Peak Nutrition for Seniors: To Clear the 9 Most Common Health ProblemsRose Marie Randall, CNP September 25, 2022
Senior citizens account for the largest growing segment of the population in the developed world. Optimizing food choices, supplements, and lifestyle factors can help provide solutions to many of the health challenges faced by those in their golden years.
Let’s explore some of the more common issues that the elderly face: dehydration, digestion and appetite, constipation, joint pain, eye health, osteoporosis, insomnia, and immune support. And oh yeah, memory loss!
Since we begin life in bodies that are approximately 75% water, and which gradually decline to an average of 50% water in our later years, some suggest that the process of aging is actually a process of drying up. Dehydration is very common among elders, whose desire to drink fluids may lessen over time. This can be a key factor in many problems that affect the elderly, including joint pain, digestion, constipation, and difficulty with memory recall.
The ideal amount of fluid is a minimum of six to eight glasses of water per day, but this doesn’t have to be plain water: fresh fruit juices (diluted with water) and herbal teas are good ways to wet your whistle. Water that’s as hot as tea reduces the chance of feeling bloated after drinking, making it easier to drink more. Minimizing “hydration antagonists” – beverages that have diuretic qualities including alcohol, coffee, black tea, chocolate, soft drinks, and even some diuretic herbals such as dandelion tea – can go a long way toward preserving moisture in the cells of joints and tissues.
Limit the intake of vegetables in the nightshade family: potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant contain a compound called solanine which can contribute to joint pain and inflammation. Try replacing potatoes with sweet potatoes which belong to a non-inflammatory family.
Again, hydration is super important: 60 to 80% of our cartilage is composed of water. Visualize the cartilage between joints as sponges: wouldn’t they move more smoothly and buffer the everyday jolts of life more effectively if they were plump with water?
There are many great supplements that can help with joint pain, and they fall into four general categories:
– those that provide raw materials for the body to help re-build joint tissues (glucosamine, collagen, MSM, eggshell membrane, hyaluronic acid);
– those that help reduce inflammation (fish oil, boswellia, white willow, curcumin/turmeric);
– enzymes that literally “digest away” inflammatory compounds that affect the joints (serrapeptase, bromelain) and;
– alkalizing agents that help neutralize acid wastes that can settle in the joints (clay products)
(Editor’s note: Another helpful substance is unpasteurized organic apple cider vinegar; a daily teaspoonful taken in a glass of water on an empty stomach helps to flush inflammation from the joints, thereby relieving arthritic pain.)
Of course calcium is a major part of bone health, but recently it has also been the source of a lot of confusion. A connection was found between heart disease and calcium supplementation, but we still need calcium. The key is to take the right type of calcium, in the right amounts, along with the right synergistic nutrients.
Calcium, like all minerals, needs to be attached (or chelated) to another molecule in order for our body to absorb it. Plants successfully take up these minerals from the soil, and animal tissues concentrate them. This is why some of the best results come from taking calcium hydroxyapatite, a supplement made from bovine bones. Those who prefer not to ingest animal products can achieve good results by using either calcium citrate, or calcium from algae sources. Calcium carbonate is the chemical name for limestone, and it is difficult to absorb. It’s preferable to take lower amounts of easy-to-absorb minerals and avoid the complications associated with excessive supplementation.
Broth made from soup bones (even fish bones or eggshells) is a traditional and highly absorbable food source of calcium. Simmer the bones for at least half an hour and use the resulting liquid as a drink, or use it in soups, stews, or cooked grains. Other good food sources of calcium include organic or grass-fed dairy products (reach for easier-to-digest options, such as lactose-free cheese), green leafy vegetables (cooking does not destroy minerals), and sesame seeds (tahini: sesame seed butter).
Magnesium, boron, and vitamins D and K all play essential roles in helping calcium to be absorbed and placed in the right areas. Silica and vitamin C are raw materials for collagen, the connective tissue that gives bones their strength and resilience. Strontium and weight-bearing exercise stimulate osteoblasts, the cells that stimulate new bone growth.
Digestion and Appetite
It’s important to offset the declining levels of digestive enzymes and hydrochloric acid that can be experienced with advancing age. One easy step is to avoid drinking liquids with meals, since diluted or low levels of hydrochloric acid in the stomach will slow down digestion, increasing the likelihood of reflux and gas. Supplementing with betaine hydrochloride, unpasteurized organic apple cider vinegar, and/or digestive enzymes before or with meals can further optimize nutrient absorption and prevent digestive discomforts. If you become thirsty during or after a meal, just sip small amounts of warm water. The best mealtime beverage would be one which actually aids digestion – peppermint or ginger tea, or lemon-water.
When you combine low appetite with a decreased energy and desire for shopping, food preparation and clean-up, it’s no wonder seniors can frequently get stuck in food ruts, relying on nutritionally inferior convenience foods such as toast for sustenance. Nutrient-rich foods such as raw vegetables and proteins are often the first things to disappear from the menu. Foods need to be easy to prepare, store, and chew, and should fit in with palettes that have been established over decades. For example, replace white bread with neutral-tasting gluten-free bread; add blueberries to breakfast porridge; switch out oatmeal for other whole grains (buckwheat, rice, quinoa flakes); simmer a variety of vegetables into a stew that can be frozen in smaller portions for easy future meals.
Seniors who live alone will probably want to avoid buying large items (cabbage, cauliflower, whole pineapple, melons) and opt for smaller versions (Brussels sprouts, kale, small fruits and berries). And a good protein powder added to a smoothie, hot breakfast porridge, apple sauce, nut butter, or soup can provide a vital protein boost for those less inclined to prepare protein foods.
