“Much, if not all, disease begins in the gut, and that is especially true for modern diseases that plague us today,” Hippocrates. With so many different current approaches to longevity (i.e. intermittent fasting, NAD+, etc.), it is easy to overlook the role that gut health plays in one’s healthy aging. The human gut contains 70% of one’s immune system, and 10 times more health-determining bacteria than the rest of the body and is often referred to as the “second-brain” because of the 100 million neurons that connect to the brain via the gut-brain axis (enteric nervous system).
This is all a major driver behind the work we do at Perennial. Grounded in scientific research, Perennial develops targeted, plant-based nutrition for the healthy aging of adults >50 years of age. And starting in the gut is a key focus area in innovation for Perennial, on behalf of an older adult consumer that sees less than 1% of global innovation dedicated to him/her.
The human gut and the microbes in our colon tell a story of how healthy many of us are, and how well we are aging. How does the gut health of a healthy 65-year-old adult differ from that of a healthy 30-year-old adult? Questions such as this inspire us at Perennial to increasingly understand how certain plant-based inputs can result in beneficial microbial signatures that benefit healthy aging.
Aging and Gut Health
Having a healthy gut is critical as we age. In fact, the genes in the bacteria in our gut (microbiome) control everything from our cravings, to emotional state and overall wellbeing. These bacterial genes are very powerful as they outnumber human genes by 100 to 1 in the intestinal microbiome. So while we can’t drastically change our inherited genetic makeup to improve our odds of healthy aging, we can very much alter the genes in the microbes in our gut and shift them to a more favorable state within 24-72 hours of consuming certain foods.
As humans age, it is harder and harder to maintain a state of health in the digestive tract and a diverse microbiome, which in turn enhances longevity and immunity. In fact, research has found that older adults have a more defined and sensitive microbial signature (with less diversity, of course) vs. younger adults, whose microbiota show less consistency and more variability. With this critical understanding, it allows scientists to work off a baseline microbiota for older adults and leverage food technology to develop products that can enhance the taxonomic diversity of the gut flora (i.e. with variable plant-based inputs), to ultimately improve health outcomes with age. As scientists we know it is possible, as the rare individuals who are 90 and absolutely thriving have shown similar microbial signatures and flora profiles to those of a healthy 30-year-old (note this is based off the largest microbiota study to date, with over 1000 people).
The role of plant-based fiber in microbiome diversity
A major key to unlocking gut health and taking control of how well you age lies in your diet. At Perennial, our hypothesis is that plant-based ingredients play a critically supportive role in healthy aging of older adults.
Subsequently, a primary focus area is plant-based fiber. Fiber activates biological pathways that lead to increased resistance of stress, similar to that of the [popular method of] intermittent fasting, and enhances microbiome diversity by spurring into action the microbiota of the gut. By making available indigestible dietary carbohydrates (fiber) to the microbes that colonize the gut, it has been empirically proven that fiber increases diversity of gut bacteria.
In one decade-long study that followed more than 1600 healthy adults from Australia, the results showed that those who had “aged successfully” after a decade (meaning they were free of cancer, heart disease, and diabetes, and had good overall cognitive, physical, and cardiovascular function) consumed the most fiber in a day (around 100% of the daily recommended intake). The researchers examined multiple facets of one’s diet including total carbohydrate intake, total fiber intake, glycemic index, glycemic load, and sugar intake — and it was still the fiber that made the biggest difference to what the researchers termed “successful aging.” The lead researcher even said that “those who had the highest intake of fiber or total fiber actually had an almost 80 percent greater likelihood of living a long and healthy life over a 10-year follow-up.” That is, they were less likely to suffer from hypertension, diabetes, dementia, depression, and functional disability.
The most incredible part of all is that once the fiber is broken down by microbes in the gut, metabolites are formed, such as short-chain fatty-acids (SCFA). For example, one SCFA called Butyrate has been found to not only strengthen the lining of the gut wall and have anti-inflammatory properties, but additionally talk to the brain through the enteric nervous system, crossing the blood-brain barrier. Butyrate is now being studied in relation to improving cognitive health by preventing neurodegeneration and promoting regeneration (hence the term “gut-brain” axis).
The importance of a diversity of plant-based fiber
As it stands today, 97% of Americans are not receiving the minimum daily recommended amount of fiber…let alone the optimum amount for maintaining diversity of bacteria in the gut and thus healthy aging. Therefore, we must incorporate diverse fibers (soluble fiber, insoluble fiber, prebiotics) back into our diet to ensure taxonomic diversity of the microbiome. Think about it like we are outsourcing fiber digestion to our microbes and taking advantage of the microbes’ adaptability — put simply, each fiber requires a unique team of microbes to break it down. Diverse fiber inputs attract and foster the microbial rainforests within us; ultimately reducing inflammation, improving biological function, and contributing to all of the miraculous benefits of a healthy gut microbiome.
The importance of the consumption of a diversity of fiber on behalf of healthy aging is why Perennial’s Daily Gut & Brain product leverages a blend of plant-based fibers including fructan fiber and inulin. Even more encouraging, certain plant-based prebiotic fibers like fructans (often seen as “FOS or fructo-oligosaccharides” on nutritional labels) go the extra step to enhance calcium absorption in the body.
Gut health plays such a critical role in our longevity and should not be underestimated. Having a healthy gut flora (microbiome) impacts so many elements of your daily life and if there is one thing you can do today to improve health outcomes as you age, I would simply say to increase the types of fiber in your everyday diet. Food science has come so far, from what we understand about food on a molecular level, to even the options available to us. Fiber rich foods can actually taste delicious as there are so many more options available to consumers these days, from breakfast bites to tasty non-dairy chocolate beverages that have up to 20% of daily recommended intake in a single glass.
Sara Bonham is the co-founder and CSO of Perennial. Sara has a BSc in Food Science and Agricultural Chemistry from McGill University and Masters in Biological Engineering. She has an extensive background in the intersection of health science, sensory and food technology and worked for General Mills and Mars prior to starting Perennial. Through relentless innovation, Perennial strives to reimagine adult nutrition globally.