For years, I have referred to the junction between the skin that lines the intestinal tract and the lymph that surrounds the intestines as, “the most important half-inch in the body.” New studies are suggesting that this area may be the most critical real estate in the body for optimal health and longevity.
While medical textbooks have described the intestinal surface area to be as large as a tennis court, new research is suggesting that it might only be as large as a studio apartment. Regardless of the size, there is a growing body of knowledge pointing to the intestinal skin as ground zero for optimal health.
There are 3 distinct zones of the intestinal real estate that have been linked the aging process. They are:
- The health and integrity of the intestinal skin.
- The health and diversity of the intestinal microbiome.
- The health and integrity of the small intestinal lymph.
It is safe to say that a primary physical focus of Ayurveda was to maintain the health and integrity of both the intestinal skin and the lymph that lines the digestive tract. While Ayurveda did not describe microbes directly, by studying intestinal and lymphatic health, we now know that the good microbes naturally proliferate.
1. Aging and the Intestinal Skin
Let’s look at some of the new science that has linked intestinal skin health to the aging process. In one study, the cause of an aging immune system was linked to the health and integrity of the intestinal epithelium (skin) in both the small and large intestine. (1,2)
Aging has also been linked to the breakdown of the natural process of intestinal skin repair. Normally, the intestinal skin can replace itself every 4-5 days, but age-related factors can slow this process. (2) This was measured by the shortening of telomeres that takes place with aging. Telomeres are the chromosomal caps that shorten with both stress and aging. (2) >>> Learn about how to lengthen telomeres here
The study also found that the nerves in the colon can decrease with age, along with more neural abnormalities that are also found with aging. (2)
In another study, aging was linked to the breakdown of the tight intestinal skin junctions that create the protective barrier of the intestines. Aging was also associated to the atrophy of the mucus membranes that line the intestines, which are in charge of maintaining the health of the good intestinal bacteria, among many other functions. As a result, in the same study, aging was related to an abnormal increase of small intestinal bacteria and a decrease in the amount of intestinal skin structural proteins. (3)
2. Aging and the Microbiome
Aging has demonstrated a measurable shift in the gut bacteria that is linked to frailty and degenerative risk. (4) A healthy microbiome is linked to the health and integrity of the intestinal skin, among other factors such as emotion, stress, diet and toxicity. The microbiome is involved with the optimal function of just about every physiological function of the body. Microbes make up 90 percent of the cells in the body and are intimately linked to our well-being, and we are intimately linked to their well-being. (4)
As we age, there tends to be a shift toward higher numbers of Bacteroidetes, and less Firmicutes – which are seen in younger adults. (4) Diet seems to have much to do with this shift. The high-fat, high-sugar Western diet is linked to higher numbers of Bacteroidetes, and a high-fiber diet is linked to a more youthful microbiome rich in Firmicutes, seen in younger adults.
This seems to fit well with the diet of our ancestors, who had up to 100 grams of fiber per day, while the average American diet tops out around 15 grams of fiber per day.
3. Aging and the Intestinal Lymph
In addition to aging having its effects on the intestinal skin and the microbiome, it has also been shown to negatively affect the intestinal lymph, called mesenteric lymph, which lines the small intestine. The mesenteric lymph vessels are designed to deliver good fats for energy, and filter out the bad fats to be processed and detoxified. If the mesenteric lymph vessels break down, the body’s ability to remove toxins and provide energy can be compromised.
Studies have shown that the lymph vessels and their pumping ability breaks down with age, as a result of oxidative stress and damage. (5) Perhaps this is one more reason to avoid highly oxidized, processed foods that are preserved with cooked or baked oils. Check your labels for cooked oils in anything that has been baked.
Aging has also been linked to a host of reductions in lymphatic efficiency such as:
- Accumulation of fat in lymph ducts. (6)
- Increased number of lymph duct bulges. (6)
- Lymph duct wall thickening and fibrosis. (6)
- Decline in lymph wall elasticity. (6)
- Significant decrease in lymph-collecting vessels in the small intestine in those over age 65. (6)
Dr. John’s Conclusion
Maintaining the health of these 3 big tissues: the intestinal skin, the microbiome and the intestinal lymph, may be the ultimate key to our health and longevity. If I were to suggest 3 foods to emphasize for support, they would be the 3 B’s:
- Beets – loaded with fiber, vasodilate bile ducts and support lymph and liver function.
- Beans – also loaded in fiber, which escorts toxins to the toilet instead of back to the liver.
- Berries – loaded in antioxidants that scrub the intestinal wall, protect from oxidative damage and boost lymphatic drainage.
As far as herbal supplementation for supporting the health of these 3 tissues, I suggest the following:
- Amalaki – Ayurveda’s star berry that supports the healthy lining of the intestinal skin. (7) >>> Learn more here
- Neem – Ayurveda’s natural probiotic, as it is an antagonist for bad bugs and supports beneficial bacteria. (10,11) >>> Learn more here
- Manjistha – Ayurveda’s primary and my favorite go-to lymphatic system-supporting red root. (8,9) >>> Learn more here
Note: While I do not believe we need to take probiotics for the rest of our lives, it is important to restore a healthy microbiome. >>> Learn my Four Steps to a Healthy Microbiome here