The COVID-19 pandemic makes all of us more aware of immune system health, and parents want to do everything possible to boost and protect their child’s immune system.
Gut health is a critical component to a kid’s immune system health. In fact, the gut contains approximately 70% of the cells that make up the human immune system. Gut health is linked to autoimmune disease, cancer, mental health, Type 2 diabetes, diarrhea, constipation and more.
Because the gut is linked to every system in the body, the health of your child’s gut can impact both their physical and mental wellbeing. An unhealthy gut can contribute to mental health conditions like anxiety, depression and PTSD.
What is Gut Health?
Everything a child consumes passes through their gastrointestinal tract, where food is broken down and needed nutrients are absorbed into the body.
All along the lining of the stomach and intestine are bacteria that live and grow. There are beneficial bacteria (“good” bacteria), known as probiotic bacteria, that help prevent disease, infection, regulate metabolism, and maintain overall health and wellbeing. Good bacteria’s job is to allow nutrients to pass into the body, and keep out antigens and foreign particles (“bad” bacteria).
When functioning properly, the healthy bacteria in the gut keep unhealthy bacteria at bay, creating equilibrium in the gut and maintaining proper gut health.
These trillions of bacteria, yeast, and viruses that live among bacteria are collectively called the microbiome, and it is the balance of this system that determines overall gut health.
What passes through the intestine and into the body effectively “trains” the immune system’s response to antigens. When the gut is out of balance, there is an overgrowth of bad bacteria that causes the body’s immune response to attack, which can lead to autoimmune disease and other acute and chronic conditions.
Symptoms of an Unhealthy Gut
How do you know if your child’s gut is healthy? While everyone’s microbiome is different, there are some common symptoms to look out for:
Gas and Bloating: If your child is especially gassy and/or is complaining of stomach aches or the belly appears distended, they may be experiencing gas and bloating due to an imbalance in the gut.
Diarrhea: Bacterial overgrowth can cause loose stools, and diarrhea can also cause the body to expel good bacteria, worsening imbalance in the gut.
Constipation: Constipation can be a sign of an unhealthy gut. Signs that your child is constipated include stool withholding, infrequent bowel movements, unusually large stools, complaints of belly pain, and/or firm stools that resemble pellets. Along with other considerations as the cause of constipation, consider gut health as well.
Mental Health/Mood Disorders: An unhealthy gut affects the body’s ability to process key neurotransmitters needed for mental wellbeing: dopamine and serotonin, which can lead to irritable moods, anxiety, and depression. As children sometimes lack the language or ability to explain mood, if your child is experiencing unusual changes in mood, it’s important to consider gut health as a potential reason.
Food Sensitivity: Unhealthy gut bacteria can also be a contributor to food allergies such as gluten or dairy sensitivity.
Ways to Maintain Your Child’s Digestive Health
It’s important to maintain a child’s gut health even if they are not exhibiting symptoms, so here are two practices you can follow to heal your child’s gut and maintain ongoing gut health.
Healthy Habits: Eating a balanced diet that includes fiber, vegetables, fruit, and whole grains helps maintain gut health. Foods that are high in fat, salt, and sugar should be avoided, and they can cause an overgrowth of bad bacteria. Proper hydration is essential for a healthy gut, but sugary drinks like soda and juice should also be avoided. Proper exercise and good sleep hygiene help support overall health and wellness, including in the gut.
Food Diary: As you are working through the above listed symptoms, it’s helpful to keep a daily food diary of all the food your child consumes, as well as how your child feels after eating it. Pay particular attention to the amount of fiber in their diet. Daily fiber requirements for children vary due to weight, gender, and other variables, so consult with a pediatrician to determine the daily fiber that is right for your child. Watch for patterns associated with foods, consult with a pediatrician, and make necessary adjustments.
Should My Child Take Probiotics?
There are many probiotic products on the market, and while some can be helpful to restore a child’s gut health, it can be confusing to know which one is right for your child. “At this point, there isn’t an official recommendation regarding probiotics for children,” says Frank Greer, M.D., a pediatrician in Madison, Wisconsin and former member of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ committee on nutrition. “But at the same time, there’s no indication that giving them to healthy kids in the form of foods or supplements is] harmful.”5
Probiotic supplements are not monitored by the FDA in the same way drug products are regulated, so it’s important to consult with a physician or pharmacist before deciding which probiotic is right for you. We are still learning about how probiotics may promote health.
“Probiotics may offer health benefits to most kids, but they aren’t recommended for children who are chronically or seriously ill or those who have a compromised immune system,” warns Alissa Rumsey, RD, MS, CSCS, a registered dietitian and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.5
Before exploring probiotic supplements, it’s a good idea to start by feeding your child natural food sources of probiotics. Yogurt, sauerkraut, kimchi, kombucha, and miso are natural food sources for probiotics (good bacteria). Many kids don’t like the sour taste of these foods, but there are products available that include probiotics in foods kids prefer, like breakfast cereal, snack bars, and also some infant formulas,
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The material contained is for reference purposes only. Alliance Labs, LLC and Summit Pharmaceuticals do not assume responsibility for patient care. Consult a physician prior to use. Copyright 2020 Summit Pharmaceuticals and Alliance Labs, LLC.