“Gut health” has become something of a buzzword. Almost everything claims to promote gut health, but most of the claims are vague.
Why is gut health so important? What do you need to do to keep your gut healthy? Most importantly, is gut health as important of a concern for kids as it is for adults? Here’s what parents need to know about promoting gut health in kids.
What Is Gut Health?
Gut health specifically refers to gastrointestinal health. “Gut” is a general term for all parts of the body that absorb nutrients, eliminate waste, and promote a healthy immune system. Gut health refers to how well the organs and processes contained within that system are working.
Gut health is dictated by the gut microbiota, which is your balance of gut bacteria. Both good and bad bacteria live in the gut, to the tune of over 50 trillion bacteria — in other words, it’s a huge balancing act. The good bacteria need to outnumber the bad bacteria in order for you (and your kids) to maintain a healthy gut. Gut health is the act of keeping the scales balanced.
Why Does Gut Health Matter?
The gut is a lot more important than many people realize. Processing food into waste is an important job, but it’s far from the only important responsibility of the gut.
Your gut utilizes food and turns the byproducts into waste, which are eliminated from your body. If your gut has a hard time turning food into waste, you may experience bloating, abdominal cramping, constipation, or diarrhea.
The gut is responsible for breaking food down into usable parts for nutrient absorption. If it doesn’t do its job efficiently, you can’t absorb the vitamins, nutrients, or minerals you need to keep your body working.
Immune System Support
Your immune system begins in your gut, and it controls and influences countless processes throughout your body. The bacterial balance in your gut dictates how strong your immune system will be. Immune cells learn from your gut microbiome, which essentially teaches them what kind of bacteria to attack and what kind of bacteria to leave alone.
Even the health of your skin is heavily influenced by the immune system — generally, kids and teens with acne need equal parts immune support and skin hygiene to manage breakouts.
Have you ever heard the phrase “gut feeling” to describe an unpleasant emotional reaction to something you can’t necessarily explain? That phrase is rooted in reality.
Your brain actually does get gut feelings, but they aren’t an indicator of what’s going on around you — they’re the result of what’s going on inside you. The gut-brain axis can heavily impact how you feel.
If your gut isn’t functioning the way it should, it can send signals to your brain that something is wrong. It’s trying to get your attention. It may be asking for foods rich in beneficial bacteria or a high-fiber snack, but there’s no way to interpret its message directly. Instead, you may feel generally unwell. You could feel nervous, upset, or stressed without a clear cause.
Your gut bolsters your immune system, which helps your brain form neurotransmitters like serotonin that can regulate the way you feel. Keeping your gut healthy can improve your overall mood. Day-to-day life may be less stressful when your gut and your brain are in perfect alignment.
What Does the Gut Need to Stay Healthy?
The gut will do a good job of regulating itself if it’s well-supplied. If you give your gut every piece of the puzzle, it should be able to put them all together within a few weeks. It’s a slow process, but mindful changes can help your child’s gut find balance.
Nutrient Rich Foods
Americans are eating more processed foods now than ever before. There’s nothing wrong with enjoying the occasional processed food or snack, but they can’t be the mainstay of a healthy diet.
Processed foods are often full of fats, sugar, salt, and empty calories. Processed food is made specifically for the way it tastes — it isn’t designed to help with vital processes throughout the body. That’s why many people feel bloated, sluggish, or low in energy after they eat processed foods.
The body needs the nutrition that comes from whole foods to function properly. Vitamins, minerals, healthy calories, and lean proteins keep your body going.
The water in the human body acts like oil in a car engine — it keeps everything flowing. A dehydrated gut can get “gunked up,” just like an engine. Water, foods rich in water, and drinks like herbal tea and 100% fruit juice will keep the flow going.
If your child isn’t getting enough fiber from whole grains, fruits, and vegetables, their digestive system won’t move properly. If they aren’t getting the vitamins they need to thrive, their immune system and gut can’t work together to protect their body. Although brown rice and whole grain bread aren’t the most exciting part of a balanced diet, incorporating them into more meals can improve gut health and function.
