Diet and the development of the human intestinal microbiome

Importance of the Gut Microbome

One of the most important recognised determinants to health that is rapidly being looked at is the gut microbiome (the single celled organisms living in peoples intestines). The “hygiene hypothesis” has explained the connection between microbiome and autoimmune diseases, which identifies that the lack of a healthy microbiome results in a low tolerance immune system. The health of the intestinal microbiota also has connections to developing other conditions like inflammatory diseases, weight gain, cardiometabolic disorders and cancers of the colon, rectum, prostrate and stomach. To maintain your health you need a healthy microbial community as a dysbiotic microbiota can cause disease. The microbiome can be affected by numerous elements such as the environment and genetics which are recognised in the unhealthy elderly, however these elements may not have as much impact on the microbiome as diet. The microbiome can be altered by making dietary changes.

Long Term Dietary Patterns and the Microbiome

It is quite clear that a healthy diet is very important to determine the health of your microbiome. Studies that have been undertaken from various countries have indicated that the results are partially diet related. Countries with high fat and protein consumption showed protein degradation and bile salt metabolism, diets of corn and cassava that are low in protein showed results of glutamate synthase and starch degrading enzymes. This was also identified in the study on the Hudza tribe when the microbiome between the sexes showed different results due to the difference in the daily duties between men and women. These results showed how different the microbiome is between cultures and their environments. There have been limited studies conducts on the effects of diet. There is currently a study called the American Gut Project addressing the effects of diet on the adult microbiome, in extremities like paleo and vegan where culture and environment are not the main driver.

The Aging Gut

As you age, your gut microbiota stability and diversity declines with your health. If your health does not decline with aging, the body may retain the same stability as a healthy adult. Some areas that can influence the health of your gut are prescription drugs, lifestyle, dietary choices and health care. As people age they can undergo significant changes to smell, taste, chewing, digestion, ability to be mobile and a low nutrient based diet that leads to malnutrition. All of these alterations to a person’s dietary choices increase their frailty and their microbiota. As people age there is an increased use of antibiotics and this decreases the stability of the gut health and can lead to life threatening health issues. Studies show that taking probiotics may assist with bring the elderly gut back into balance.


As people age they become more susceptible to infection and disease and this increases their chances of taking antibiotics. This can be from a life time of hospitallisation, living in care facilities, poor diet choices and a decline in health which also lessens the gut microbiota. Taking antibiotics when your body is already in declined health shows signs of further diminishing of the gut health. Antibiotics reduce the beneficial and pathogenic species and assists with the growth of antibiotic-resistant strains. Some of the treatments of antibiotics can end in severe cases of diarrhoea and as these people also have weakened immune systems, opens them up to life threatening infections. In some instances the taking of antibiotics has wiped out all of the bacterial communities. What was initially thought to be a lifesaving drug, has very negative results on people’s health and there aging microbiome. Further research is needed to be undertaken to determine the safe usage of antibiotics on the elderly and fragile to ensure that the gut microbiota is supported.

Probiotics and Prebiotics

Probiotics and prebiotics may assist in restoring the microbial balance in the gut microbiota. These can be taken together or individually. The benefits of taking these are to alleviate the effects of using antibiotics. Probiotics are beneficial to the host and are live microbes, prebiotics are known to restore the beneficial bacteria in your large intestine. Probiotics are important for the function of the intestines. Probiotics contain Bifidobacterium and/or Lactobacillus and are beneficial for the increase of bacteria in the gut, as these are both depleted in the elderly. The use of probiotics and prebiotics increase the health of the colon in the elderly. There is still limited knowledge around the effects of probiotics and prebiotics on the elderly, but it is thought that they can increase gut stability and alter the immune in the aging.


Title: Diet and the development of the human intestinal microbiome

Auth: Noah Voreades, Anne Kozil and Tiffany L Weir

Published: 22 September 2014

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