The benefits of a healthy gut are as varied as they are significant. From supporting a better-functioning immune system to aiding in losing excess pounds; a thriving digestive system and balanced microbiome can boost your overall health and sense of well-being in innumerable ways. But what about your children? As with adults, the state of a child's gut health has wide-ranging effects on the functioning of their entire body. Better sleep, improved digestive function, boosted absorption of key vitamins and minerals from food, reduced constipation and bloating, and improved mood and emotional response are only a few of the positive side effects that come with a healthy gut.
Unlike with adults, however, it can sometimes seem difficult to help your children take steps to improve their digestive health. In fact, boosting your child's gut health--and thus their whole-body well-being--can actually be as simple as following these five easy tips.
Lower Their Intake of Processed Foods
Chances are your child loves processed foods; after all, they're designed to be yummy and downright addictive. However, pre-packaged, heavily-processed foods--particularly those that have a high amount of sugar--can be potentially damaging to your child's digestive tract. Such snacks tend to be low in fiber and nutrients and high in preservatives that have been shown to have long-lasting negative health effects. Indeed, beyond the immediate impact to their digestive system function, studies have shown that children who consume a significant amount of added sugars are at increased risk of cardiovascular disease and high cholesterol as adolescents,1while other researchers have found that an early-childhood diet high in processed foods is negatively correlated with IQ in later childhood.2
Instead, get in the habit of offering your children healthy homemade treats. Incorporating delicious high-fiber foods like apples, pears and sweet potatoes with the skin on and all types of berries into their diet will provide them with significant gut health benefits.
Let Them Get Dirty
Numerous marketing campaigns have issued dire warnings to parents about the dangers of letting their children get grimy, with products like hand sanitizer offered as the solution. In truth, however, excessively shielding your children from germs may be doing them more harm than good. Routine exposure to dirt actually has an important role in helping develop a child's immune system and digestive tract health. The microorganisms that children are exposed to when they engage in messy play are key for creating a balanced gut environment, and guarding your children from such exposure can have long-lasting health consequences. For example, studies have found that children who are kept away from playing in the dirt develop asthma and allergies at about twice the rate of those who are allowed to get dirty.3
Of course, encouraging thorough hand washing after using the restroom is still an important lesson to teach your children.
Avoid Unnecessary Antibiotics
Antibiotics are one of the wonders of modern medicine, and proper antibiotic use has curtailed many dangerous infections that could otherwise be life-threatening. Of course, illnesses caused by a virus (such as the common cold and many sore throats) can't be treated with antibiotics--yet according to the CDC, pediatricians are still prescribing antibiotics for non-bacterial infections in large numbers.4What's the harm? Well, it turns out that just one round of antibiotics can upset your child's digestive balance for months, according to one study.5
If your doctor wants to prescribe your child antibiotics, talk to them and see if they are actually necessary. A case of bacterial bronchitis necessitates a round of antibiotics; back-to-school sniffles are sometimes better treated without their use.
Add Gut-Friendly Foods to Their Diet
Certain foods have properties that have been shown to support a healthy gut and good microbial balance. In particular, incorporating foods that have prebiotics--a type of dietary fiber that acts as food for the good bacteria of the gut--into your child's diet can help them enjoy better digestive health. Luckily, yummy and kid-friendly foods with ample amounts of prebiotics aren't hard to find. Raw bananas are a great source,6 as are apples.
Include a Probiotic Supplement in Their Daily Routine
Lastly, incorporating a probiotic supplement into your child's daily routine can help their digestive tract achieve the proper balance of bacteria for good gut health--and for overall health. Indeed, researchers have found that a daily probiotic supplement can help children recover quicker from the effects of common childhood illnesses.8 The positive effects of a regular probiotic supplement that promotes good gut balance in your child, go beyond aiding in recovery from illness; they can help with an array of issues from relieving constipation to boosting their immune system. The benefits of regular probiotic use are vast for children of all ages.
1 Welsh JA, Sharma A, Cunningham SA, Vos MB. Consumption of added sugars and indicators of cardiovascular disease risk among U.S. adolescents. Circulation 123(3):249–57. 2011.
2 Northstone K, Joinson C, Emmett P, Ness A, Paus T. Are dietary patterns in childhood associated with IQ at 8 years of age? A population-based cohort study. J Epidemiol Community Health 66(7):624-8. 2011.
3 Holbreich M, Genuneit J, Weber J, Braun-Fahrländer C, Waser M, von Mutius E. Amish children living in northern Indiana have a very low prevalence of allergic sensitization. The Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology 129(6): 1671–1673. 2012
4 Office-Related Antibiotic Prescribing for Persons Aged ≤14 Years - United States, 1993-1994 to 2007-2008. CDC MMWR 60(34);1153-1156. 2011.
5 F. Fouhy, C. M. Guinane, S. Hussey, R. Wall, C. A. Ryan, E. M. Dempsey, B. Murphy, R. P. Ross, G. F. Fitzgerald, C. Stanton, P. D. Cotter. High-Throughput Sequencing Reveals the Incomplete, Short-Term Recovery of Infant Gut Microbiota following Parenteral Antibiotic Treatment with Ampicillin and Gentamicin. Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy 56 (11): 5811. 2012.
6 Fiber and prebiotics: mechanisms and health benefits. Nutrients. 5(4):1417-35. 2013
7 Licht TR, Hansen M, Bergström A, Poulsen M, Krath BN, Markowski J, Dragsted LO, Wilcks A. Effects of apples and specific apple components on the cecal environment of conventional rats: role of apple pectin. BMC Microbiol. 10:13. 2010.
8 Thomas, D. Pediatrics, December 2010; vol 126: pp 1217-1231.