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Many families are starting to realize how important gut health is for overall wellness. Your gut has one of the most important roles in how your body works. Your digestive process works to supply your body with the vitamins, minerals, nutrients, and energy it needs to function. If it’s not working the way it should, you can experience uncomfortable side effects that can negatively impact your overall health.
Families should be mindful of gut health. Learning to recognize the symptoms of an unhealthy gut can help you get things back on track. Here’s how to recognize the signs of an unhealthy gut in kids and adults.
An unhealthy gut can be caused by a condition that affects digestive health, like a disease or disorder of the gastrointestinal tract. That’s not usually the case. While you should always speak to your family doctor when someone is experiencing severe digestive symptoms, you’ll find that the cause of unhealthy gut symptoms is usually much simpler.
An unhealthy gut is usually caused by a poor diet or an imbalance of gut bacteria. A diet very low in fiber can cause significant digestive upset, as can diets very high in protein to the exclusion of things like healthy carbohydrates.
Your body needs enough good gut microbiota to ferment the food in your gut, promoting the digestive process. If your gut doesn’t have enough beneficial microorganisms, it may struggle to move food through the process. A lack of these beneficial microbes can often be attributed to diet or antibiotic medications.
We can get beneficial bacteria from sources like probiotics or fermented foods. Prebiotic foods can help these bacteria thrive and support a healthy gut microbiome. If your family isn’t getting enough of these foods in their meals, it may complicate your digestive processes.
Antibiotics work to kill bad bacteria or stop them from reproducing, but they aren’t exclusive to bad bacteria. Antibiotics don’t have sophisticated intelligence. They don’t know which bacteria they should eliminate and which bacteria they should allow to thrive. This can lead to a significant loss of gut bacteria, where the good ones are eliminated just as quickly as the bad ones. This results in an overgrowth of bad bacteria, leading to poor gut health and impaired well-being.
Children can experience mild bouts of occasional digestive upset or increased gas if they eat certain foods or if they eat a meal much larger than what they’re accustomed to.
These symptoms only indicate an unhealthy gut if they’re severe, don’t have an apparent cause, and last longer than a few days. These common signs of an unhealthy gut are often similar to the symptoms of food allergies or intolerances, like lactose intolerance.
Food intolerances and gut-related medical conditions can affect your child’s ability to absorb nutrients, leading to negative effects like:
Because of this, it’s best to check with your child’s pediatrician if you suspect allergies or food intolerances may be impacting your child’s digestive health.
Slight bloating after a large meal is normal. Children might have difficulty recognizing when they’ve had enough to eat, especially if they’re eating something they consider a fun snack.
If your child seems to be frequently bloated no matter how much or how little they eat, this can indicate a problem with their gut. A slow digestive system can distend the abdomen. It may feel a little swollen or uncomfortable. Bloating can often lead to a lack of appetite and general fatigue.
Bloating after meals can be caused by food sensitivities, intolerances, or autoimmune conditions involving the gut. While bloating is uncomfortable, it is often accompanied by even more uncomfortable side effects like heartburn, acid reflux, and abdominal pain.
Diarrhea can be a serious risk to a child’s health. Children are naturally smaller in stature, and water loss from diarrhea can quickly lead to dehydration. If the diarrhea is an isolated incident, it may not be something to worry about. Call your pediatrician for advice if diarrhea occurs in conjunction with a fever.
If your child intermittently has diarrhea without fever or symptoms of an underlying illness, their gut health may be the culprit. Diarrhea can also be a common side effect of many antibiotics.
Sometimes, the gut can re-establish a balance of beneficial bacteria on its own through a child’s normal diet. This upset stomach may be temporary, but monitoring the situation is important.
Constipation in children is defined as a reduced frequency of bowel movements or dry stools that are difficult to pass. Most healthy children have a bowel movement at least once a day, but a child can have as few as three bowel movements a week and still have a healthy digestive system.
Constipation can sometimes be caused by low-fiber diets and low fluid intake combined with a diet high in carbs. If the body isn’t getting enough water, gut motility is slowed. Fiber helps to draw water into the intestines. Your body needs water in your intestines to help pass stool through. If your child isn’t getting enough water or fiber, it may be difficult for them to have a bowel movement. The bowel movements they do have may be incomplete or uncomfortable to pass.
A lack of healthy gut bacteria can also lead to constipation. The digestive process may stall if there aren’t enough beneficial bacteria in the gut to ferment food into stool. It may be incomplete, and your child’s body may fail to absorb the nutrients from their food.
An unhealthy gut can also lead to symptoms like sugar cravings and other food cravings, which can then lead to digestive issues, blood sugar issues, and unexplained weight gain. All of these side effects can also contribute to constipation in children.
As food ferments in the intestines, gas naturally builds up. It’s normal for everyone to pass a little bit of gas every day. It isn’t a sign that something is wrong — it’s quite the opposite. It’s a sign that things are moving the way they should.
Frequent gas, especially when accompanied by abdominal discomfort, can indicate struggles with the digestive system. Trapped gas usually accompanies constipation, as it should be easy for the body to pass gas when the bowels aren’t constipated.
If you believe your child is showing symptoms of an unhealthy gut, here are the steps you should take to address the situation.
You should first speak with your pediatrician to rule out illnesses, diseases, or disorders of the digestive tract. You also want to ensure that your child has no undiagnosed food allergies or intolerances. Dairy can sometimes cause symptoms very similar to a bacterial imbalance in the gut, and no amount of probiotic bacteria can resolve lactose intolerance.
An imbalanced gut microbiome can negatively affect the immune system, so it’s important to consult a pediatrician to help rebalance the gut. If your pediatrician thinks there may be other issues at play, such as an autoimmune disease, they may refer you and your child to a medical professional who specializes in gastroenterology.
It’s important to provide balanced meals for your family. Make sure you’re incorporating plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables. Switch to whole grains and complex carbohydrates, like brown rice and sweet potatoes, and limit processed foods.
Probiotic foods will naturally boost the presence of good bacteria in your child’s gut. Fermented foods like tofu, kimchi, pickles, sauerkraut, kefir, and yogurt (if your child can have dairy) are easy to add to many meals. You can also swap out your usual bread for a loaf of sourdough, which can help to promote gut health.
If your child willingly eats these types of foods, try to incorporate a small amount of fermented food into most meals. Fermented foods can get to work quickly to promote gut health, and giving your child too much may cause digestive upset. Monitor your child’s bathroom habits after introducing fermented or probiotic foods to see if they make a meaningful difference.
Fermented and probiotic foods can be an acquired taste. It’s usually easy to get children to eat foods like yogurt, but they may tire of eating yogurt every day. For children who can’t have dairy, yogurt isn’t an option.
Probiotic supplements may help promote or restore your child’s gut health, especially if they’re picky eaters or unable to eat certain foods. Probiotics are generally considered safe for children if given once daily under adult supervision.
The benefits of probiotic supplements may not be apparent right away. It can sometimes take a few weeks for a probiotic supplement to promote a healthy bacterial balance in the gut. This is normal. Remain consistent with probiotic use in your household to promote and sustain their digestive health benefits.
Your child’s gut may need a little help to keep things moving along. Changes in diet and lifestyle habits can go a long way to promote gut health. If your child needs a little extra help, try Hiya’s children’s chewable probiotic. Hiya is sugar-free, gluten-free, dairy-free, and vegan. It’s a great option for health-conscious families that want the best for their children.
Gut health: prebiotics and probiotics | Mayo Clinic Health System
Lactose Intolerance in Children | Stanford Medicine | Children's Health
Constipation in children - Symptoms and causes | Mayo Clinic