Our gut is one of the most important parts of the human body, and the microbes found inside are an essential in keeping us physically and mentally healthy. Helping your child to build a strong gut microbiome is critical to their development, mental and physical resilience and in decreasing their risk of digestive and other health issues.
What is your gut microbiome?
The intestinal microbiota is a crucial part of human development, both during pregnancy and as your child grows. The intestinal microbiota is made up of trillions of microorganisms including bacteria, viruses, archaea, eukaryotes and even fungi!
Many of these microorganisms play essential functions in our body and are beneficial to human health. The microbiome helps to:
- Regulate the metabolic, endocrine and immune systems
- Defend against pathogenic microorganisms
- Degrade toxic compounds
- Metabolize and absorb drugs and medicine
- Turn on and and off genes (epigenetics)
- Digest food that we cannot, and facilitate the absorption of minerals
- Synthesize essential vitamins, like vitamin K, folic acid and amino acids (building blocks of protein)
- Produce beneficial products called short chain fatty acids (SCFA) that regulate inflammation
- Involved in gut brain communication
- Maintain our digestive wall intact and prevent entry of pathogenic toxins and microbes
We also have microbes that are pro inflammatory and potentially disease causing. When the balance of the microbiome begins to become disrupted, it can result in a range of diseases developing, including inflammatory bowel disease, asthma, neurodevelopmental disorders such as autism, metabolic disorders, autoimmune conditions among others. To ensure health, we want to tip the balance of our microbiome towards the beneficial microbes.
How the gut microbiome develops
For a long time, it was believed that gut colonization did not begin until after birth and that babies were born sterile; however, recent research has shown that the gut microbiome actually begins development in the womb. This research has been further supported when comparing the microbiome between preterm and full-term infants.
Once born, a baby’s gut microbiome is relatively simple, consisting primarily of the bacteria found in his or her mother’s birth canal (if born vaginally) or on her skin (if born by cesarean). Over the course of the first 12 months of their life, it develops into a far more complex system, becoming more similar to the mother’s microbiome and priming the gut for an adult diet before they even move onto solid food.
Once those solid foods are introduced, the microbial system begins to change and develop further. Some of these changes include the development of microbial genes that are responsible for immune tolerance, carbohydrate digestion and metabolism, and vitamin biosynthesis.
There is a range of external factors that can influence how the microbiome progresses during infancy. One major factor would be antibiotic treatment, which can drastically (and often detrimentally) alter the structure of the intestinal microbiota, especially if used during the first 1-3 years of life. Equally, having regular exposure to siblings, pets, soil and other natural environments has a net positive effect on how the gut microbiome develops in children.
Various studies have attempted to show the age when the gut microbiome reaches a stable, adult-like performance. Some research has suggested that it can reach this point by the time the child turns three years old, while others have suggested it might not occur until they are teenagers.
How to build a strong gut microbiome
Ensuring your child is able to develop a strong gut microbiome is essential to helping them with their physical and mental resilience. To help your child enjoy a robust microbiome, there is a wide range of activities that you can incorporate.
This starts even before pregnancy, as ensuring that moms have an optimal microbiome will help to keep baby healthy in the womb. During early life, research has shown that feeding babies with breast milk can not only help your child to build a strong gut microbiome but also protect against an array of diseases. Breastfeeding contains both pre and probiotics which is important to help colonize the baby’s gut microbiome. That is not to say that formula feeding leads to a poor gut microbiome in infants, however. These formulas are becoming increasingly sophisticated and are able to closely mimic the composition of breast milk and can supplement the child’s growth. So, though breastfeeding is the gold standard, if one is unable to, formula will be okay.
There is also ongoing research into how the milk delivery method might affect the development of the gut microbiome. Some evidence has suggested that breastfeeding can lead to the maternal skin microbiota transferring to the child, and to the child’s deposited saliva eliciting changes in the milk composition as the child grows. So even if you’re pumping and bottle feeding, putting baby on breast a couple times per week is not a bad idea! Many moms struggle with breastfeeding, and this is an area where women need more support than is currently offered. Finding a lactation expert helps immensely, so make sure to ask your obstetrician/pediatrician for their recommendations.
