A healthy gut means a diverse gut microbiome that promotes healthy digestion. But the gut is responsible for more than just healthy digestion. The gut microbiome refers to the bacteria, fungi, and viruses that live in our intestines and are responsible for different processes that regulate our brain, immune system, heart health, and metabolism. It is believed that at least 70 percent of the immune system is housed in the gut, and recent research points to the role the gut microbiome plays in mood disorders, food allergies, and weight status.
The development of the gut microbiome is thought to begin during gestation and is influenced by multiple factors including the diversity of the maternal microbiome, delivery method, breastfeeding status, antibiotic exposure, and many other factors. The diversity of the gut is largely established by the age of three. Thankfully there are steps parents can take to help build the diversity of their kids’ little growing gut microbiomes.
Focus on Fiber
Fibers promote gut health in multiple ways. Fiber adds weight and size to our poop, softening and helping to pass waste more quickly, thus keeping our pooping habits more regular. Fiber also acts as a food source for the good bacteria living in our gut, our microbiome. Feeding our good bacteria promotes growth of the “good guys,” which also helps to decrease the amount of pathogenic or harmful bacteria living in our guts.
Have a picky eater on your hands? Kids in the transitional age, starting solids and learning to make their own choices, often stop eating the wide variety of fruits and vegetables they once consumed. As a result, most toddlers and kids don’t receive sufficient fiber in their daily diets. Consider supplements with fiber to make it easier for kids to poop, such as Begin Health’s Growing Up Prebiotics.
Probiotics From Foods or Supplements
Probiotics are live microorganisms that are available in supplement or food form. When consumed in adequate quantities, they can alter the gut environment of the individual consuming them to favor more beneficial bacteria. Most probiotics found in foods or supplements are from Lactobacillus or Bifidobacterium strains as these are the most abundant in the gut. There are many different strains of Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium, and each strain can be beneficial in preventing illnesses and regulating hormone production.
Fermented foods are a natural source of probiotics and are generally an inexpensive option. Foods such as kefir, sauerkraut, kombucha, buttermilk, kimchi, tempeh, miso, and natto are all fermented foods that can be added to the diet to increase probiotic intake. You can also ferment your own vegetables at home with lactic acid if none of the above foods appeal to your kids. Probiotics are also widely available for the entire lifespan in any form from liquid to powder, chewable to gummies, but be aware that multi-strain options are more beneficial.
A recent study has linked an active lifestyle to improved gut health. Being active is thought to favor production of some Lactobacillus strains which produce Butyrate, a short-chain fatty acid that feeds the lining of our gut, helps support immune function, and can even help prevent colon cancer. Physical activity also helps decrease transit time of your stool, improving regularity and decreasing contact with harmful microbes that are passing through the intestinal tract.
Reduce Sugar Consumed in the Diet
Research points to high sugar intake promoting a negative environment for gut bacteria. Excess sugar intake is associated with decreased gut microbe diversity, increased harmful bacteria counts, weakened gut barrier function, and chronic inflammation. This leads to a weakened immune system and can even mimic symptoms of diseases such as IBD.
Avoid Unnecessary/Overuse of Antibiotics
Antibiotics are a lifesaving necessity that most kids will be exposed to at some point. However, a recent study by Mayo Clinic points out the association between antibiotic exposure in the first 2 years of life and increased risk of atopic dermatitis, asthma, celiac disease, ADHD, and obesity. The gut microbiome is highly susceptible to antibiotic use and can be altered with repeated exposure.
Gut health is foundational to lifelong health, and it’s important to begin building a strong gut at an early age. Research has shown that the gut microbiome plays a significant role in the development of the immune system, digestion, and production of some vitamins and proteins. By prioritizing gut health, parents can dramatically improve the future of kids’ digestive and immune health.