Your child’s body contains trillions of microscopic organisms. These organisms include bacteria, viruses and fungi. Most of them live in the gastrointestinal (GI) tract or “gut.” The GI tract is a long, muscular tube about 30 feet long. This is where food and drink are broken down into nutrients, which are absorbed and used by the body for energy, growth and repair. The community of gut microbiota (previously called gut flora) that live in the GI tract help with digestion.
What many people don’t realize is that gut microbes may affect more than just digestion. Research has shown that gut microbes affect how well the immune system functions to help keep your child from getting sick. Gut microbiota may be related to the development of type 2 diabetes, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and colon cancer. Some studies have shown a link between gut microbiota and allergies and asthma. Depression and anxiety have been associated with abnormal microbiota.
Improving Gut Health
What your child eats influences his gut health.
Feed gut microbes. Make sure your child eats a healthy, well-balanced diet to support diverse microbiota. Try to include fruits or vegetables at every meal. Offer a variety of foods, including fruits, vegetables, whole grains and nuts.
Monitor how much fiber your child is eating. A lack of fiber can cause constipation. Fiber requirements vary according to age. The Institute of Medicine recommends that an 8-year-old should get about 25 grams of fiber. As examples, an apple has about 4 grams, a ½ cup of black beans has about 8 grams and one raw carrot has about 2 grams.
Consider foods that contain probiotics. Probiotics are supplements or foods that contain live microorganisms that help restore good gut bacteria. These microorganisms interact with microbes in the gut in a positive way. Fermented foods, such as Kefir, contain live microbes. Yogurt products that contain “active cultures” have probiotics. Be sure to choose products that are lower in sugar.
Breastfeed your baby. Babies who are breastfed have a greater number of probiotic bacteria in their GI tracts than formula-fed babies.
Avoid processed foods. Processed foods may negatively impact gut health. A processed food is any food in a box or package. Some examples are crackers, candy, snacks, packaged baked goods, instant soups and frozen meals. Ingredients added to processed foods, such as emulsifiers and other food additives, may cause inflammation.
Talk to your pediatrician about probiotic foods to prevent diarrhea. The American Academy of Pediatrics reports that probiotic foods may be used to prevent diarrhea associated with antibiotic use in healthy children. However, not just any strain of probiotic will work. Talk to your pediatrician about which strain to buy and when to give it. Note that there are safety concerns for use of probiotics in children who are very sick or who may have an impaired immune system.
Avoid giving your child probiotic pills. Probiotic pills are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. Ingredients that are listed on the label may not be included in the pill. According to UptoDate, a website that synthesizes medical research and makes recommendations, there is no evidence that taking probiotic pills does any good.
Does Handwashing Hurt or Help?
Some studies have shown that children who live in rural settings and are exposed to farm animals have lower rates of asthma or allergy than their urban-dwelling counterparts. This exposure to a wider variety of microbes is thought to boost the immune system. Given this information, many parents want to expose their children to a wider variety of microbes by “letting children get dirty.”
This does not mean that children should not wash their hands. Germs that get on hands can make people very sick. Germs that get onto hands after using the toilet can spread salmonella, E. coli and norovirus. Unwashed hands spread germs to door knobs, hand rails and toys. In this way, germs are passed from person to person, exposing many people to illness.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, handwashing with soap could protect about 1 out of every 3 children who get sick with diarrhea and 1 out of every 5 children who get respiratory infections, such as the cold and flu. Always insist that your children wash their hands before eating food, after using the bathroom and after touching an animal. For more information on when and how to wash hands to prevent the spread of germs, go to CDC.gov/handwashing.
Brenda Schoolfield is a freelance medical writer who splits her time between Austin and Seattle.