Hello folks, and welcome to another episode of the Hack Your Gut podcast. The topic of today’s episode is near and dear to me. In fact, it connects the dots between gut health and an important aspect of the aging process: The epigenetic clock.
Way back when, I got interested in gut health because I thought it was a key to being healthy. But back then I wasn’t familiar with some of the important discoveries made on the aging process. If I were to describe my approach to gut health back then, I think it would resemble what pretty much everyone else believed and many still believe.
For example, I thought probiotics, prebiotics, and other supplements were way more important than they actually are. Sure, they’re useful for getting back on track. But long term they just aren’t strong drivers of gut health.
In the same way, I though restriction diets were long term solutions. As it turns out, they’re more useful for short term symptom management and as a core basis for a personalized diet.
There’s no denying that both supplements and restrictive diets are useful tools to improve symptoms and help nudge gut health in the right direction. But a fundamental necessity for optimal gut health they are not.
Furthermore, many people use them as a crutch, ignoring other important factors for gut health. Things that, while not as simple, are far more effective. Exposure to the recent aging research completely changed my perception of what gut health truly is.
Aging research and gut health
Our fascination with turning back the aging clock existed even before Ponce De Leon’s quest for the Fountain of Youth. But that fascination primarily centered around maintaining the appearance of youth. On the other hand, the current research in to aging is more centered around function.
While looking great is an added bonus, beating back the functional decline that comes with aging is more important. If we focus on aging, which promotes many chronic diseases, we can kill 10 birds with one stone rather than finding individual approaches to treat 10 different chronic diseases.
Research in animal models uncovered the benefits of calorie restriction to increasing both lifespan(How long we live) and healthspan(How many disease-free years we have). Further research identified the cellular pathways that drive these improvements.
These pathways, all of which function as nutrient sensing pathways, are critically important to aging, both at the organism and cellular level. This is an important concept to grasp, as this also means that these pathways regulate function at the organ level.
Enter the epigenome and epigenetic clock
Just why are these nutrient pathways so important? All of them play a role in regulating genetic expression by altering something called the epigenome. But what is this epigenome and what role does it play in aging?
Think of your genes like the HVAC system of your house. You have the air conditioning that cools the house, and a heating system that warms the house. Both of these are analogous to genes, performing their functions by making the room cooler or warmer.
But we also have a thermostat that senses the environment in the house. The thermostats regulates which one is on depending on how you have it set. So if you set it at 70 degrees and it’s 72 degrees in the house, the air conditioner will kick on. The thermostat represents the epigenome.
The epigenome is a set of modifications to genes that either increase expression, or decreases it. Therefore, the epigenome acts as a regulator of which genes are on or off in a cell, tissue or organ.
Nutrient sensing pathways regulate these epigenetic modifications throughout the body. And as we get older, there’s an age-related alteration in the way the epigenome functions. This change is so predictable that we can use it as a predictor of age, an epigenetic clock.
There is a good amount of evidence that the gut may play a role in this age-related change via increased inflammation. Inflammation makes the epigenetic clock tick faster, potentially hastening our decline.
HYG Episode 15: Gut health, aging, and the epigenetic clock
In this episode of the podcast I discuss how gut health plays a role in the aging process. I also dig into why our behaviors are bigger drivers of gut health than any supplement or restrictive diet ever will.
That’s not to say nutrition isn’t important. Every one of the nutrient sensing pathways sense…well…nutrients. They’re also powered by nutritional cofactors we get from our food.
But it’s important to understand that the epigenome changes genetic expression based on the environment. You certainly need adequate methyl donors from your diet for DNA methylation to take place. But consuming excess methyl donors doesn’t drive DNA methylation, behavior does.
We discuss several of these behaviors and I give out the top 5 things you should be doing every day to build and maintain a healthy gut( I actually give 7). I hope you enjoy!