Bad bacteria in your gut has long been linked to a host of unpleasant diseases in adults from obesity to chronic autoimmune diseases. However, few people realize that children can suffer from bad gut health as well. What’s more, the bad health of your children’s gut may have started at birth. Symptoms of an unhealthy gut in children include a large amount of constipation and gas, or constant diarrhea, bad breath, colic and food allergies. Some studies have linked children gut health to ADHD and other psychological problems. If you want to improve your child’s gut bacteria, then all is not lost. You can try our home remedies to boost your children’s gut health and bring balance back to their life.
Children’s Gut Health Begins at Birth
Of the 100 trillion microbiota that inhabits your gut, over 300 different species have been identified with close to 2 million unique genes. This means that there are ten times more individual strands of bacteria in your gut than there are human cells in your entire body. The gut bacteria are more than just a colony; it is an entire ecosystem.
But our gut didn’t start this way. For when a baby is born, its intestinal tract is completely sterile. Gut bacteria starts to colonize a baby’s gut as soon as it is born. The composition of the bacterial colony is influenced by your baby’s first diet, sanitation, the method of delivery and the baby’s level of exposure to antibiotics. (1)
At this early stage, there is very little diversity to the baby’s intestinal gut flora, but by the age of three, a child’s gut flora will closely resemble that of an adult. As there are no bacteria, in one sense our gut starts life in balance, and as bacteria colonize the gut, the gut flora imbalance begins right from birth.
It is vital for the child’s long-term health that the initial microbial colonization happens properly. Any manipulation of a child’s gut flora after the initial seeding stage may be too late to make any difference. Any intestinal flora imbalance in an adult (and the impact on health from bad gut bacteria) may have started while the adult was an infant.
1. Avoid artificial sweeteners
Artificial sweeteners are often used by parents to cut down on the children’s sugar intake. Cutting down sugar is a noble cause but switching to sweeteners is not the solution given that the dangers of artificial sweeteners are now well documented.
Studies have shown that artificial sweeteners can damage the balance of your child’s gut bacteria.
Artificial sweeteners were shown to drastically alter the gut bacteria of mice to such an extent that they became glucose intolerant. (2) It is thought that the bacteria imbalance and subsequent intolerance to glucose was the reason why weight gain was observed in the mice during the study.
If you need to sweeten your child’s food and drink, we suggest you try natural sweeteners as a better alternative.
2. Dark berries as snacks
Dark berries such as blueberries, raspberries, grapes, and blackberries are great sources of polyphenols and conveniently are popular with kids. As a rule of thumb, the darker the berry, the more polyphenols it has.
Polyphenols are essential for your child’s body for alleviating oxidative stress and inflammation, but they also boost your child’s gut health.
The problem is that they are not easily absorbed by the body. Most of the polyphenols in berries that your child will eat will not be absorbed by the small intestine, but find their way to your child’s colon.
Here they will be munched on by good bacteria in the colon and broken down into more digestible “phenolic metabolites.”
It is thought that these smaller “phenolic metabolites” actually influence the composition of your child’s gut bacteria, promoting antimicrobial activities against pathogenic (bad) gut bacteria thereby boosting your child’s gut health (3)
The link between exercise and general health is well known. What is less well known is the link between gut bacteria and exercise.
Fortunately, for most children, exercise comes naturally through general play. Even if it doesn’t, use every opportunity to give your child a runaround.
4. Vaginal Birth
There are many benefits of vaginal birth, but one benefit that is often overlooked is the benefit to the infant.
As mentioned, when a baby is born, its gut is sterile. The gut quickly will become colonized by the bacteria that the infant comes into contact with as soon as he/she leaves the womb. As such, the gut at birth is really just a blank canvas.
Vaginal birth is very important for the initial seeding of gut bacteria for the infant. As the child passes through the birth canal, secretions from the vagina, packed with bacteria, rub off on the child and become an initial starter kit of microbes to colonize the gut.
This initial bacterial colony will closely resemble the bacteria composition of the mother’s gut bacteria and will stay with the child for the rest of its life and tends to be much more balanced than c-section babies (6).
It represents one of the finest gifts you can give to your child.
5. C-section Vaginal Swabs
Many babies, for very good medical reasons, have to be born by c-section.
C-section babies are not exposed to the mother’s gut bacteria, and the composition of their gut bacteria at birth reflects this.
Studies on c-section baby’s gut bacteria show that the bacteria in their gut has more similarities with the bacteria found on human skin rather than the bacteria typically found in the gut. It would be comforting to think that this skin bacteria was from the mother, but alas, no – this is not the case. (7) C-section babies often pick up their initial gut bacteria from the general hospital environment!
