Gut health is the latest health trend filling news feeds and showing up on food labels and supplement bottles. If you're a parent focused on keeping your child healthy, you may be wondering if gut health, microbiome, bacteria and probiotics are just buzzwords part of a passing fad, or something you need to investigate.
According to Bhaskar Gurram, M.D., a pediatric gastroenterologist at Children’s Health℠ and Assistant Professor at UT Southwestern, an explosion in gene based methods of isolating bacteria in the intestines over the past decade has fueled interest in microbiome research. Scientists have just scratched the surface of what we know, and it's clear that gut health is no passing fad.
What is gut health?
Gut health refers to the health of the body's whole digestive system. One key factor to gut health is the microbiome, which is a collection of trillions of bacteria, viruses and fungi that often live in harmony in our intestines. In fact, we are composed of more bacteria cells than cells with our own DNA.
"Of those trillions of bacteria, the vast majority are very helpful. We depend on them to help digest food, keep the lining of our intestines healthy, shape our immune system, protect us from certain bad bacteria and sometimes even to handle certain medications," explains Dr. Gurram.
The microbiome's effect on your child's health
The microbiome starts to develop in the womb and continues until it's general makeup is established at about school age. It's influenced by many factors.
"Medications, breastfeeding, diet, infections, pets, where people live – everything affects the microbiome," explains Dr. Gurram. "Recent research has shown that the gut microbiome we have in the first 3-5 years of life could have far-reaching effects throughout adulthood, including a wide variety of health conditions beyond the digestive system, such as obesity, metabolic syndrome, diabetes, depression and cancers."
Further studies are warranted to determine how the microbiome might modulate the immune system and predispose you to allergies or infection. The microbiome may play a role in regulating metabolism and may affect mood.
The bottom line: the more good gut bacteria, the better.
How to keep your child's gut healthy
Although lifestyle and environment help shape our microbiome throughout our lives, it makes sense to nurture your child's gut health during your child's early years while the microbiome is still being established. According to Dr. Gurram, what your child eats plays a major role.
"Your microbiome is literally what you eat," he says. "A diet heavy in fats and sugars is damaging to healthy bacteria living in the gut."
Dr. Gurram says the best thing you can do to build and maintain a healthy microbiome is to limit processed foods and foods high in sugar and fat. "Healthy bacteria thrive on a high-fiber diet," he says. "Eat homemade meals rich in fruits, vegetables and whole grains regularly."
Besides poor diet, Dr. Gurram says recent studies point to another culprit that damages gut health – excess antibiotic use. Although they can be lifesaving drugs, antibiotics kill most gut bacteria – good and bad – weakening the healthy mix of bacteria in the gut.
"We're understanding more and more about the interactions of medications like antibiotics with the microbiome," says Dr. Gurram. "It's important to minimize the use of antibiotics and take them only when necessary.
Do probiotics improve gut health?
It would seem that taking a probiotic – live, good bacteria available through foods like yogurt and kefir, or in the myriad of supplements lining store shelves – would be a simple way to promote a healthy gut. Dr. Gurram says, "not so fast."
"There are hundreds of probiotics made of different types of bacteria. You have to know which one you need, for what reason, in what amount, and for how long," he explains. "If your child is taking an antibiotic for example, which can cause diarrhea, it's better to take a specific probiotic recommended by your doctor rather than taking a random one off the shelf."
Foods like yogurt that contain prebiotics, which promote good gut bacteria, are beneficial as part of an overall healthy diet. However, Dr. Gurram says there aren't many studies that have specifically looked at the benefits of those types of products.
"In general, off-the-shelf probiotics aren't harmful to your child's health, but they might not benefit your child if you're not using them the right way for the right thing," he says. Dr. Gurram encourages parents to speak to their child’s pediatrician first to understand the most effective option.
The highly experienced GI specialists at Children’s Health can help identify, diagnose and treat digestive issues in children. Learn more about our programs and services.
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