There are many ways that each of us is different from everyone else on the planet. Take all of those bacteria and microorganisms living in your gut, for example. From the moment you’re born, your body begins forming its own unique cocktail of bacteria responsible for dealing with food the instant it enters your body. This microbiome is sometimes called “the last undiscovered human organ,” with scientists still learning about the ways it affects health. One of the things we’re learning, through recent research, is that the makeup of a child’s microbiome may even affect their behavior.
How do you know if your child’s microbiome is out of whack? And if so, what can you do to fix it? Understanding the importance of gut health may offer insights into your child’s behavior and give you tools for improving it.
Why It Matters
Among its many jobs, the microbiome plays a role in production of nutrients like vitamin K, hormones and short-chain fatty acids essential for healthy growth in kids.
Think of how bees, in the process of taking nectar from flowers, help with pollination that produces more flowers. The microbiome works in a similar way, taking some of the food we eat — particularly different types of fiber — and using it to produce nutrients that boost cell growth.
This system also influences immune function, and vice versa. In fact, over 70 percent of the immune system is in the gut. This means supporting gut health is especially important for children because their immune systems are still developing.
Link Between Mood and Microbiome
Just as the microbiome both feeds on and produces certain nutrients, it also consumes and creates some types of neurotransmitters – the body’s chemical messengers – that help us feel good. Not only does the gut interact with “feel-good” neurotransmitters created by the brain, but it may also make more of them. This means that a balanced gut can promote a positive mood in kids and their parents.
A new study further supports the idea that the makeup of a child’s microbiome affects how they act. Researchers looking at the microbiomes of early school-age children found links between behavior and the types of organisms present or absent in the gut.
Other studies have found significant differences in the microbiome of school-aged children with and without abdominal pain.
Signs of Imbalance
How do you know if your child’s microbiome is balanced and working the way it should? It’s not always easy to tell, but warning signs of microbiome imbalance (dysbiosis) include:
Bloating, stomach pain and other digestive issues
Food intolerance (difficulty digesting certain foods)
Rashes and other skin problems
Research suggests a link between imbalances and conditions such as obesity, inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), diabetes, asthma and eczema. So you may want to pay extra attention to your child’s gut health if they have any of these conditions.
Supporting Your Child’s Microbiome
Because the microbiome relies on the food we eat to function, good nutrition is key to supporting gut health. This means filling half of kids’ plates with fruits and vegetables, which are full of fiber the microbiome needs to help them grow. It also means giving your kids fermented foods like yogurt, sauerkraut and kimchi that increase the population of beneficial organisms.
As any parent will tell you, it’s not always easy to get kids to eat well. If you’re having a hard time getting your child to eat enough of the healthy stuff, you may want to consider supplements. Both over-the-counter fiber products and probiotics may be helpful. Talk to your doctor if you think you might need to take this route.
Another way to support your child’s gut health is to make sure they’re getting plenty of exercise. Physical activity creates the “feel-good” neurotransmitters the microbiome consumes and creates, so running around helps kids feel happy — and makes their microbiome happy, too.
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