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When we think about health, it’s nice to imagine that there is a straight line between symptoms and solutions. But, that isn’t always the case. The truth is that our bodies are both incredible and complex. For that reason, we often need to think about the bigger picture—and a growing amount of research shows that if you improve your child’s gut health, you’re helping their minds and overall bodies, too.
“Your gut health affects everything,” says Dr. Katya Gerwein, a pediatrician with Stanford Children’s Health. “It affects your mental health, (such as) anxiety and depression. It affects your risk for heart disease. It seems to affect the way your brain works and your ability to focus.”
The good news, according to Dr. Gerwein, is that little changes to diet and lifestyle can have a positive impact on your child’s gut health.
To frame how this all works, Dr. Gerwein says we first need to understand the role of microbiomes on our bodies: These little living communities of bacteria, viruses and microscopic beings exist in communities in different parts of our bodies. And, for the most part, these microbiomes can be helpful.
“There’s a certain set that tends to live in people’s mouths, a certain set that tends to live in people’s gut, a certain set that tends to live on people’s skin,” explains Dr. Gerwein. “They help us digest food. They help us ferment things. We’ve evolved to live with them as part of our beings over millions of years. And you’ll find a more similar community in one person’s mouth and another person’s mouth than in the same person’s mouth and skin.”
Specifically, when it comes to gut microbiomes, there are things we can do to support their health. In turn, the microbiomes can support us.
To foster good gut health in your child from Day 1, one of the best things you can do is focus on your diet and behaviors. Why? There’s research that shows gut health among members of a household is linked.
As your child grows to eat solids and interact more with the environment, aim to offer a variety of colorful, natural and unprocessed foods from the beginning—rather than processed foods like mac and cheese and chicken nuggets.
“It seems to be important to feed kids a variety of food that is healthy from the beginning and not to worry if they don’t eat it sometimes,” says Dr. Gerwein. “Your job is to offer it.”
If your kids have already acquired a taste for microwavable dinners, then ease them toward more natural options without pushing it too much. As Dr. Gerwein suggests, “You can still put out a small amount of mac and cheese along with your lentil curry and along with your broccoli and mayo. Don’t say, ‘Oh, you have to eat this in order to eat that.’ Just put it out. No comments, no pressure.”
Diet alone doesn’t make or break gut health. To foster a healthy gut microbiome, playing in the dirt, cuddling with the family dog and sticking with traditional soap and water while washing up can help.
A few ways that can improve gut health include…
Introduce allergens early (about 4-6 months of age)
Serve more fruits, vegetables and whole grains
Reduce processed foods and conventional meat
Offer naturally fermented foods
Allow your kids to play in dirt
Limit the use of antibiotics
Use regular hand soap, not antibacterial (note: hand sanitizer is ok when you’re on the go)
Switch to non-toxic cleaning products or make your own
When we think about steps to improve gut health, we often think about taking probiotic supplements. However, Dr. Gerwein says that diet, not probiotics should be the focus.
“I used to actually advise probiotic supplements, but the more data that there is, it’s unclear to me if they are helpful,” she says. “It actually may be better just to eat a lot of what we call ‘prebiotic foods.’ Fruits and vegetables, whole grains and fermented foods tend to create an atmosphere in which good bacteria will grow.”
Prebiotics are a type of dietary fiber that support helpful gut bacteria. Some prebiotic foods you can work into your meals include garlic, onion, asparagus, barley, oats, apples, flaxseed, seaweed and even cocoa.
You have a clue that your child’s gut health is in good shape if they are happy, relaxed and having smooth poops. However, it’s not always clear-cut if their microbiome is out of whack.
“If they’re constipated or having profuse diarrhea, then that might be problematic,” Dr. Gerwein says. “But, often, it’s kind of like lead paint: You’re not necessarily going to see any signs… You’re not necessarily going to be able to tell from the surface.”
In addition to bathroom issues, some larger signs that might signal your child’s gut health needs attention include if they are experiencing allergies, asthma or even if they are struggling with anxiety or depression.
And, interestingly, research shows that when mental health improves, so does gut health due to an “interplay” between our guts and brains. As Dr. Gerwein explains, “Things like meditation and positive outlook and cognitive behavioral therapy and all of those things also seem to make a difference, too.”