The Best Research-Backed Supplements for Healthy Aging and Gut Health

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As we age, maintaining optimal health becomes increasingly important. One key aspect of overall well-being that often gets overlooked is gut health, which plays a crucial role in everything from digestion and nutrient absorption to immune function, mood regulation and cognition. Coupled with the general needs of aging, focusing on gut health can be highly beneficial. In this post, I am going to run through some of the top supplements for our aging bodies, which take into account the evidence shown in research studies.

While some supplements may have benefits for gut health and possibly for healthy aging, before going out and buying supplements to take, it is far more effective and recommended to implement natural versions of these supplements which come with a diverse diet, rich in plant based and in naturally fermented foods, and devoid of sugar and ultra-processed components. If there are particular foods that are rich in these things that you can’t tolerate or don’t have access to, or that you are deficient in, then it may be worth looking at purchasing them as a supplement to your healthy diet. Otherwise, you may still feel better when taking them regularly, because of the power of the placebo effect.

Probiotics

As most of you probably guessed, probiotics are at the forefront when it comes to popular supplements promoted to improve and maintain gut health. These beneficial microbes help balance our gut’s diversity, which is vital for digestion, nutrient absorption and immune function. For older adults, probiotics can help combat the natural decrease in gut microbial diversity and functionality. Supplements containing a mix of particular Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium strains are particularly beneficial, as these can help reduce inflammation, enhance barrier function and potentially ward off gastrointestinal issues that increase with age.

This being said, not all probiotics are the same, and many probiotics (with some notable exceptions) have never been demonstrated in well controlled research studies to be beneficial in humans. There have been studies showing that if not encapsulated properly, these tiny microorganisms are “dead” or lost in transition through the stomach, and essentially have little to no benefit. The best way to get your probiotics is from a variety of naturally fermented foods such as yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut and other fermented foods, even though these naturally fermented foods are not officially classified as probiotics.

Prebiotics

While probiotics add beneficial bacteria to the gut, prebiotics provide the necessary fuel to help those bacteria thrive. Found in dietary fibers like inulin, prebiotics are essential for fostering a healthy microbiome. Regular intake of prebiotics has been linked to improved digestion, better calcium absorption (crucial for preventing osteoporosis) and enhanced immune function. Probably the best way to take a probiotic supplement is in combination with a prebiotic, a combination which is referred to as symbiotic. There is good data to support the benefit of synbiotics to reverse the antibiotic-induced compromise in the microbial ecosystem. However, like with probiotics, the large variety of different fiber molecules existing in plant- based foods, are likely to provide a more effective boost to your gut microbiome than individual prebiotic pills.

Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Omega-3 fatty acids are well-known for their heart and brain health benefits, but they also play a critical role in maintaining gut integrity and controlling inflammation. Supplements like fish oil or algal oil (a vegetarian option) are rich in Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), potent anti-inflammatory agents that can help manage age-related inflammation and support overall gut health. The main dietary source for these fatty acids are salmon, small fatty fish and shellfish, and I’d argue that supplements are not necessary if a sufficient amount of such foods are a part of your regular diet.

Polyphenols

Polyphenols, natural compounds found in fruits, vegetables, and certain beverages like green tea and red wine, have powerful antioxidant properties when evaluated in test tubes, but are only minimally absorbed in the proximal small intestine. Due to their large molecular structure, they travel down to the end of the small intestine and colon, where they are processed into smaller molecules which serve as prebiotics for the microbes and are absorbed into the circulation leading to several health benefits, including reducing cardiovascular disease and slowing cognitive decline.

Certain polyphenols can modify the gut microbiota and enhance the growth of beneficial bacteria. Supplements focusing on these compounds, such as grape seed extract or green tea extract, have been promoted as strategies to reduce oxidative stress and inflammation, promoting better health and potentially extending lifespan, even though scientific support for these claims in humans is sparse. As for all the compounds available as supplements, natural sources that come in abundance with a diet rich in fruits and vegetables are the preferred way to go.

Fiber

As discussed many times in this newsletter, dietary fiber is crucial for gut and brain health, with benefits not just for improving bowel function, but as an invaluable source of anti-inflammatory metabolites produced by the gut microbes. Fiber supplements such as psyllium husk, methylcellulose, or wheat dextrin can help maintain regular bowel movements and have been shown to positively impact gut bacteria diversity, but varied dietary sources are far preferable. Amongst all the compounds discussed above, inadequate dietary fiber intake is probably the most prevalent dietary deficiency in US dietary habits, and should be addressed by fundamentally changing what you eat.

While supplements can significantly benefit aging and gut health, it’s essential to consult with a healthcare provider before starting any new supplement regimen, especially if you have existing health conditions or are taking other medications. Keep in mind that for the great majority of dietary supplements the science and clinical evidence in humans is weak or absent, despite the ubiquitous health claims by social media influencers.

Aging gracefully isn’t just about adding years to your life—it’s about adding healthy life to your years, in other word, increasing your healthspan. By focusing on gut health and incorporating beneficial supplements in case there are obstacles to a healthy diet, you can support your body’s needs as it ages, enhancing your quality of life and well-being.

Lastly, a quick shameless promotion of my Dad’s cookbook. If you are looking to supercharge your intake of these health-promoting molecules, you should really check out Interconnected Plates. It has tons of recipes which have high levels of all the above-discussed items and ties them into delicious dishes. You can learn more about it on our website and purchase it on Amazon, here. If you purchase or have purchased, please consider leaving a review as well! Shameless promotion done!

E. Dylan Mayer Dylan is a graduate from the University of Colorado at Boulder, with a major in Neuroscience and minor in Business. He has also recently completed his M.S. in Human Nutrition at Columbia University.

This article was reviewed and approved by Emeran Mayer, MD