What parents need to know about kids’ gut health
If you don’t own a pet, take heart, there are millions of little “pets” living with us. They weigh only about 2kg in total but they are so shy that they’re cloaked in invisibility. Say hello to your friendly gut bacteria, some of which have been with you ever since you were in your mother’s womb. And they affect your health and your children’s health in so many ways. The buzz is all around gut health these days. Much research in the past decade has shown strong links between the gut and our wellbeing. Studies also show how babies and children having good gut health today can truly impact their tomorrows in significant ways.
Can I help “chew” grow?
Good gut bacteria help your child’s digestive system to digest and absorb important nutrients for growth. They help process and enable the production of specific enzymes to digest micronutrients and macronutrients (the carbs, proteins and fats) to be sent out to various systems of the body that need it. A healthy gut microflora that keeps the digestive system in tip top condition also ensures surrounding organs and glands produce essential hormones for normal physical development at every stage.
Good gut bacteria – “soldiers” for children’s immunity
Emerging research in the last ten years have shown that up to 80% of our immunity lies in our gut where a large concentration of diverse bacterial strains live alongside those thriving on our skin, in our mouth, nose and other parts of the body. Bad “pets” also co-exist together with the good “pets” but it’s the good bacteria’s job to fight the bad ones to keep us in good health. After all, many diseases, even cancer can be traced to bacterial development.
On this note, the use of antibiotics, especially its unnecessary use, can alter our gut’s colonies of bacteria. It is akin to a bomb that kills not only the bad bacteria but the beneficial bacteria that help our digestion.
Early years gut health and later disease links
It has been observed through many studies that there may be a “critical window” early in life where factors such as the child’s diet, whether he or she is born vaginally or through C-section, breastfed or not and intake of antibiotics, alter the make-up and interaction of bacterial colonies that can create environments for certain diseases to develop later on in life. Scientists are discovering that bad bacteria colonising the gut play a significant role in the development of diseases like inflammatory bowel diseases, obesity, malnutrition or even the onset of type 2 diabetes in obese children.
Impact on the central nervous system, mental and emotional wellbeing
Besides growing up healthy, a happy gut can make happier kids, thanks to the vagus nerve that connects our gut to our brain. Parents of children with autistic spectrum disorder (ASD) have reported positive behavioural improvement when they address gut issues and feed their children with gut nourishing foods. Recently, researchers at UCLA have identified gut microbiota that interact with brain regions associated with mood and behavior.
How parents can nourish kids’ gut
According to Dr. Emma Beckett, a molecular nutritionist from the University of Newcastle in an interview with the Australia Broadcasting Corporation, there are two ways to increase good bacteria in our gut and our diet is a way to achieve good health.
The first way is to eat more food with probiotics. Fermented foods like yogurts, kimchi and sauerkraut and even traditionally fermented Malaysian foods like budu, tempeh, fermented tofu beans, and appam, contain good gut bacteria.
The second way is to eat foods that will feed these good gut bacteria or prebiotics. Foods high in the t-type of dietary fiber that contain prebiotics include cabbages, onions, garlic, and beans. Dr. Beckett said that high fiber foods help to slow down the absorption of sugar in our gastrointestinal tract and we also know that fiber helps move food through our intestines for digestion.
She also said that while supplements are taken, we have to be aware that most of them contain only one strain or a limited number of strains. Eating fermented foods and having a good variety of vegetables, preferably a seasonal diet would expose our gut to a more diverse variety of micro-bacterial strains.
The Japanese diet which is the “gold standard diet”, said Dr. Beckett, is high in vegetables and rich in seasonal variety. Plus, the Japanese tend to live longer lives. She warned against indulging in high fat foods or a diet with too much meat.
Antibiotics and your guts
Dr. Beckett says that antibiotics should only be when necessary. It is also important to think about eating probiotic rich foods or taking supplements after a course of antibiotics. Children who have taken a lot of antibiotics in childhood would have had their gut bacteria colony significantly altered, and the imbalance of good and bad gut bacteria may lead to diseases later in life.
A sweet warning
Lastly, children (and adults) who consume a lot of refined sugars need to be careful as these sugars make the gut a conducive home for “opportunistic bacteria like Clostrodium difficile and Clostrodium perfringens” to overgrow. Thus, it is important for parents to reduce refined sugar intake and delay the introduction of sugar into their children’s diet as much as possible.