Did you know that we are all super-organisms? We share our bodies with several hundred microbial species and you and your family each have about 100 trillion bacteria currently lurking in your gut, on your tongue and on your skin. This is called your gut microbiome.
It turns out that we are only 10 percent human: for every human cell that is inherent to our body, there are about 10 microbes living in residence. These microbes are generally beneficial or harmless and usually only a tiny number of them are unwanted pathogenic bacteria. However, when this delicate microbiome goes out of balance, this is when poor health kicks in.
A healthy microbiome is vital to protect our overall health and brain health. There is a growing belief and important research within the medical community that supports the theory that an unhealthy gut microbiome can affect the brain and neurological development of a child.
For instance, the intestinal microbiome can prompt immune cells to produce cytokines (substances that signal inflammation) that influence the neurological system. Our gut microbes also produce metabolites such as butyrate which can alter activity of the cells in the blood-brain barrier and allow infections and toxins to reach the brain. More and more research is now linking a poorly functioning gut microbiome to incidences of Autism, ADHD, anxiety, depression, bipolar disorders, Schizophrenia, dyslexia, learning and behavioural difficulties, and even mood disorders. Since these problems are on the rise in children, I want to share with you how you can keep your child’s microbiome in tip-top condition.
A healthy microbiome is also important for mood regulation. Although serotonin is well known as a brain neurotransmitter, it is estimated that 90 percent of the body’s serotonin is made in the gut. It has been found that certain bacteria in the digestive tract are important for the production of peripheral serotonin. Therefore, enhancing the beneficial microbes in the gut that feed the serotonin receptors may well be the key to preventing depression and anxiety.
The friendly (good) bacteria that live in our microbiome is also vital in supporting our immune system, to trigger our immune cells to divide and multiply ensuring there are enough to successfully create antibodies that fight disease-causing microbes. The greater and more diverse amount of healthy bacteria we have; the more power our immune system has to fight off the harmful bacteria. This fine balance of bacteria also prevents our system from wrongly identifying harmless substances as a threat. When a microbiome is out of sync this can lead to the creation of allergies and auto-immune disease. There is also quite a bit of research that links obesity with a less diverse microbiome, so this is an added reason to take this seriously.
So as you can see, the cultivation and maintenance of our children’s microbiome is not only a priority in fixing existing health concerns, but also in ensuring their future health and development.
What’s Good For Your Child’s Microbiome?
Never more so is the phrase ‘you are what you eat’ more pertinent than when we look at gut health. Fill you children with fresh veggies, fruit, legumes, nuts, seeds and spices to feed a healthy microbiome. Ideally choose organic produce and meat that’s from an animal that lived a happy life outside. Antibiotics, and harmful bacteria can be passed through the meat that we eat if it’s been pumped full of antibiotics, steroids and a bad diet.
The more variety of foods your child eats (raw and cooked) the more diverse and skilled their microbiome will be. For children, I recommend at least 20 types of plant foods per week. This is why I am always talking about supercharging meals, giving your family the most diverse diet possible. Growing your own veggies is a superb way of feeding the whole families microbiome (that glorious mud), as well as being fun and teaching your children about sustainability and the environment. A healthy microbiome thrives on prebiotic and probiotic foods and fibre, so ensure your child consumes a combination of both every day.
Vegetables: Enjoy a diverse selection of plant-based foods especially dark green varieties such as spinach, kale, and broccoli. Carrots (red, purple, orange), potatoes (red & purple), red cabbage, red onions, garlic, onion, leek, asparagus, Jerusalem artichoke, beetroot, beans, cabbage, Brussels sprouts and sweet potato are also all great gut friendly veggies.
Fruits: Packed full of fibre and natural sweetness include blueberries, cherries, strawberries, blackberries, plums, raspberries, apples (red), black grapes, blackcurrants, bananas - keeping the skin on where edible.
Nuts & Seeds: Are a great source of nutrients and energy that support and feed your child’s microbes, such as flaxseed meal, chestnuts, hazelnuts, pecans, almonds, cashews, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds. Grind them up into nut and seed flours or give as nut butters to prevent choking in the under 3’s.
Legumes: Baked beans, lentils, chickpeas, kidney beans, black beans, split peas, adzuki beans.
