When it comes to our children, we want them to have the very best. We do everything we can to give them all the tools they need to live a healthy and happy life. We teach them to walk and talk and how and what to eat. But one thing you may not have considered is your children’s gut health and microbiome. Helping our children have a healthy microbiome can have a positive effect on their gut health and overall well-being that can last a lifetime.
This latest blog post from Loving Foods explores the stages of gut health from birth through to young adulthood and how we, as parents, can help to give a head start on that journey.
Birth, Infancy and Childhood Stages of Gut Health.
As soon as our bodies are exposed to the outside world, we collect and become home to thousands of microbes that colonise every millimetre of our being. It sounds a bit sci-fi, but this shift in microbiota is a perfectly natural process. By the time we start school, we have vastly different populations living in the different habitats of our bodies, and with every single day that passes, it develops and shifts in tune with you.
According to Prof John Cryan, a neuropharmacologist and microbiome expert from University College Cork, within the womb, we were in a sterile environment of amniotic fluid, then during vaginal birth, baby’s nasal passages, eyes and skin are colonised with the mother’s bacteria, forming the beginning of the baby’s immune system.
A study from Nutrition Review, explores how when newborns begin to feed on the breast, the unique oligosaccharides contained in the milk passes through the baby’s small intestine unharmed, landing in the large intestine where they literally feed the initial seeding of the mother’s bacteria imparted during birth, initiating the start of the child’s microbiome.
Microbial populations shift and change so much during early childhood. There’s also many variations among individuals, depending on whether they’ve been breast or formula fed, the diet they’re introduced to, and if they’ve been given antibiotics to combat illnesses.
For all these reasons, variations of microbes in the gut are highest during childhood.
Childhood Immunity and Gut Health.
We like to think of our gut microbiome as if it were the deepest, darkest forest imaginable. It’s a dense, complex ecosystem that requires a balance of diversity (bacteria) in order to sustain its richness and beauty (health). We need to be mindful of our ‘gut forest’ by carefully cultivating the fine balance between all that inhabit it.
There’s increasing recognition that our gut microbiome is directly linked to infant and childhood development and immunity. Evidence suggests that the use of antibiotics - especially in the first 3-years - reduces bacterial diversity which is so important for a strong immune system, and should be avoided at all costs. Antibiotics block vital healthy bacterial processes, weakening them or stopping them completely. Even worse, antibiotics cannot differentiate between the bad bacteria causing an infection and the good guys working hard to keep us in check, and they rush through like a hurricane, causing death and destruction in their path.
The Institute of Health Sciences asserts that up to 80% of our immune system lives in our gut, and it's crucial that a child’s immunity is supported through a balanced diet replenished with probiotic-rich, cultured foods. This will encourage microbe diversity, build a robust gut, and subsequently strengthen the immune system, which sets the stage for the further stages of life.
Gut Care during Pre-Teen and Adolescence.
According to Psychology Today, when children progress into young adulthood, their independent food choices are governed by their amygdala (the impulsive, emotional part of the brain) before they reach full maturity in their mid-20s. Teens experiment with processed and sugar-laden foods, partly due to fitting in among peers, but also because they’re influenced by enticing food and drink advertising campaigns that play on their emotional triggers.
Jamie Oliver’s #AdEnough campaign which has launched this month (April 2018) shows the enormity of the issue. People are urged to show their support to stop advertisers targeting children and teens by sharing photos of themselves covering their eyes and sharing across social media. You can see our share below. With Type-2 diabetes and other lifestyle induced disorders on the rise, never has it been more important for our younger generations to make smarter choices about the food they put in their bodies.
Eating too many grains, sugars and processed foods serves as a veritable ‘feast’ for bad bacteria and yeasts, causing them to multiply at speed. As the healthy balance of microbiota is altered, this can lead to physiological issues with digestion, nutrient deficiencies and lowered immunity, but also psychological and behavioural problems, because the healthy vagus nerve communicating with the gut can become compromised.
By supporting our young people with education on gut health and the impact of bad nutrition, we will go a long way to supporting them to pursue a healthy lifestyle and a healthy microbiome into their future years. The sooner we can introduce pre and probiotics into their mindset, the sooner they can reap the benefits of a healthy body, immune system and mind.
Start Young and Continue for Life.
We get to a certain age where our minds are wrapped around concerns for our digestion issues, aches, pains and inflammation, if only we knew then what we know now! As modern parents, we have the knowledge and influence to help our younger generation start early, helping them build and train their immune system and palate from childhood.
Fermented foods are high in probiotics, and their beneficial bacteria help balance hormones, strengthen the immune and digestive systems, and help manage chronic inflammation. By incorporating ferments into your child’s diet from an early age, evidence across nutrition circles indicates that children see an improvement in mood, increased focus at school and reduced sickness. If you’re thinking that’s all very well and good but my picky eater won’t be a fan of the zingy tang of ferments, we’ve put together some actionable tips to help you on that gut health journey.
How to Get Children into Fermented Food & Drinks.
Tip 1: Start Small.
There’s a reason why marmite coined the tagline, ‘you’ll love it or hate it’. Some ferments are an acquired taste, and your little individuals will indeed, love it, or turn their nose up at it. Our advice: keep at it. Begin by adding a bit of Jun Tea to your child’s morning smoothies, top hamburgers with a flourish of Sauerkraut, or mix a little Veggie Juice into a salad or dressing. These small steps will pay dividends to gradually enhance their palette and before long, they’ll be seeking out the insatiable tang to brighten up their meals.
Tip 2: Get Children Involved.
Daily-life serves as a stage for nutritional education. When at the grocery store, set your child on a mission to choose veggies to ferment, or even better, grow your own and teach children at each stage of the process, from sew to ferment. A Sunday afternoon spent as a family choosing veggies to ferment and pack in jars is not only a bonding activity with your children but can ring home how important these veggies are for taking care of their tummies. They’ll be eager to taste the results and watch the stages of the process, as you will too!
Tip 3: It’s All About Balance.
When you start to introduce more cultured veggies and drinks into your child’s diet, set a routine to take away one unhealthy food. It’s okay for children to have the odd sweet treat - what’s key is that you start to gradually limit their exposure and intake. If you ban all treats entirely, your little dictator will rebel. Start slowly but surely and you’ll begin to see the long-term benefits.
Tip 4: Say Hello to Milk Kefir.
Milk kefir is a tangy, probiotic-rich, cultured milk that is similar to yoghurt, only better. When combined with frozen fruit and a bit of honey, you have a tasty smoothie that sweet-palates will adore. Later, as your children grow more accustomed to the flavour, reduce the sweetener and fruit until they happily consume straight milk kefir. Hey presto, gut love on the go.
Tip 5: All Aboard the Kombucha Train…
Gut-loving Kombucha Tea is incredibly popular among children and newcomers to cultured products. Our little one is a huge fan. It’s sweet-tart flavour and fizzy, nose-tickling bubbles are a joy for children and the fruity flavours tick the tasty box. Some parents worry about the caffeine load in Kombucha due to the tea leaves used, however through fermentation, caffeine levels are reduced significantly so small servings pose no problem whatsoever.
How to Boost your Child's Gut Health.
We hope this piece has inspired you to explore gut-loving food and drink choices to support your child on their nutritional journey. Have you already experimented with incorporating ferments into your child’s diet? We’d love to hear your stories, share them below, or start the conversation over on Twitter.