When it comes to our children, we want them to have the very best. We do everything we can to give them all the tools they need to live a healthy and happy life. We teach them to walk and talk and how and what to eat. But one thing you may not have considered is your children’s gut health and microbiome. Helping our children have a healthy microbiome can have a positive effect on their gut health and overall wellbeing that can last a lifetime, says functional medicine expert Dr. Akil. But you need to start when they are young to have the most impact!
The gut microbiome plays a crucial role in all aspects of human health. A recent study explains that the microbiome has tremendous potential to impact our bodies in health and disease. A healthy microbiome contributes to metabolic functions, protects against disease, educates the immune system, and directly or indirectly affects most of our bodily functions.
During a child’s first three years, the microbiome is dynamic and evolves, giving us the greatest opportunity to affect its composition. After age 3, however, it’s more stable and begins to resemble the microbiome that the child will carry into adulthood. What does this mean? The first three years of a child’s life are an important and critical time for us to influence our children’s gut health and their overall health for the rest of their lives.
Here are 5 ways to help your child build a healthy microbiome and improve your children’s gut health:
1. Set your child up for success
If possible, deliver your children vaginally as this can start them off with a healthier and more robust microbiome than babies born by C-section. After birth, breastfeed for as long as feasible as this has been shown to lead to a stronger microbiome than formula-fed children. This is because breast milk contains a prebiotic (a food for gut bacteria) called GOS that is effective at stimulating the growth of Bifidobacterium and other beneficial bacterial species. These healthy gut bacteria will help your child fight illnesses throughout the course of their entire life.
2. Encourage healthy eating from a young age
As children begin eating solid foods, encouraging them to consume a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, healthy whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds is the best way to strengthen their microbiome and create a healthy gut. Variety is the key! Every whole food feeds a different cluster of bacteria, so having a diverse diet helps to build a diverse, strong microbiome and helps to improve your children’s gut health. If your kids are willing to consume fermented foods like sauerkraut, kefir or yogurt, that’s an added bonus. In addition, increasing the quantity and variety of dietary fiber also plays a role in establishing gut health.
While probiotics can be helpful in certain conditions, studies show they work more as immunomodulators (affecting the immune system) and do not have long-term effects in changing the microbiome. Because of that, I don’t typically recommend them unless there’s a specific reason.
3. Avoid antibiotics when possible
It’s important to avoid unnecessary antibiotic usage in children. Recent research from Harvard found that repeated exposure to antibiotics lowers the diversity and robustness of children’s gut bacteria, which can lead to an increase in antibiotic-resistant genes. In children with repeated exposure to antibiotics, the Harvard study found a decrease in some bacteria that can help to strengthen the immune system at an early age. This includes certain bacteria from the Clostridium species, which help promote T-regulatory cells that modulate the immune system and prevent autoimmune disease. We know that disruptions in the microbiome are one of the first steps in the development of all autoimmune disease-another reason to do what we can to strengthen our kids microbiomes.
4. Limit processed sugar
It’s important to limit processed sugar because refined sugar supports the growth of harmful bacteria and can lead to bacterial overgrowth, which crowds out the good bacteria in the microbiome. And that’s definitely not good for your children’s gut health!
5. Consider your child’s environment
Environmental factors can make a difference in your child’s gut health:
- Avoid excessive use of hand sanitizers or antibacterial soaps, as the FDA recently banned the use of these products.
- Consider a pet! Exposure to animals like dogs or cats helps increase the diversity of bacteria that children are exposed to.
- Watch out for stress! Too much stress and not enough relaxation and destressing can have a harmful effect on the microbiome. Be sure that your kids (and you) have lots of time for rest and play, regular physical activity and time in nature and the outdoors.
Creating a healthy microbiome can improve your children’s gut health and ensure a healthier life for years to come.
Want to read more about how to heal your gut naturally? Check out Dr. Akil’s Book The Paleovedic Diet!
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