Grain: Black rice, brown rice, oats.
Fermented foods: Unsweetened yoghurt, kefir (cow, goat, almond or coconut), sauerkraut and milk kimchi are all great foods sources that will keep your little one’s healthy gut bacteria strong.
Other: Olive oil, dark cocoa
Outdoor Play & Fresh Air
Encouraging your children to play outdoors encourages natural exercise and connecting with the wider ecosystem. Playing with soil, getting muddy or planting your own veggies and fruit also has a positive influence on your microbiome as soil and plants house trillions of microorganisms. Opening a window and allowing fresh air flow within the home has also been shown to benefit the diversity and health of the microbes within the house, and those living in it.
Good Oral Hygiene
Keeping a clean and healthy mouth by ensuring your child brushes their teeth twice daily, morning and night is super important. Our mouths house 700 species of bacteria. An over growth of bad bacteria will result in continuous swallowing of this bad bacteria into the rest of our system. Be mindful that sugar residues linger in the mouth and can ferment into bad bacteria so this is partly why sugar is not good for our little ones in large quantities.
Breast is Best
Breastfeed for as long as possible. It is very difficult to replicate the same beneficial bacteria that a child gets directly through its mother’s milk and supplementing can be expensive. However, it is not possible to breast feed, talk to a qualified health practitioner that is informed and passionate about infant gut health and can advise you on the best strains of pro-biotics for your baby.
Look After Your Own Microbiome
Research shows that children inherit our microbiome, so I recommend that you and your partner take all of the steps I suggest above both prior to conception, during pregnancy and in the longer term. (N.B. I recommend adults eat 40 different types of plant-based foods per week to support and build a healthy happy gut).
Not only will this help you address any underlying health issues, but it will help you build your health and immune system making you happier and stronger parent. Children also learn best through example, so if they see you eating a wide variety of delicious and nutritious food stuff they will be more likely to do the same.
And What’s Not Good For Your Child’s Microbiome?
Antibiotics cannot differentiate between good bacteria from bad and simply wipes out all gut bacteria, so it is best to keep their use to an absolute minimum. If antibiotics are necessary, ensure you seek advice from a practitioner about immediately supplementing with probiotics after the course of antibiotics is finished.
Diets high in refined sugar have been shown to harmfully impact the function of the microbiome as bad bacteria feeds off sugar allowing them to increase in numbers and strength within the gut. Look to minimise the amount of sugar your little one eats. Instead seek out foods that use naturally occurring sugars such as fruit or honey and replace refined sugar with these natural sugars in your own cooking.
Sulphites, preservatives and food colourings commonly found in processed food can also harmfully impact the microbiome. Try and reduce or eliminate these foods from your child’s diet. Read food labels and particularly try and avoid anything containing sulfur dioxide and sodium sulfate such as some dried fruits, processed meats and soft drinks.
Allergies & Food Sensitivities
If your child has a food allergy or food sensitivity such as gluten, dairy, soya and eggs then these foods will be harmful to their microbiome and may cause additional gut reactions, such as wind, bloating, pain, constipation or diarrhoea. This is why it is important to identify any food reactions and to restrict those foods until the gut has had time to heal and repopulate its microbiome.
Stress & Anxiety
Heightened stress and anxiety are known to have a detrimental effect on gut health, and one can lead to the other creating a vicious circle. Try and spend time with your child in a relaxing environment, playing out doors, reading stories, sharing experiences from your day, openly communicating about any worries or fear they might have.
There are many mindfulness activities for children that might help support your child’s well-being as well as children’s yoga, painting, arts and crafts courses. Participating in a fun activity such as cooking or gardening together may all help reduce stress and anxiety. If you have a genuine concern for your child’s mental well-being, always seek specific advice and support from a health practitioner.
Saving The Best To Last
The great news is that the global medical community is learning more and more about how and what impacts gut health and how the microbiome is such a vital building block to our immune system and overall health.
Children are very resilient, and their gut microbiome reacts quickly and can heal faster than adults. You can restore a microbiome pretty quickly if you use the right tools. The key is to keep their diet diverse with lots of prebiotic and probiotic building foods and to allow your kids to get dirty and muddy!