Many new c-section moms, realize that this is a major downside of c-section birth and use vaginal swabs to correct the problem. A simple swab of the mother’s vagina post c-section rubbed into the face of the infant is sufficient to transplant the good microbes.
6. Breast Feeding
We have argued that vaginal birth and vaginal swabs are an excellent way to seed your baby’s gut bacteria.
Breastfeeding is another opportunity to boost your child’s gut health.
The reason why the baby’s gut is quickly colonized by bacteria is to allow the newborn to digest his/her food. This is obviously quite important, and newborns actually suppress their immune system to allow the bacteria in. (8)
After the initial seeding from vagina secretions, the next wave of bacteria comes from the mother’s breast milk and skin contact. Nature has found a way to assist in this process as the mother’s milk actually contains special sugars that help nourish the gut bacteria as it becomes established in the gut.
Bottled milk does not have this microbial booster and does not boost your child’s gut health.
Any attempt to improve your children’s gut health needs to include probiotics.
Probiotics are fermented foods, where microbes have altered the food in the fermentation process.
The microbes in the probiotics provide a starter kit of good bacteria for your gut, changing the balance of species already there. Probiotics are especially good for restoring your child’s gut health after a round of antibiotics.
Small children up to the age of three do not have diverse and balanced gut bacteria and encouraging the growth of good bacteria species is the best course to boost your child’s gut health.
Yogurt, though, is always a winner. Most commercial yogurts for kids have loads of artificial flavorings and sweeteners and are sterilized, so provide no benefit. So, remember to buy cultured, non-sweetened, unflavored yogurt.
If your kids have sweet tooth (are there any that don’t?), sweeten with dark berries or manuka honey.
Prebiotic foods are nondigestible foods that benefit your child’s gut by stimulating the growth of good bacterial species already resident in the colon, and thus improve your child gut health.
Essentially, prebiotic foods are fibrous foods that are not broken down by the digestive system. Instead of being digested, they pass through the digestive system becoming food or fuel for beneficial bacteria.
In order to encourage the growth of good bacteria, like any organism, they need to be nourished. Prebiotics are the food.
There are many amazing prebiotic foods for a healthy gut which you can try. Even for the most ‘picky’ child, there is something to suit all tastes.
However, we would recommend the following prebiotics for kids – Banana, kiwi and oats.
Why not try a bowl of banana porridge for breakfast?
9. Make sure your child gets enough sleep
Research has shown that simply depriving a person of sleep for two nights can change the balance of gut bacteria. (9)
Children are no different and that if they don’t get enough sleep, their gut health can suffer.
Indeed, it is well known that children need more sleep than adults and yet a common feature of many children’s night time routine is exposure to TV, tablets and other electronic devices. Research has found that exposure to blue light from electronic devices suppresses the production of melatonin which is a hormone that induces sleep.
The quality of sleep after blue electronic light exposure is simply not as good and long term, this can have a knock-on effect on gut health.
Whatsmore, while sleeping patterns can affect your children’s gut health, so too can your children’s gut health affect their sleep. It’s a two-way street.
Studies have shown that a lack of sleep can cause some bacteria to activate a protein (called TLR2) in the gut. (10) TLR2 is responsible for regulating serotonin, a hormone responsible for mood, sleep, and appetite and many other psychological disorders.
So if your child’s gut is out of wack through lack of sleep, there is a negative feedback loop on your general sense of well-being and mood.
Make sure your child gets a good nights sleep and limit exposure to blue light 30 to 60 minutes before bed.
10. Dirt is good
We have already seen how exposure to bacteria at birth is an essential tool to maintain your child’s gut health.
Likewise, as your child grows up, it is not helpful to be in a sterile environment all the time and exposure to everyday bacteria is not necessarily a bad thing, and indeed should be encouraged.
Some interesting studies bear this out. One such study, published in the Pediatrics Journal showed that children whose parents cleaned their pacifiers by sucking them instead of boiling them were less likely to have eczema.
A separate study showed that children who had grown up with dogs and cats as pets showed fewer allergies in later life. The exposure to the bacteria that dogs and cats introduce to the home actually improved the diversity of the children’s gut.
11. Avoid Processed Sugar and Foods
Processed sugar and foods are not good for your children’s gut health. The problem with most processed foods is that they lack a diversity of ingredients that your child needs for good gut health and those ingredients that they do have, much of the nutrients have been destroyed in the manufacturing.
Typically processed foods are also sterilized for longer shelf life, leaving nothing to enhance your child’s bacteria. Added preservatives, designed to kill off unwanted pathogens, make no distinction when they come across gut bacteria in digestion.
