Ridding our bodies of nasty microorganisms has been a goal of medicine at least since the invention of the microscope. Antibiotics may be the signature medical achievement of the 20th century. Drugs such as penicillin and streptomycin have saved millions of lives. But now germophobia is big business. Antibacterial and antimicrobial agents are everywhere, and not just in cleaning products. They’re bonded into the surface of credit cards, countertops, baby bibs, plastic kitchen tools, cutting boards, high chairs, toys, and bedding — even while there is mounting scientific evidence that antibacterial products have a multitude of serious adverse health and environmental effects.
No one wants to bring back the killers of yore. No one wants to see outbreaks of cholera, tuberculosis, or bacterial meningitis. But an immune system that doesn’t get up close and personal with enough germs early on is ill-equipped to deal with problems when they inevitably happen. And a sanitized, germophobic world can lead to compromised microbial diversity.
It turns out that our efforts to kill and avoid germs have compromised our gut microbiomes, setting us up for a host of chronic conditions.
Gut Health Starts in Childhood
It appears there’s a window of time necessary to establish a healthy gut microbiome early in life. After this window closes, there are still things we can do, of course, but the project of cultivating a vibrant microbiome becomes much more difficult.
Sadly, the gut health of modern humans (children included) has been severely compromised. More than 40% of people worldwide suffer from functional gastrointestinal disorders, and that may include 23% of children.
Up to one-quarter of all children and adolescents suffer from chronic gastrointestinal disorders, such as Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, and celiac disease, as well as issues that may seem unrelated to gut health but have their roots in a dysfunctional microbiome. These include migraines, headaches, and anxiety and depression disorders, as well as autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), asthma, and allergies. Children with developmental disorders have especially high rates of gut issues.
So given the connection between the microbiome and the immune system, it’s not surprising that as gut issues become more prevalent, so, too, do the incidences of food allergies and autoimmune diseases. Both may have associations with a misguided and/or overzealous immune system going haywire and attacking either benign triggers or the body tissue itself.
So what’s the cause of all this gut dysfunction? And considering how important gut health is, especially among kids, what can you do to encourage and nourish healthy guts in children?
What Affects Childhood Gut Health?
Let’s start this discussion by noting that there is no single cause or blanket explanation for disrupted gut health, even in children. There’s still a lot of mystery we haven’t yet unpacked in the microbial universe.
In a perfect world, though, children would develop biodiverse and healthy gut microbiomes through everyday exposure to benign sources of bacteria (also known as the “hygiene hypothesis”). Throughout human history, bacteria have had a number of ways of colonizing infants as they grew, including natural birth, breastfeeding, family member interactions, and playing in healthy soil.
Ideally, as children got older, they’d also be given a wide variety of unprocessed fermented foods, and ample opportunity to play in vibrant ecosystems (like gardens, creeks, and forests). Bonus points for a companion animal in the home.
But the reality today is far from this ideal. Children are spending more time indoors; there’s an overemphasis on cleanliness, with widespread use of sanitizers and antibiotics. And modern industrialized diets are much less diverse than traditional ones and include an abundance of processed rather than whole foods.
All is not lost, however. You can encourage healthier gut health for kids in many ways, which will set them up for better health throughout their lifetimes.
How to Raise Healthier Guts
1. Encourage Outdoor Play
Food Revolution Summit guest Dr. Robynne Chutkan offers the following simple and memorable advice to support the health and diversity of our microbiomes: “Live dirty, eat clean.” And part of living dirty means encouraging our kids to actually get dirty by playing outside — in actual dirt.
Even city dwellers can encounter microbial diversity by spending time in green spaces, such as playgrounds, public parks, and schoolyards. Daily contact with diverse vegetation and dirt might improve children’s health by activating the immune system and teaching it to respond appropriately to benign and even more pathogenic bugs.
We know that the guts of rural dwellers display greater microbial richness and diversity than denizens of modern industrialized cities (what researchers call “built environments”). One study found that adding sod, peat blocks, planters for growing annuals, and cut-out segments of forest floors to the environments of urban children increased the health and diversity of their gut microbiota.
The 2020 Play&Grow study also showed that these changes translate into observable and meaningful improvements in children’s lives. Preschool children who were exposed to nature over 10 weeks experienced increased diversity of their gut microbiomes and higher serotonin levels, and they ate more vegetables. They also showed more prosocial behavior and less frequent outbursts of anger.
So look for ways to get the kids in your life outdoors, especially in natural environments. And start early — kids who experience nature tend to love nature. Kids who don’t may be more likely to grow up afraid of it.
You can also try involving them in gardening projects. If you don’t have an outdoor space in which to garden, even bringing some pots of dirt and planting seeds or seedlings indoors can expose kids to a diversity of microbes that can wake up and help to train their immune systems.
2. Help Them Get Enough Sleep
Many parents have horror stories of being painfully sleep-deprived during the first year or two of their children’s lives. Some kids wake up at night as if they’re on a mission to let you know that another 45 minutes have passed since their last outburst. Some kids are great nappers during the day but have trouble falling asleep at night. It turns out that one of the factors determining sleep patterns during the first year of life is the gut microbiome.
