Vacations, holidays, family celebrations: These are great opportunities to connect with loved ones, make special memories, and enjoy delicious food and treats. But all those festivities can take a toll on your family's gut health.
When the digestive system is handling the effects of overindulging, children (and adults) are more likely to experience things like diarrhea, constipation, gas, bloating and abdominal pain. However, gut health does not just affect your digestive system; gut health is an important part of overall health.
"The gut is one of the largest immune systems in the body. It transports nutrition and energy to the parts of the body that need it, and it helps filter out airborne allergens, bacteria and germs that we come into contact with every day," explains Ashish Patel, M.D., Director of the Southwestern Pediatric Inflammatory Bowel Disease Program at Children's Health℠ and Associate Professor at UT Southwestern. "When you take this into consideration, it's easy to see the importance of gut health to overall health."
How to improve gut health
There are billions of bacteria in the gut that help with digestion and function as a barrier to letting the nutrition the body needs in and keeping harmful bacteria and germs out.
"Nutrition and diet directly impact the bacteria in our gut. It can change the type, diversity and number of bacteria in the digestive system," says Dr. Patel. "Healthy habits also play a role in keeping the gut healthy."
Dr. Patel shares the best ways families can improve gut health through simple, healthy habits.
1. Stick to a schedule
To help your body digest food, eat regular meals at regular intervals – such as breakfast, lunch and dinner with two or three small, healthy snacks throughout the day.
2. Let yourself get hungry
Avoid letting your children eat out of boredom and closely monitor their snack intake before meals. It's important for the body to learn and follow cues from the digestive tract, so that you know when it's time to eat and when it's time to stop.
3. Eat slowly
Sit down for mealtimes and eat mindfully. To avoid overeating, resist the temptation to gobble down food.
"It takes a long time for the body to switch from being hungry to being full," explains Dr. Patel. "Give your body a chance to catch up with your brain to signal when it's time to stop eating."
4. Eat a well-balanced diet
A balanced diet, including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean protein and low-fat dairy, can help keep the gut healthy all year long.
"Offering a well-balanced, well-rounded diet is one of the best ways to restore gut health," states Dr. Patel. "It gives the body all the nutrients it needs, including fiber, which is a powerful equalizer in the gut's bacteria."
Limit refined sugar, carbohydrates and foods high in saturated fat.
5. Add probiotics
Probiotics can help restore "good" bacteria to the gut. The best sources of probiotics are live cultures most commonly found in yogurt. Supplements are also available for children and adults. Many of the probiotics for children come in a powder that can be sprinkled into a drink or mixed into food.
6. Get plenty of sleep
It's not just eating that impacts gut health. Sleep also plays an important role. When you're asleep, your body can efficiently use the nutrients you've consumed during the day. A lack of sleep can also disrupt the bacteria levels in the gut.
7. Stay active
Regular physical activity can help improve the body's metabolism, making it more efficient at digesting food. Recent studies have also suggested that exercise can improve the diversity of bacteria in the gut, which ultimately improves gut health and overall health.
8. Make it a family affair
Making changes to your children's gut health shouldn't be directed at just one family member. Instead, approach it as a family, so that everyone works together towards better health.
"When families approach improving gut health together, it gives everyone the chance to reset with healthy habits," explains Dr. Patel. "Parents can model healthy behavior, and everyone can work together toward the same goal, which we've found often leads to better success."
He encourages parents to set the goal, but let children have a say in how it will be accomplished. For example, if you want your family to get outside at least three days a week, let your children pick the activity you do outside.
Dr. Patel also encourages parents to focus on the positive instead of the negative. "Positive reinforcement goes a lot further than negativity," he says. "Instead of telling kids they need to do this or they'll get unhealthy, create short term goals and celebrate every time you achieve one – maybe with a family movie night or something the entire family can enjoy together."
The gut is one of the largest immune systems in the body. Eating a well-balanced diet is one way to improve digestive health. An expert @Childrens shares more ways to strengthen gut health.
The Pediatric Gastroenterology Division at Children's Health offers specialized programs to help children and their families manage a wide range of gastrointestinal conditions.
Learn more about our GI program, services and support we offer children and families.
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