A healthy gut ensures children get the most nutrition from the food they’re eating. Not only that, but it can also program their health trajectory over the rest of their lives.
As awareness of the importance of a balanced microbiome grows, so does interest in gut health support, whether through diet or supplements. So, what are the basics to understand about supporting kids’ gut health?
Prebiotic versus probiotic
Prebiotic and probiotic are terms increasingly cited in the promotion of ‘health’ foods and products, but many people may be unsure what they mean – beyond a vague association with gut health.
Although they sound similar, prebiotics and probiotics play different roles. Put simply, probiotics are beneficial live bacteria found in certain foods or supplements, while prebiotics are fibres that the bacteria in your gut eat.
A balanced diet of both pre- and probiotics is important in keeping the gut microbiome in balance.
“One requires the other,” explains community pharmacist and herbalist Gerald Quigley.
“If you have a low-fibre diet, for any particular reason, your gut microbiome – which is the name we attach to the collection of those bacteria – is probably going to be in rather poor shape.
“We’re in an age now where many, many people just don’t eat enough fibre. And therefore, the balance of good and bad bacteria in the gut is less than ideal.”
He says food sources of prebiotics include “garlic, bananas, artichokes, asparagus, onions, leeks, wheat – these things are basically high in fibre”.
When it comes to probiotic foods, yoghurt is perhaps the most common in Western diets (and a favourite of many kids). Other options include fermented foods such as sauerkraut, kimchi and kefir.
While a balanced diet is important for helping to keep the gut microbiome in check, this isn’t always possible, especially when fussy eaters are involved.
“The challenges that are thrown at kids these days from a food management perspective are huge,” Mr Quigley said.
“Advertising plays a role, particularly if they’re watching the big screens. So, it’s often a challenge to get children to actually eat enough fibre.”
Antibiotics can also disturb the balance of good gut bacteria.
“These things can completely destroy the gut microbiome,” Mr Quigley said.
“Fortunately, common sense is starting to prevail, with less and less antibiotic prescribing going on because we know now that it tends to cause problems further down the track.”
Poor digestive function overall can also be a factor that can affect the balance of good and bad bacteria in a child’s gut, but food selection and constant variety are key, says Mr Quigley.
“That’s the biggest challenge probably – when you’re trying to get a balanced diet into a child,” he said.
Signs and symptoms
Interrupted digestive function is the main symptom that might lead a parent to act on their child’s gut health.
“Things like diarrhoea, constipation, general gut pain, smelly poo … that’s not normal,” Mr Quigley said. “[For] any alteration in bowel actions, [it’s] probably worth having a look at some sort of probiotic supplement for a while.”
Yet he added: “Sometimes these things correct themselves. Often with kids, they go down for a day and then, a day later, they’re back to where they were.”
Baby and child-strength probiotic products are available on the market. When it comes to assisting product selection, Mr Quigley says pharmacy assistants should be aware of the key factors.
“The probiotic market can be very confusing, so offering some elementary advice is really important,” he said, advising that PAs should “know which particular strains help general gastrointestinal health”.
“If there’s a dermatitis or eczema issue, know which ones are perhaps slightly better than others with the treatment of eczema. But you can’t go wrong if you get to be confident about the use of two strains – lactobacillus and bifidobacterium – they’re the two main ones.”
Importance of diet
Mr Quigley emphasises the importance of diet in maintaining a healthy gut microbiome, both for kids and adults.
“There’s no magic option,” he said. “There’s no point feeding a kid junk food day in and day out and expecting a probiotic to make a difference. That’s setting unrealistic expectations.”
He suggests sticking to foods that are minimally processed and aren’t “artificially altered by adding things or taking things out”.
“The purer the food, the less processed the food, the rawer the food seems to be probably the most beneficial to both adults and children,” he said.
And while many adults may have had poor dietary habits, he adds, there’s no reason for kids to follow suit.
“We can have a little bit of influence on and encourage them to try and get used to having a balance of things, reduce the things that we know aren’t good,” Mr Quigley said.