Childhood is a time of incredible growth, discovery and learning. Every new experience and everything your children touch, taste and do shapes who they are becoming.
The same is true of their inner world: the trillions of bacteria that call your child’s body home are shaped by their interactions with your child— and their environment. How we choose to clean our homes, pack their lunches and take care of our kids when they are sick have an impact.
Dirt, bugs and guts
In our quest to eradicate germs and keep our kids safe, we may actually be doing our children’s immune systems a disservice. Letting kids play in the dirt, and avoiding anti-bacterials in favour of good old soap and water, allows for natural and beneficial exposures to microbes that help inform our immune responses. Known as the ‘hygiene hypothesis’, part of this immune education involves our gut bacteria.
A whopping 80% of your immune activity is centred around your gut – making your gut bacteria an ally in the war against disease and infection. The type, and diversity, of bacteria living in your child’s gut can impact their overall health and well-being. Gut health is not only about keeping your little ones’ tummies happy and healthy; a healthy gut flora is associated with better overall health – even into adulthood. There is still much to learn: research is ongoing into the connection between gut bacteria, common childhood concerns such as allergy and eczema…and even risk of chronic disease in adulthood.
Stunting their growth
I grew up in the antibiotics generation: when you were sick, you went to the doctor and got a prescription. How times have changed! A single course of antibiotics can alter the development of the gut flora permanently; for the unlucky, this derangement can lead to gut infection and side effects like diarrhea.
Antibiotics save lives…but being better stewards will help us create more resilient children. When your children are sick, talk to your doctor…but resist the urge to ask for antibiotics unless the doctor confirms they will be effective. The common cold is viral in nature; nothing but rest, fluids and proper nutrition will help them recover; and should your children need antibiotics, supporting gut health with a probiotic may help them avoid negative consequences.
Trillions of hungry bellies
While the science is still young, we know that fostering a healthy gut flora is as much about the food as it is the bugs. Your primary objective? Give your kids plenty of fibre…and watch the sugar. The earlier your kids become accustomed to high fibre foods like beans and sprouted grain breads, the better. Make fruit and veggie plates the snacks of choice over packaged juices and convenience snacks filled with sugar. If transitioning your children to a more plant-focused diet, make it fun. Let them choose their favourite fruits and veggies at the grocery store. If they like to dip, let them dip! And get them into the kitchen with you…they will eat healthier food if you do.
Embrace your inner alchemist
Just like plant foods, fermented foods are an important part of a healthy diet that fosters better gut health. Yogurt and kefir are a natural choice for many children but watch the sugar content. Many yogurts – even natural and organic brands – have the same amount of sugar, cup for cup, as cola. Whenever you can, choose unsweetened varieties and flavour them with real fruit.
Kombucha is a great option for older kids if they are intrigued by soda. Low in sugar – but with a bit of caffeine – it can be a nice ‘special drink’ for when water just won’t cut it. And if your kids are ready to kick it up a notch, why not teach your kids to ferment vegetables? My son is at the age where he loves doing ‘experiments’ and making sauerkraut couldn’t be easier. All you need is salt, cabbage, and a good clean jar. You can teach your children all about the beneficial bacteria that live on food and in the air. They can get creative with adding flavourings like caraway seeds – or fun colours like beets. Over two or three days, they can watch the kraut transform – and taste test it to decide when it’s ready. Bonus: cabbage contains l-glutamine, an amino acid known to foster better gut health.
What about probiotics?
As the back-to-school season transitions to cold and flu season, probiotics may help your kids stay strong. While more studies are needed to confirm, the research that exists suggests that probiotics help reduce the incidence of infection, the duration of infection and reduce absences from school. Another 2015 review confirmed this finding, adding that probiotics are safe for use in children.
A healthier gut…and body…is second nature to your children. Encourage your kids to wash their hands as often as possible. Provide ample opportunities for outdoor play. And feed those tummies well!