Refined sugars also encourage the growth of bad gut bacteria known to be linked to obesity. Furthermore, studies run on mice have shown that processed foods caused changes in their gut bacteria which led to obesity and gut disease. (11)
12. Avoid unnecessary antibiotics
Antibiotics are one of mankind’s greatest inventions, saving countless lives over the decades. It has long been known that a course of antibiotics would kill much of the good bacteria in your child’s gut as it would the targeted pathogen.
But it has long been believed that the gut bacteria would recover quickly. Yet, it now seems that gut bacteria can take months to recover and in some cases, your child’s gut may be permanently changed. (12)
As many pathogens are gaining immunity to antibiotics, antibiotics should only be used for extreme infections. This is especially the case when one considers the damage they can do to your child’s gut health.
13. Reduce Red Meat
A balanced diet is always a good approach when boosting your child’s gut health, so too much meat is never a good idea.
However, red meat comes with added complications. A study run by Nature showed that eating large amounts of animal products promotes the growth of bile loving bacteria. These bacteria have been linked to heart disease in adults.
A diet with a high concentration of animal fat can lead your child’s gut to produce excess bile which the bad bacteria biophilia thrive in. Biophilia have been linked to gut inflammation and other autoimmune diseases.(13)
Non-organic meat is also routinely injected with antibiotics to increase farming yields. Some of these antibiotics find their way into the food chain and have a knock-on effect on your child’s gut health.
14. Manuka Honey
Manuka honey is produced in New Zealand by bees that pollinate the Manuka bush. The honey has long been known for its antibacterial properties and is used to combat a wide range of infections from sore throats to staph infections.
Manuka honey’s benefits go much further than an alternative antibiotic. Research has shown that the honey is beneficial in relieving symptoms from a wide range of ailments associated with a gut bacteria imbalance.
The latest research indicates that child allergies are gut related.
It has been observed that patients with allergies showed much lower symptoms and required few antihistamines when given the honey. Also, other allergy-related conditions such as eczema respond well to Manuka honey. (16)
It is currently not fully understood why Manuka honey is so effective against gut related problems. One thesis is that the polyphenols in the honey, similar to dark berries, are broken down into “phenolic metabolites” in the colon. These metabolites go on to influence the child’s gut bacteria by attacking pathogens.
Another mechanism is that the anti-bacterial properties of Manuka honey are directly effective against the pathogenic bacteria themselves. Simply, bad bacteria don’t like manuka honey.
Either way, as a tip to boost your children’s gut bacteria, it has to be the easiest home remedy.
Let’s face, are there any children that don’t like honey?
15. Fecal Microbiota Transplant (FMT)
Fecal Transplant (also called Fecal microbiota transplant or FMT), is a process in which donor stool or fecal matter, along with the microbes it contains, is transplanted into the lower intestines of a patient.
The aim of fecal transplantation is the replacement of good bacteria that have been suppressed or killed off usually after a heavy antibiotic treatment.
Fecal transplantation can be considered as a system reboot of your child’s body from the inside-out. Compared to the home remedies to boost children’s gut health given above, FMT simply a much more direct and efficient method than trying to change gut bacteria through diet.
Medical fecal transplants involve a colonoscopy or enema of a processed stool sample, but FMT can be practiced at home by purchasing tablets with live microbiota inside or indeed, even by simply sampling a tiny amount of a donor’s stool.
While the idea of giving an infant a tiny taste of the mother’s stool is quite repellent, it actually has a long tradition in my ancient societies and it is often seen practiced in the natural world for many mammalian species.
This is because FMT, like vaginal swabs, is an excellent way to seed an infant’s gut bacteria at birth.
However, if you can get over the sheer shock value of the procedure, the health benefits of FMT go way beyond seeding an infants microbiome.
It has an almost perfect success rate for treating Clostridium Difficile, a particularly unpleasant gut infection.
It has shown great promise for treating allergies, gut intestinal diseases such as irritable bowel syndrome, and even has been linked to improvements in psychological disorders such as ADHD and autism to name a few.
Given the strength of the results from FMT, it is likely, as more research is conducted, that FMT will become a mainstream treatment for children’s gut problems.
Watch this space.
Do’ and Don’ts for children’s gut health
- Give your child a fresh and balanced diet
- Ensure your child gets exercise and sleeps well
- Eat fibrous vegetables and dark berries
- Avoid artificial sweeteners and processed sugars. Sweeten with honey
- Try to breastfeed and give birth naturally
- For minor infections, do not use antibiotics
- If considering FMT, seek medical advice and do your research on the donor. A transplant of bad bacteria is always a possible risk. Check out the risks of FMT before you try.