Sometimes it can be a dulled sense of taste or smell that may lead to a lack of enjoyment of eating. If this is the case, supplementing with zinc may help. Also available are specific supplements, geared to increase appetite, that are made with tissue salts or the herb alfalfa.
Slower bowels are another common challenge for the elderly, and again hydration is a factor. The peristaltic action that pushes food wastes through the colon is a wave-like motion – and you can’t have waves without water!
Fibre, in turn, combines with the water to give the bowels something to push against, so it is another key player in preventing/alleviating constipation. There are two types of fibre: soluble (which absorbs water and provides bulk) and insoluble (which provides roughage). Although whole grain breads and cereals are better choices than white bread and sugary cereals, they’re still processed, and grains in general contain more starch than fibre; this can actually slow things down by creating a smooth paste in the bowels. Eat whole grains in cooked form (e.g. brown rice, buckwheat, oats, quinoa) rather than foods made with whole grain flour. Better yet, add finely ground flax seeds (which are half soluble and half insoluble fibre) to smoothies, apple sauce, soup, or mix them with water or juice and drink them.
Other good soluble fibres include chia seeds, oat bran, psyllium, and powdered greens (remember to drink enough water with any of these). Fruits, vegetables, and beans are the best sources of roughage, or insoluble fibre.
Taking a spoonful of any kind of good quality oil once, or more, per day with meals can help soften the stools and lubricate the intestines for smoother movements. And why not make it an oil that has other health benefits – such as cold pressed virgin flax oil, olive oil, or coconut oil?
If dietary measures alone aren’t enough to get things going, the best nutrient to supplement with is magnesium, which relaxes the intestines and even opens up the pores of the bowel walls; this brings more water into the bowel. Taking probiotics is also a good way to balance out any kind of bowel issue, whether it’s constipation or diarrhea.
The last resort should be laxative herbs such as cascara and senna. They work by stimulating the bowel to release its contents, but unlike the measures mentioned above, laxative herbs and medications can cause dependency. If all other methods don’t work, using them is certainly better than not going.
Stubborn constipation despite adequate water and a good diet can sometimes indicate sluggish thyroid function, which may be so slight (subclinical) that it doesn’t show up on blood tests, but is still enough to cause problems. If other symptoms (low resting body temperature, dry skin, low mood, continuous fatigue) point in the direction of an under-active thyroid, a herbal thyroid support formula can often allow everything to fall in place. Of course check with your doctor if you’re already taking thyroid medication: you may need to have your dose monitored or adjusted.
Many supplements and nutrients can help to preserve our ability to focus nice and sharp as we age, thus optimizing eye health.
Good eye-nourishing foods include blueberries and cooked orange foods such as carrots, yams or pumpkin (cooking makes their beta carotene more available), while lutein and astaxanthin are champions of the supplement side of vision support. Most of these fall under the category of antioxidants, and there’s a reason for that. The capillaries in the eyes are some of the smallest in the body; some are so narrow that the red blood cells must go through single file. So you can imagine the detrimental effect of any blockage there.
Free radicals initiate the damage, the body repairs it, and the result can be like a bump in the road where workers had to add a patch. Suddenly, the red blood cells can no longer pass that spot, so the tiny muscles that focus our eyes have one less oxygen supply, meaning they can’t focus as quickly. Antioxidants can halt this downward spiral by neutralizing the free radicals that cause the damage in the first place.
Dry eyes are another problem that is seen almost exclusively with advancing years. The best solutions for this seem to be essential fatty acids, especially fish oils, and again, adequate hydration.
Sleep is a tricky thing, as it can be affected by so many things, including hormones, stress, mineral status, blood sugar, and pain. This is why there are so many sleep aids, natural and otherwise, on the market, and they all work for somebody, but not necessarily for everybody.
As our years advance, we produce less and less of the sleep hormone melatonin. Supplementing with melatonin at bedtime can therefore be helpful for elders (or anyone) who has trouble falling asleep. Minerals in general are alkalizing, and restful sleeps are a side benefit of being in a more alkaline state. Again, magnesium at bedtime can promote a deeper, better sleep.
(Editor’s note: Lavender essential oil sprayed in the bedroom has been found to have a relaxing effect that enhances sleep. And herbs such as St. John’s Wort and Passionflower can act as natural nervous system depressants when taken in a glass of water before bed.)
Anything that increases circulation to bring nutrients, water, and oxygen to the brain has been shown to improve memory. This is where aerobic exercise and circulation-promoting herbal supplements such as gingko come into play. Alzheimer’s has recently been given a fascinating alternate name: Type 3 diabetes, and findings are suggesting that following a low-glycemic diet may help improve memory by decreasing brain inflammation. Supplementing with longvida curcumin also has this effect.
The brain is structured largely of fats, which helps explain why taking good quality fats, specifically coconut oil, will build good quality, well-functioning brain cells. Phosphatidyl serine (or PS) occurs naturally in the body and can also be taken as a supplement. It is comparable to the insulation on the wires of the brain; without that insulation to keep the thought impulses on track, you’re more likely to lose your train of thought.
The ‘flu’ and other contagious illnesses can spread like wildfire in seniors’ homes, which is why ‘flu’ shots are often pushed for the elderly and their caregivers. Vitamins C, D, Astragalus and/or Siberian ginseng, as well as simple hand washing, are all key players in daily preventive immunity, while Echinacea and ‘coccinum’ homeopathic remedies are effective at the first signs of infection.
Rose Marie Randall was accredited as a Certified Nutritional Practitioner in 2003 by the Institute of Holistic Nutrition. She is also the author of How to Live Without the Nine Biggest Problem Foods Affordably and Conveniently – a cookbook for those with food sensitivities who are short on time and money.