If you've felt like the words "microbiome" and "gut flora" have sprung up more regularly in recent years, you're not alone. Renewed awareness of the role of the gut and digestive system has shed light on the food choices and ingrained habits we can alter to better improve our mood, metabolism, and resistance to illness. But good gut health isn't just for grown-ups.
When it comes to kids, we're most aware of the gut's role in keeping their digestion on track, but the gut also affects how their bodies absorb vitamins and minerals and control their immune system. When nourished and strengthened, the trillions of bacteria in their gastrointestinal tract – also known as the human microbiome – help to stave off respiratory infections and reduce the severity of ear infections and occurrence of digestive complaints like diarrhoea.1,2,3
From choosing foods that contain natural probiotics to letting them indulge their inner grub, here are some quick tips for improving your child's gut health:
1. Pick natural probiotics for picky eaters
Fermented foods can be rich in probiotics, and finding inventive ways to incorporate them into meals and snacks can make your child's gut a healthy, happy place for good bacteria to live in. Go for unsweetened Greek yoghurt with plenty of live cultures. Umami-rich ingredients like miso and sauerkraut might not be popular with picky little eaters, but try them on some flavoured kefir or kombucha, sourdough bread, pickles, or tempeh. Adding some of these into their diet regularly could help to stave off tummy upsets caused by digestive issues.
2. Get extra support alongside antibiotics
The number one reason kids under 5 are prescribed antibiotics is to treat ear infections.4 But the same is true for children as it is for adults: antibiotics don't just kill bad bacteria, they also attack good gut flora, which can decimate the microbiome. If your GP recommends antibiotics to treat an infection, consider pairing it with a probiotic containing the bacteria Lactobacillus rhamnosus and Bifidobacterium for a month after the course. As well as maintaining good gut flora during antibiotic use, these types of beneficial bacteria have been shown to gut and immune health, support digestive wellbeing, reduce the frequency of mild upper respiratory infections, and maintain ear health.2,3
3. Up the aqua to improve elimination
Drinking plenty of water improves digestion and makes eliminating food easier. It also helps your child's body better absorb nutrients, and even supports the populations of beneficial gut bugs. Keeping a water bottle on hand could be the simplest way to keep your kid's gut-fighting fit.
4. Find the fibre
Fibre feeds the good bacteria in the gut and keeps digestion moving. Keep the skin on fruits like apples and pears, introduce beans and legumes – either in whole states or as dips like hummus – and go for wholegrain alternatives of bread, wraps and muffins wherever you can. Fibre from veggies like sweet potatoes and asparagus can help to stimulate good bacteria and avoid issues like constipation.
5. Exposure to the elements
When you're trying to keep your kid’s infection-free, it can seem counterintuitive to expose them to germs on purpose. But putting down the hand sanitiser and letting them play outside, get their hands dirty and tussle with the family dog can do wonders for their immune system. A wash afterwards with simple soap and water – not harsh disinfectants – will keep them clean without destroying all those beneficial bacteria you've worked so hard to encourage!
1. Liu S, Hu P, Du X, Zhou T, Pei X. Lactobacillus rhamnosus GG, supplementation for preventing respiratory infections in children: a meta-analysis of randomized, placebo-controlled trials. Indian Pediatr. 2013 Apr;50(4):377-81.
2. Rautava S, Salminen S, Isolauri E. Specific probiotics in reducing the risk of acute infections in infancy-a randomised, double-blind, placebo-controlled study. Br J Nutr. 2009 Jun;101(11):1722-6.
3. Vanderhoof JA, Whitney DB, Antonson DL, Hanner TL, Lupo JV, Young RJ. Lactobacillus GG in the prevention of antibiotic-associated diarrhea in children. J Pediatr. 1999;135:564-8.
4. Rautava S, Salminen S, Isolauri E. Specific probiotics in reducing the risk of acute infections in infancy-a randomised, double-blind, placebo-controlled study. Br J Nutr. 2009 Jun;101(11):1722-6