The Importance of Good Gut Health in Children17 Dec 2019
Gut health has become a hot topic in recent years and the discussion is usually about gut microbiome which are the trillions of bacteria that live inside our gut. These bacteria play a key role in keeping children mentally and physically healthy and also reduce the risk of illness and disease. A poorly functioning gut can have a detrimental impact on children and symptoms include uncomfortable digestion, stomach aches, poor nutrient absorption, poor immunity and sleep, mood fluctuations and general fatigue.
The gut microbiome is established in early years of life, so supporting your child’s gut microbiome to thrive while they’re growing is particularly important. In fact, it is believed that before the age of four or five, children’s microbiome remains flexible, making this a great time to build a strong and healthy gut. Beyond this age the microbiome becomes well established and is harder to change. Everyone’s microbiome is unique and interestingly diet can be responsible for up to 75% of this variation!
Functions of the Gut
The gut has many important functions such as aiding digestion, the absorption of nutrients and also waste removal. The gut also influences the immune system which is needed to fight off bugs, and communicates with the rest of the body, particularly the brain!
Absorption of Nutrients
The gut is where we absorb almost all of our nutrients, meaning a healthy gut is important to ensure children are getting the most nutrition out of the food they’re consuming. Key nutrients absorbed in the gut include iron, proteins, carbohydrates and fats which are crucial for growing bodies.
Elimination of Waste
The gut also works to remove waste from the body, which is important to help support liver function. To keep your child’s bowel movements regular (and prevent uncomfortable constipation) encourage a diet with plenty of fibre including wholegrains, veggies and fruit. This will keep the bowels regular and also feed the healthy gut bacteria. Water is also important to help keep bowel movements soft and regular.
The Immune System
The gut is home to 70% of the body’s immune system and is the main entry point for bugs to get into the body. If your child’s gut is not a strong barrier, they will be more likely to pick up nasty bugs which can lead to illness. Research suggests that a poor balance of bacteria in the gut during early childhood, can also increase risk of gut-related allergies like asthma and eczema. By fuelling the good bacteria in your child’s gut, you can help build their immunity and keep them feeling energetic and healthy.
The Gut-Brain Axis
The gut-brain axis is the physical and chemical connection between your gut and brain, with a network of millions of nerves sending messages both ways. Chemicals called neurotransmitters such as serotonin and GABA (which controls feeling of fear and anxiety) are sent to and from the brain and many of these are produced in the gut. A thriving, healthy gut microbiome contributes to production of chemicals and signalling messages for good mental and physical health in your child.
Boosting Gut Health
There are many different ways to boost gut health and build a strong microbiome. Eating a diet high in a variety of probiotics and fibres such as prebiotic foods is a great place to start.
Probiotics are the “healthy” bacteria that make up the gut microbiome. These work to maintain health and immunity and fight inflammation and disease. There are many probiotic rich foods that can be given to children which can boost these bacteria in their gut and form a strong, healthy microbiome. There is also the option of a probiotic supplement.
Some great child-friendly probiotic rich foods include:
Yoghurt: Be sure to look on the label for brands containing ‘live cultures’. If your child doesn’t like eating yoghurt, try blending it into a smoothie
Kefir: This is a fermented milk drink. Kefir tastes a bit tangy and with a thicker consistency than milk but is not quite as thick as yogurt. Kefir can be served alone or mixed with fruit for a healthy breakfast smoothie
Fermented vegetables: Think pickles and sauerkraut!
Tempeh: This is a high protein meat substitute made from fermented soybeans.
Fibre is an essential component of your child’s diet and is required to achieve good gut health, with different fibres helping the gut in their own unique ways.
While we often think of fibre as a singular nutrient – there are actually many different types of fibre. These include:
Insoluble fibre: Wholegrain breads and cereals and the skin of fruit and vegetables help to soften bowel content which promotes regular (and comfortable) bowel movements.
Resistant starch: This is a type of fibre which is not digested as normal by the body. It is found in wholegrain cereals, legumes and starchy vegetables like potato. It travels to the large intestine where it feeds good bacteria in the gut. These bacteria produce products important for a healthy digestive system and protection against disease.
Prebiotics: These are another type of fibre which also feed the friendly bacteria in the gut. This provides another nourishing food source to the healthy bacteria in your gut. The great news is, prebiotics are in foods that are very child-friendly and delicious like bananas, apples, oats or foods that are easy to sneak into meals like barley, onion or flaxseed.
Soluble fibre: Thesehelp to slow the emptying process in the stomach, which can help children to feel fuller for longer. Soluble fibre is found in fruits, vegetables, oats, barley and legumes.
Investing in your child’s gut health in their early years will not only improve their overall health in the short term but will also set them up for good health later in life!