Studies out of Switzerland have shown that babies with low microbial diversity sleep more during the day, and less at night. And the effects were bidirectional — the quality, quantity, and timing of sleep also impact the gut microbiome.
The association between sleep and gut microbiota holds in preschool-aged children as well. A group of 143 four-year-olds participated in a study that measured their sleep patterns and their gut microbial populations. Certain bacterial strains were associated with total nighttime sleep, sleep efficiency, and wakefulness after sleep onset (when you get up to pee at 2:00 am and don’t fall asleep until 4:30 am, your wakefulness after sleep onset is 2.5 hours). The researchers theorize that the “good” bacteria may actually regulate sleep via neurotransmitters and the immune system.
And children with obstructive sleep apnea showed decreased microbial diversity compared with children who didn’t have the condition, as well as more inflammation and potential for leaky gut.
So if you want your kids to sleep better — so you can sleep better, too — one takeaway is to nourish their gut microbiomes. A second takeaway is to enforce regular sleep patterns and bedtime rules, which may positively impact their gut health in a virtuous cycle.
3. Ditch Sugar, Flavorings, and Dyes
If you’ve ever pushed a shopping cart down the cereal or candy aisle, you know that the industrialized food supply loves to add sugar, artificial and “natural” flavorings, and synthetic dyes to foods targeted at kids. And while no parent wants to experience a toddler meltdown when you refuse to toss the Lucky Charms or Skittles into your cart, the effects of feeding kids these ingredients may cause a lot more grief in the long run, both in terms of health and behavior.
Remember that anything that harms the gut also harms the brain, and that’s especially true for children. While you might be able to get away with an occasional junk food item, children are more susceptible to the effects of chemical compounds for a few reasons.
First, kids are smaller, which means their relative exposure (per pound of body weight) is greater than that of adults. Second, their body’s ability to metabolize (which in the case of unhealthy ingredients, means “detoxify”) is immature. Third, their key organ systems are still changing and developing, making them highly vulnerable to disruptions.
Excess sugar feeds certain microbial populations, which can turn on genes that code for sugar metabolism and transport, increasing the risk of type 2 diabetes and obesity. “Real” sugar is bad enough. But high fructose corn syrup and other corn-derived food additives found in many processed foods come from GMO corn, which is sprayed with glyphosate, aka RoundUp. This chemical may disrupt and kill beneficial bacteria in the gut, leading to impaired immune function.
Artificial food colorings have also been shown to disrupt the gut microbiome in children. And there’s increasing evidence that kids who consume synthetic food dyes on a regular basis are more prone to ADHD and other neurobehavioral issues. The FDA’s estimates of how much is safe appear to be way too lenient, according to research conducted in 2021 and 2022 by the California EPA’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment.
4. Eat Prebiotic and Probiotic Foods
So if candy corn and Frosted Strawberry Pop-Tarts are off the menu, what foods do protect and improve children’s gut health? Two categories emerge as clear winners: prebiotic and probiotic foods.
Probiotic foods help with digestion and eliminative health (kids prefer to call this “pooping”) — and they’re good for both avoiding constipation and diarrhea. While children may not appreciate the intense flavors of popular probiotic foods like sauerkraut and kimchi, they may enjoy fermented pickles and plant-based yogurt (maybe not on the same spoon), or a teaspoon of Inner-Eco fermented coconut water.
However, you can eat all the probiotic foods in the world and take massive doses of probiotics in supplement form, but unless you provide these beneficial bacteria with the food they love, they won’t live long enough to do much good. That’s where prebiotics come in; they feed the probiotics.
And the main prebiotic is a nutrient sorely lacking in most people’s modern industrialized diets: fiber. Not enough fiber is associated with a number of gastrointestinal issues, including discomfort after eating, constipation, and obesity.
Prebiotic fiber may support gut health for kids by modifying the composition of the microbiome in the large intestines. Think of it this way: if you scatter nuts in your yard, you’ll attract squirrels. Put out a salt lick, and the deer will come. Set out a giant bowl of leafy greens, avocado, sweet potato, and quinoa in a peanut sauce, and you might find me.
If your kid eats a sufficient and diverse quantity of prebiotic fiber, the good bacteria will stick around and reproduce, creating a healthy and resilient gut microbiome.
Some of the best “good” gut bacteria include Bifidobacteria and Lactobacillus. By serving as nutrition for probiotics, they support gut health, metabolic health, and immune function. Some kid-friendly prebiotic-rich foods include leafy greens, legumes, jicama, Jerusalem artichokes, and bananas.
It’s good to know that in a world that poses so many dangers to microbial diversity, nutritional strategies — which can be largely in our control — are among the best ways to repopulate children’s guts with beneficial bacteria.
5. Use Antibiotics Mindfully
If the opposite of “pro” is “anti,” then the opposite of probiotic is antibiotic. Yes, those miracle drugs that have done more to reduce human mortality than perhaps any other medical advancement in history have a problematic side.
