Now days, the importance of digestive health is widely accepted – not only by natural health practitioners but also the science community. The health of the bacteria that reside in our digestive system (known as our gut microbiome) is increasingly well recognised as being essential to our overall health and well-being (both mental and physical).
We have quite a lot of control over supporting the health of our gut microbiome, so today I thought I’d share some kid friendly gut support tips. As a parent, it’s really important that we understand how to best support a healthy microbiome (the good bugs that live in all of our guts) so we can ingrain healthy habits in our kids and help their bodies to thrive…in both the short and long term.
Why is the gut microbiome so important?
A healthy digestive system is really essential for kids to be happy and healthy. There are many reasons why having a diverse range of gut bacteria is important for good health, but these are the most critical…
1) Nutrient absorption
The gut is how we all absorb the nutrients from our diet. So the healthier our gut is, the more nutrients we will absorb from the food we eat. In growing children, proper nutrient absorption is especially critical to support their growth, development and long term health.
With many kids eating more processed foods (which are lower in nutrients) and the soil nutrient values in the whole foods available to us questionable, never has there been a more important time to ensure the gut is functioning optimally so our kids can absorb all the nutrition they need to grow and be well. We are not just what we eat, but also what we absorb.
2) Elimination of waste
One of the guts primary roles is waste elimination and if kids don’t eliminate toxins regularly, it puts their little bodies under undue stress. We live in a world where exposure to toxins via our food, personal care products, the clothing we wear, etc; is daily and ongoing. So ensuring our kids bodies are able to deal with these toxins and eliminate waste via proper bowl function is super important, especially for their long term health into adult hood.
3) Immune health
With 70-80% of the immune system residing in the gut, a well balanced immune system relies on good gut health. A healthy digestive system is really critical to help prevent kids picking up every bug that they come into contact with as well as protecting them from developing allergies, intolerances and auto-immune disease.
4) Brain and nervous system health
Many of our ‘feel good’ neurotransmitters are made by our microbiome, so a healthy gut can support neurological and mental health. Low levels of these brain chemicals are linked to problems like depression, anxiety, behavioural issues, learning difficulties and so on.
Think about when you feel stressed or anxious. Do you get butterflies or an unsettled feeling in your gut? This is the gut-brain axis at work.
How to know if your child’s gut microflora needs support
There are several flags for really focussing on the health of your child’s digestive system:
1) For babies and young children, if a child is born via c-section, or mum took antibiotics during pregnancy or breastfeeding, or if mums gut health wasn’t great during pregnancy or if bub was largely formula fed (more detail on this here).
2) If they have taken antibiotics in their lifetime.
3) If their is a family medical history of allergies or autoimmune disease or if the child themselves suffers with allergies (including asthma and eczema) or an autoimmune disease.
4) If their immune health is not so robust and they are frequently sick.
5) If they suffer with learning difficulties, anxiety, mood disorders or other nervous system issues.
6) If they have digestive system issues such as constipation, diarrhoea, colic, bloating, wind or if they get frequent tummy aches or bouts of gastro.
7) If they have a very restricted diet, a largely processed diet or are extremely fussy.
6 simple ways to support your childs gut health
Supporting your child digestive system is fairly straight forward…
1) Strictly limit processed foods
Processed food, especially foods with a long shelf life that doesn’t spoil quickly (because they are sterile) are a double whammy for gut health. Firstly, they don’t support the health of your kids body, nor do they ‘feed’ their gut microbiome (the bugs in our gut need healthy, whole foods to be well too). The long term effects of artificial colours, flavours, preservatives, emulsifiers and genetically modified ingredients is poorly understood. However, studies that have compared the gut flora of cultures who eat no processed foods have found them to be 50% more diverse than those eating a Western diet.
Also, when processed foods replace whole foods, it’s a wasted opportunity to nourish your kids and develop their gut microbiome.
2) Plant based nourishment
Kid’s gut bugs rely on the complex carbohydrates found only in plant material, primarily vegetables, but also fruit and well prepared legumes and whole grains, to thrive and grow. Plants also provide prebiotic fibre which passes through the body undigested and this feeds and stimulates the growth of healthy bacteria.
So teach your kids to love eating whole foods, especially plant based. Just as you wouldn’t give up on teaching them to read, write or toilet train, don’t give up on them enjoying veggies. I have lots of tips and strategies for helping parents to raise whole food loving kids HERE.
3) Filtered water
The chlorine in filtered water is obviously designed to destroy pathogens and ensure our water is safe to drink. However, it does not discriminate so investing in a filter to remove chlorine is very worthwhile (either on your drinking water tap or install a whole house filter). For the record, I’m not a fan of bottled water at all (read why here).
4) Use antibiotics only when necessary
Antibiotics are a therapy that should be reserved for when they are needed most. The benefits need to outweigh the risks and if they are absolutely necessary, then please talk to your medical or naturopathic practitioner about restoring gut health after antibiotics. This is essential for your kids long term health and to avoid the development of subsequent infection and health issues related to poor gut flora.
5) Include probiotic foods
Probiotic foods are gut friendly foods that support gut bacteria diversity. There are many widely available options for kids to include in their diet so pick their favourite:
- Yoghurt – the best choice is unflavoured and unsweetened, full-fat (preferably organic) natural yoghurt (or coconut yoghurt for dairy-free).
- Kombucha – my hubby calls this ‘healthy soft drink’ and my kids feel they are getting a real treat when we buy it. There are many flavours available so find one that your kids like. My family love the Remedy brand (zero sugar in most of their range and delicious flavours).
- Kefir (milk and water) is another probiotic drink my kids enjoy. Like Kombucha, there are many flavours and varieties to try.
- Fermented vegetables such as Sauerkraut and Kim Chi. Again, there are many different varieties, so if your kids don’t like one kind, perhaps try another. My kids adore my probiotic carrot sticks (recipe and more info on fermenting vegetables here)
- Fermented organic soy such as tempeh and miso paste – my kids love miso soup made with a naturally fermented paste and boiling water – simple. They often take it school in a thermos.
6) Probiotic supplementation
I feel where the digestive system is more or less healthy, following the above guidelines will help to maintain a healthy gut microbiome. But if your child needs a course of antibiotics, or where there are signs and symptoms of dysfunction (as listed above), supplementation is often necessary.
There are so many fabulous and targeted probiotics available (practitioner only products are the very best) but also many products that are simply a waste of money. It is always best to consult with a holistic medical or naturopathic practitioner about the best supplements for your child.
When our gut is healthy, so are we. I hope this article has given you some ideas as to how best to support your kids gut microbiome. Comments and questions are welcome below (sorry, as much as I love to help, I’m not able to offer individual advice. Your practitioner is the best person to advise the best course of action for your child).