Many if not all of the functions of the body can be affected by the health of one’s gut. Your child’s gut health affects their behavior, sleep, energy, focus, mood and more. Here’s how …
The connection between gut health and overall health is a critical topic right now. And what we’re learning is that our current lifestyle and food choices are having a major impact on the health of future generations – our kids! But it’s not too late to set them up for a healthy future.
In this article, we’ll quickly define the gut microbiome and its role in the function of your child’s body and brain. We’ll also explore how probiotics play an important role in the health of your child and how something as simple as playing in the dirt more can have major benefits. You’ll learn how your child’s gut microbiome affects behavior, sleep, energy, focus, etc. and what you can do to help get them back on track.
What are probiotics and are they safe for kids?
Probiotics are beneficial bacteria that live in our gut (mostly intestines) and perform a wide variety of functions including regulating the immune system, digesting food, absorbing nutrients, producing neurotransmitters, and supporting energy production. As a result, probiotics have a major impact on almost every aspect of brain and body function and can be a factor in many issues our children face from mood and behavior problems to constipation and frequent illnesses. So you guessed it, yes, they are safe for kids.
Here’s a quick rundown of the microbiome
The human gut has trillions of bacteria, and the collection of bacteria in our body is referred to as the microbiome. We have microbiomes in several areas of our body, but the gut microbiome is the most important to consider in terms of overall health and brain function. Balance is very important, as we need the right types of bacteria present in the right amounts for the brain and body to function optimally. Ideally, there are many more good bacteria than bad bacteria present! When the balance of bacteria is disrupted in a negative way it is called “dysbiosis”, and gut dysbiosis can contribute to many different health problems and symptoms for children and adults.
Each person’s microbiome is unique and based on many factors including exposure to the mother’s microbiome during pregnancy and delivery, the environment in which we were raised, the foods we eat, medications we have taken, and more. Children born to mothers with bacterial imbalances, and/or who were delivered via C-section, are most likely to have gut dysbiosis. Children who eat a limited diet, especially a diet high in processed foods, are more likely to have problems with their gut microbiome. Antibiotics, which are sometimes necessary to fight infections, also alter the gut microbiome in negative ways as they kill off not only the bad bacteria but also the good bacteria. Other medications can also cause bacterial imbalances, and in general the more courses of antibiotics and/or other medications a child takes the more likely they are to have gut dysbiosis.
What does all this mean for your little one and what can you do?
Different ways your child’s microbiome can become compromised
Parents should also be aware of several other factors that have been linked to altered gut microbiomes in children. Consistent use of hand sanitizers and other types of antibacterial cleansing products can lead to lower levels of good bacteria in the gut. There is a theory that we have become “over-sanitized”, which has had negative consequences for our microbiome and overall health. While children used to play outside in the dirt often, which exposed their system to many beneficial bacteria to populate the gut, many parents now try to prevent kids from getting dirty outside. Less self-directed playtime and a greater focus on academics and sedentary activities also play a role in gut dysbiosis, as increased stress and reduced opportunities for movement shift the gut microbiome in unhealthy ways.
What do probiotics and the gut have to do with your child’s brain?
The gut is often referred to as “the second brain” because of the many important ways they are connected and communicate with one another. Other terms used to describe this are the gut-brain-axis or the microbiome-gut-brain axis. You’ve probably heard of “a gut feeling”, and this is a real thing! Our gut and brain are in constant communication through something called the enteric nervous system. This special system of neurons controls aspects of the gastrointestinal system, the immune system, the endocrine system, and more. It also sends many signals to the brain (way more than the brain sends to the gut), which impacts how our brain functions. The gut microbiome plays a major role in the enteric nervous system because the balance of bacteria influences the communication that gets sent from the gut to the brain. When there are not enough good bacteria this communication can become dysfunctional and cause symptoms in children such as depressed mood, irritability, anxiety, hyperactivity, brain fog, poor attention, and chronic headaches.
The gut also impacts mental health through the production of neurotransmitters, which are the chemical messengers that allow nerves to communicate with one another. Some key neurotransmitters needed for brain function, including the feel-good neurochemical serotonin, are produced primarily in the gut. Microbiome imbalances can lead to reduced production of serotonin, which can cause significant problems in the brain related to mood, anxiety, energy, and more.
The brain relies on a healthy well-balanced gut in order to function properly. So, problems in the gut don’t just cause belly symptoms, they can also cause brain symptoms for children and adults. Common problems linked to gut dysbiosis include symptoms like chronic headaches and anxiety, as well as specific conditions such as autism spectrum disorder and ADHD. In a recent blog post, I go into more depth about the connection between treating the gut and autism spectrum disorder.