When used appropriately, antibiotics are a blessing and can cure a wide variety of infections. But the etymology of the word should give us pause — antibiotic literally means “against life.” And the broad-spectrum antibiotics that science has developed in the past 90 years don’t discriminate; they kill (or attempt to, anyway) all bacteria, not just the pathogenic (disease-causing) ones.
When a child takes antibiotics, their microbiome can become severely depleted, creating a vacuum that often gets filled by harmful bacteria (especially if their diet isn’t that great — see point #4 above). Infants who receive antibiotics display microbiomes that are immature compared to similarly-aged babies who have not been exposed to the drugs. And these immature microbiomes predispose their owners to a variety of health conditions, including asthma, allergies, and growth dysregulation (which can include both obesity and stunted growth).
As a parent, how do you protect your child’s gut from antibiotics? First, make sure the drugs are truly needed. Many health professionals prescribe antibiotics without performing due diligence, like not assessing whether the drug will effectively target the germ of concern or even confirming that the infection is bacterial in origin. (Antibiotics do nothing for viral infections.)
If your child is sick, ask your doctor if the illness is bacterial or viral. If it’s bacterial, ask about the risks and benefits of antibiotics vs other treatment options. Humans have dealt with infections for millennia before pharmaceutical antibiotics were discovered, so we often have ways of recovering naturally, or with the help of other effective treatments such as herbs.
If your child truly requires a course of antibiotics, then providing them with plenty of prebiotic- and probiotic-rich foods is important, both during the treatment and especially for a month or more afterward. This can help replenish and support their microbiome to pre-drug levels. And, if your child develops acute GI issues related to antibiotic use, consider asking their health care provider if a supplement such as Complement Gut Nurture could be age-appropriate and helpful to resolve them.
Kid-Friendly, Gut-Healthy Recipes
Feeding the healthy bacteria in your child’s gut is as easy as (plant-based) pie when they eat a plentiful variety of fiber-rich plant foods! While children might be picky eaters, these tasty recipes will help to expand their palates, as well as their microbiomes, through foods, flavors, and textures they love. These recipes are also designed for children to be your sous-chef in the kitchen! The more they help out with their own food preparation, the more likely they’ll be to try new foods. This is great for everyone — you, them, and everyone’s gut health — so get ready for some win-win-win family fun!
If there is anything that will put a smile on your child’s face at breakfast time, these Fluffy Buckwheat Chia Pancakes are pretty much guaranteed to do the trick! Their light texture, nutty flavor, and nutritious ingredients redefine pancakes as you know them. Each bite is filled with fiber-fueled nutrition and a natural sweetness that makes them irresistible! Plus, these fluffy pancakes are giving your child everything they need to fuel a happy, healthy, and diverse gut!
Fruit snacks can be fun and nutritious, especially in the form of this deliciously fruity Mixed Berry and Banana Fruit Leather. And these particular fruit snacks are also great for your youngsters’ gut health. The combination of berries provides a super dose of fiber, vitamin C, and antioxidant-fighting power, while the banana provides prebiotic fiber to help keep kids’ guts healthy in our germy world. Making your own fruit leather at home is not only healthier, but it’s lots of fun! We hope you gather the family and give this sweet treat a try.
Packed with prebiotic-rich fiber from the oats and banana, these muffin-like bites are a tasty snack that your kiddos will be running home with excitement to devour! Plus, they are easy-peasy to make and great for gut health, too! Make sure to save some for the adults in the family who will also love these bites as a tasty snack or breakfast on the run!
Fiber-rich greens and avocado are a superhero pairing that delivers a range of nutrients and helps the good bugs thrive in your kid’s belly. Even the pickiest of eaters can’t help but fall in love with the idea of a green superfood that gives them superpowers. Play it up as a superhero dressing, full of all the vitamins and good stuff that superheroes are made of — we bet they’ll love it!
Looking for a healthy dessert your kids will actually be excited to eat? Look no further than Pumpkin Chia Pudding, which is just as tasty and creamy — but with many more health benefits — as the beloved seasonal dessert. Chia seeds help to build and maintain healthy gut flora, thanks to their rich fiber and antioxidant content. Bonus that making this pudding can be a fun family activity to enjoy together by having your little ones get in the kitchen to help out with this recipe. Kids become mesmerized when they watch the chia seeds expand in size!
Here’s to Raising Healthy Guts!
Gut health is an important predictor of health, especially in children. Early intervention to encourage good gut health is paramount for health into adulthood, especially in the prevention of autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, asthma, allergies, and chronic lifestyle diseases. By focusing on improving their lifestyle, environment, and dietary factors, you can set children up for healthy microbiomes, and in turn a healthier brain, lungs, nervous system, and growth.
And for all the big kids reading this, here’s another tip: most of what’s good for little guts is good for your gut, too.
Tell us in the comments:
- What did you find most surprising about protecting children’s gut health?
- If you take care of children, which strategy do you already embrace?
- What’s one gut health strategy you can employ, either for your children or for yourself?
Featured Image: iStock.com/ThitareeSarmkasat