The introduction of solid foods into the child’s diet causes one of the biggest changes in their gut microbiome and leads to a permanent shift to one that closely resembles an adult’s. Eating the right foods is also essential to a strong gut! The western diet is high in animal protein, fat, and processed carbohydrates while being low in high-fiber, unprocessed plants. Eating a high-fat low-fiber diet transitions the microbiome toward a proinflammatory profile, even in a matter of days. The effects of the diet consumed in western countries is demonstrated by the rise in a range of inflammatory-related diseases throughout the world. You can read my blog on switching to a more Plant Forward diet for more information.
As you can see, building a strong gut microbiome is essential to developing a child’s lifelong health. Here are several tips you can follow to promote your child’s gut microbiome, including:
Incorporate more whole plant based foods: fruit, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds
Following a predominantly whole food plant-based or plant forward diet has been shown to help fight disease and boost health, but it is also essential to developing a strong gut microbiome. Your child’s developing gut microbiota thrives on fiber, and without it, they can start to attack the mucus that lines the intestine, which results in chronic inflammation, immune disorders and illness.
Incorporating more of these whole plant based foods into your child’s diet will ensure that they receive the nutrients they need to develop their microbiome.
Stay away from processed foods
While plants and their fiber feed our good bacteria, there are many foods that actually feed our pro inflammatory gut microbes! Much of our western food is heavily processed, stripping it of its fiber and of its nutritional value. Consuming too much of this leads to our children’s microbiota becoming less diverse and more prone to disease. Where possible, stick to whole foods and minimize processed foods. Head to my Instagram (link) for tons of tips of health meals for kids!
Take them outside & let them get dirty!
Every parent wants to keep their child safe, but sterilizing everything that they might come into contact with can actually prevent them from coming into contact with the diverse beneficial bacteria needed to boost their developing immune system.
Multiple studies have shown that increasing play time and exploration of natural spaces changes and diversifies kids’ microbiota profile and improves resiliency by reducing stress levels. At least 120 minutes per week spent in nature has been associated with optimal health, a more developed and robust microbiome and, in turn, helping your child to build a strong gut microbiome
Avoid unnecessary antibiotics
Antibiotics are truly life saving. However reports show that as much as 50% of antibiotic use is unnecessary. Therefore it’s important to have an honest conversation with your child’s pediatrician to decide if the situation actually warrants antibiotic use. Most colds and viral infections don’t require antibiotics. Always consult with your child’s pediatrician to get informed!
Clean your indoor air!
Indoor air quality is important to health and gut microbiome development since we spend the majority of our time inside. In fact, poor indoor air has been associated with early childhood diseases such as childhood asthma, atopic dermatitis and other allergic conditions. You can keep your air cleaner by following some simple steps:
- Use non-toxic cleaning products to keep your house clean. We like Branch Basics at home!
- Vacuum regularly and try to keep windows and doors open to increase air circulation
- Minimize clutter, as dust tends to accumulate where there is lots of stuff.
- Avoid giving your children plastic toys where possible.
- Investing in a good air filter. We personally use Air Doctor!
Teach kids to manage stress
Chronic, negative stress can wreak havoc on our gut microbiome, so proper stress management is essential to keeping us healthy. It is never too early to teach your kids about stress management and mental health. Simple things like coaching them to take a minute to breathe when they are feeling overwhelmed and creating structured time for everyone to share their feelings, joys and concerns helps to keep them (and you) balanced.
Looking to optimize your health?
If you are looking to optimize your health or the health of your child, I am here to help you. Download my Gut Health Guide to get started with tons of tips, tricks and recipes for you and your family.
Wanting a private virtual consultation, I can help you and your loved ones live a healthier lifestyle, so get in touch today to learn more.
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