The bacteria in fermented and cultured foods, like yogurt and kimchi, work alongside the beneficial bacteria that naturally exist in the gut. They team up to break down food and speed up the digestive process, and they also work to keep bad bacteria at bay.
Every type of good bacteria you eat joins your gut’s army of defenses and works to keep your gut healthy and strong.
Aftercare Following Antibiotics
Parents are most likely to spot concerns with their child’s gut health after their children have used antibiotics. Antibiotics are usually necessary to fight infection. If your child has been sick and was prescribed antibiotics, completing the course will eliminate the bacteria responsible for causing the infection.
The only problem is that antibiotics can’t tell the difference between bacteria. They’ll wipe them all out, good and bad, in an attempt to get an infection under control.
Stores of good bacteria need to be replenished for optimal gut health. Eating probiotic foods during and after a course of antibiotics can prevent or reduce side effects like diarrhea that often occur when using antibiotics.
How To Support Gut Health in Kids
It’s a good idea to take a proactive approach to gut health. You don’t want to wait until your child is having tummy trouble to intervene. If you know that your family isn’t taking any steps to address gut health, it’s time to make some preemptive changes.
Change Your Family’s Diet
Parents don’t have to be perfect superheroes. It’s okay if you can’t get a properly balanced home-cooked meal on the table three times a day, seven days a week — a fed child is better than a hungry child, and we’re all trying our best to meet our children’s needs. Making a few mindful swaps can help to introduce more fiber and vital nutrients into your family’s diet.
Try grabbing a whole pre-cooked rotisserie chicken and a couple of veggie sides from the grocery store on nights when you’d normally get takeout. The effort is similar to grabbing takeout on the way home, and it may cost the same or less as ordering less nutritious fried or processed foods from your local fast food joint.
When you’re shopping for snacks or packaged meals at the grocery store, make some mindful swaps. Air-popped popcorn is a nutritious whole-grain, complex carbohydrate snack, as opposed to oily, processed potato chips. Popcorn is also less expensive than a family-sized bag of potato chips, making them better for your wallet and your gut.
Introduce More Probiotic Foods
Any fermented or cultured food will contain live probiotic bacteria. Try to serve more of the following foods at mealtime:
- Apple cider vinegar
The amount of easily accessible probiotic foods is somewhat limited because not everything tastes delicious when cultured or fermented. Pick a few foods you can regularly incorporate into your family’s diet and stick to them. You don’t need to eat a wide variety of these foods, and not all of them are totally kid-friendly in terms of flavor. You just need to use a few that work for you.
Introducing more probiotic foods into your family’s diet can be challenging if you have a picky eater around. Some kids really love the sour, tangy flavor of foods like pickles and sauerkraut, while kids who like sweet snacks often appreciate low-fat yogurt or frozen yogurt. Find a probiotic food your child enjoys eating and make it available to them as often as possible.
Use Probiotic Supplements
Probiotic supplements are one of the easiest tools for promoting gut health, especially if your child isn’t wild about probiotic foods. Probiotic supplements are the easiest way to introduce more beneficial bacteria into your family’s diet. You don’t have to argue with a four-year-old about the merits of kimchi. You just need to give them one tiny supplement.
When used with a balanced diet and plenty of water, probiotic supplements can help boost the levels of beneficial bacteria in your child’s gut and improve digestive efficiency. They won’t outrun a bad diet. They’ll improve the efficiency of a good diet.
It takes a few weeks of consistent use for probiotic supplements to populate their army of good bacteria. Make sure to give your child probiotic supplements daily.
The Final Word on Good Gut Health in Kids
Gut health is one of the most important aspects of a properly functioning body. Gut health influences the immune system, nutrient absorption, and even your mood.
It can be tricky to make sure your children are getting enough beneficial bacteria in their diet, which is why probiotic supplements are such a convenient choice for parents who put their kids’ health first.