guarantee intestinal health is to take a probiotic supplement. Probiotics come in capsule, liquid or powder forms. The most important bacteria for general replacement are Lactobacillus acidophilus and/or Bifidobacterium bifidum.

Keep it Moving

Thanks to the slowdown in digestion and the reduced output of acid and enzymes, constipation is a common problem in our later years. Luckily, a few easy lifestyle choices can help. Increase your intake of fibre-rich plant foods, eat a variety of fresh vegetables, fruits, beans and grains, and incorporate freshly ground flax seed (or another fibre source) into your diet. Get regular exercise. Finally, drink plenty of fluids, especially water. Making sure you’re adequately hydrated will support every aspect of the digestive process, from mastication to elimination.

About the Author

Dr. Julian Whitaker, MD, is the founder of the Whitaker Wellness Institute Medical Clinic in Newport Beach, Calif., and editor of the monthly newsletter, Health and Healing. Dr. Whitaker has also written eight books, including Reversing Hyperten