How can parents support a healthy microbiome in their children?
Eat more whole foods and less processed foods
- Processed foods are filled with chemicals, unhealthy fats, and poor quality nutrients that negatively impact the gut microbiome. Eating nutrient-dense whole foods such as vegetables, fruits, quality meats and seafood, nuts, and whole grains help maintain healthy levels of good bacteria in the gut. Fermented foods like sauerkraut, kimchi, and kombucha are full of beneficial bacteria and can be incorporated into your child’s diet on a regular basis. Foods such as bananas, apples, artichokes, asparagus, onions, and jicama contain special fibers called prebiotics that help feed the good bacteria in the gut. Including prebiotic-rich foods into the diet on daily basis helps maintain a healthily balanced gut microbiome.
Avoid antibiotic products and unnecessary medications whenever possible
- While antibiotics may occasionally be necessary to address acute infection, it is best to avoid them whenever possible. If your child is experiencing constant ear infections, throat infections, or other issues for which antibiotic medications are being prescribed, try to find a healthcare provider who can help you identify and treat the underlying reasons for these chronic illnesses to reduce frequent antibiotic use. Try to avoid antibiotics in foods, specifically meats, and cleaning products. Purchase meats and other food items labeled “antibiotic-free”, and avoid antibacterial cleansers, hand sanitizers, and cleaning products with these chemicals.
Encourage unstructured outdoor playtime
- Kids need lots of opportunities for free play and time outdoors to support healthy brain and physical development. Sadly, children, today are experiencing more stress and are more sedentary than ever before. Giving kids opportunities for movement and physical activity lowers stress levels, which supports a healthy gut. Allowing kids to play outside exposes them to healthy bacteria in the environment, which helps boost beneficial bacteria levels in their bodies.
Give a probiotic supplement
- Even when you implement other strategies to support your child’s gut microbiome, it’s impossible to fully protect your child from the many environmental toxins, stressors, and other factors that can create gut imbalances. Giving a probiotic supplement regularly helps boost levels of good bacteria and supports healthy brain and body function. Use a product containing Lactobacilli and Bifidobacteria strains, as these have been shown in research studies to be the most important for supporting healthy bacteria levels in the gut. Children with specific diagnoses or health needs may benefit from other strains as well, but for general health and brain support Lactobacilli and Bifidobacteria are good starting points and have been shown to be safe for children. It is also important to use quality products that are formulated to survive harsh stomach acid in order to make it to the intestines where they belong. Avoid probiotic products containing sugar or artificial ingredients such as dyes or flavorings, as these ingredients work to cancel out the benefits of taking probiotic supplements in the first place!
What positive changes could your child have with probiotics?
Research has shown that giving children probiotics, both through food and supplements can improve overall health and brain function in several ways. Specific benefits for your child may include:
- Fewer infections and illnesses – The majority of the immune system is in the gut, so good microbiome balance is essential for fighting off colds, cases of flu, and other illnesses.
- Better mood and behavior – Research has shown the mood and behavior are linked to the gut microbiome, and that probiotics can support improved mood as well as emotional and behavioral regulation in children.
- Faster recovery from antibiotic treatment – Since antibiotic medications kill good bacteria along with the bad, taking probiotic supplements during and after a course of antibiotic treatment can help the gut microbiome get back into better balance. It is helpful to space out probiotics and antibiotics by at least a couple of hours.
- Healthy bowel habits – Children should have at least one (if not more) soft, formed, easy to pass bowel movements daily. Unfortunately, many children experience constipation and have stools that are too infrequent, difficult to pass, or overly hard. Some also struggle with diarrhea or loose stools that are overly frequent and cause uncomfortable cramping. Probiotics can help restore bacterial balance in the gut so that normal healthy bowel habits are achieved.
- Healthy weight and metabolism – A healthy gut microbiome impact weight and metabolism in many ways. Probiotics help the body digest and absorb nutrients from food so that children can grow and maintain healthy weight and energy levels.
- Better brain function – Because of the gut-brain connection, children with unhealthy gut microbiomes may experience more problems with learning, attention, and memory. Improving good bacteria levels in the gut allows for more neurotransmitters to be produced, which positively impacts brain function. Children can focus, learn, and remember things better when they have a healthy gut microbiome.
Have you used probiotics with your children? Do you have questions about probiotics for your child? Share your experiences and ask your questions in the comments below!