According to Forbes magazine, “gut health” and “functional foods” continue to top the food chart trends in 2019. In fact, global food manufacturers and supplement food chains have all listed gut-healthy foods and ingredients as one of their key focus areas, in the pursuit of better health.
But what does a healthy gut mean for your child? Clinical nutritionist and wellness expert Desi Horsman explains:
What is gut health?
“Gut health refers to the health of your child’s digestive system, which is intricately linked to her immune system,” says Desi. One key factor to gut health is the microbiome, which is a collection of trillions of microbial species in the large intestine. The healthier your child’s gut microbiome is, the better she’ll feel overall.
This is because the gut can affect everything from your child’s energy levels to her mood, and even how often she catches those pesky winter bugs. “We depend on healthy bacteria to help digest food and keep the lining of our intestines healthy. Plus, we also need good bacteria to support our overall health and wellbeing,” she adds. And this is true for both children and adults.
A healthy gut means a stronger immune system
The friendly (good) bacteria that live in your child’s microbiome are also important in shaping your little one’s immune system and supporting it to create antibodies that fight disease-causing microbes as she gets older, says Desi. The greater the amount of healthy, diverse bacteria your child has in her gut, the stronger her immune system will be. “This fine balance of bacteria also prevents the body from wrongly identifying harmless substances as a threat. This can lead to allergies, food intolerances and autoimmune illnesses,” she explains.
The link between your child’s gut and brain
A growing body of research supports the theory that an unhealthy gut microbiome can affect the brain and neurological development of a child. In fact, “Research is now linking a poor gut microbiome to incidences of autism, ADHD, anxiety, depression, dyslexia, learning and behavioural difficulties, and mood disorders,” says Desi. “Serotonin is well known as a brain neurotransmitter, yet it’s estimated that more than 60% of the body’s serotonin is made in the gut. This hormone is key to preventing mood disorders such as depression, anxiety and sleep issues in children and adults,” she adds.
How soon can you start focusing on your child’s gut health?
It’s never too early to start. “In fact, children inherit our microbiome, and it continues until early childhood where its unique makeup is established, so I strongly recommend that both parents take the necessary steps to enrich their microbiome before conception and mothers should continue throughout pregnancy and breastfeeding,” says Desi. “Not only will this help your baby, but your own health and immune system too.” Also, babies born vaginally are exposed to healthy bacteria when they pass through the birth canal. Little ones born via C-section don’t always get exposed to as much good bacteria, in which case breastfeeding is very important for the development of a healthy microbiome. Supplementation with the appropriate strains of probiotic may be necessary, too.
The good news is, unlike your DNA, which is fixed, the microbiome is largely influenced by your lifestyle and surrounding environment. “Recent research shows that the microbiome your child develops in the first three to five years of life will have far-reaching effects throughout adulthood,” says Desi.
Here are a few ways to boost your child’s gut health:
Feed your child a wide variety of unprocessed foods
Include plenty of fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts (if there are no allergies in the family), seeds and wholegrains into your child’s diet from the time they start solids, because healthy bacteria thrives on a fibre-rich diet.
Limit processed foods, refined carbohydrates and foods high in sugar and fat are damaging to healthy gut bacteria. Refined sugars feed the unhealthy bacteria and harmfully impact the good bacteria. In addition, artificial sweeteners, preservatives, colourants and other chemicals also have a detrimental effect on your child’s microbiome.
Choose organic where possible
In an ideal world, we would all afford to buy organic produce all the time, but this can quickly add up. However, it’s important to feed your family organic animal products where possible. This is because antibiotics and harmful bacteria can be passed through the meat we eat, if the animal has been pumped full of antibiotics, steroids and a bad diet, says Desi. The more variety of foods your child eats (raw and cooked), the more diverse their microbiome will be.
Consider fermented foods and drinks (If your child is an adventurous eater!)
Provided your child tolerates dairy well, these fermented foods contain live cultures and a wide range of good bacteria, that’ll strengthen your child’s microbiome:
- Kefir – a cultured, fermented beverage that tastes like yoghurt
- Kombucha – a fermented tea-based drink made with yeast
- Yoghurt is also known to contain live cultures, but be aware that flavoured and sweetened versions are not likely to have any.
Avoid unnecessary antibiotics
While antibiotics have their place and are sometimes necessary to fight bacterial infections like tonsillitis, “Antibiotics can’t differentiate good bacteria from bad bacteria and simply wipe out all gut bacteria, so it’s best to keep their use to an absolute minimum when necessary,” explains Desi.
Probiotic supplements contain live bacteria that can help restore the gut to a healthy state after a course of antibiotics by “reseeding” it with healthy microbes, says Desi. Probiotic supplementation should continue after antibiotic use for at least two to three weeks.
Encourage outdoor play
Contrary to popular belief, it’s best to avoid sterilising everything. Rather let your kids play in the dirt, which is a powerful immune system booster, says health expert and best-selling author, Christine Northrup. “Research over the last decade or so has shown that the microbes and bacteria in dirt can help boost your child’s immune system and make them healthier and even happier.”
Christine goes on to explain that a study published in the June 2012 issue of The Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology shows that Amish children who live on farms have about a 50% reduction in asthma, allergies, and gut-related disorders compared to children who grow up in more sterile environments. Also known as the ‘Farm Effect’ this research proves that soil contains millions of healthy bacteria, which are beneficial for both children and adults.
In addition, being “dirt happy” helps to lower blood pressure and stress hormones. Bacteria on your skin can also help manage inflammatory skin conditions liks psoriasis, and can even heal wounds.