The Importance of Gut Health in Kids

by Khyati Kapur

The Importance of Gut Health in Kids

Note: Even though the focus of this post in on child gut health, much of the content in this post is applicable to promoting good gut health in general for people of all ages.

We as parents are always worrying about making sure our kids are eating the right foods and enough of it. And for good reason, as your child's gut plays a very important role in your child's immune system and long-term health. If your child currently exhibits any issues with their behaviors, It may not be entirely caused by themselves, but instead influenced by the bacteria that live inside them and in each one of us.

It may seem crazy to think that microscopic, single-celled bacteria could influence your energy levels, mood, and overall health, and especially that of your child’s. You would be surprised to learn that our bodies not only have trillions of human cells, but also several trillion more bacterial cells across hundreds of different species, which influence countless aspects of human health according to recent estimates mentioned by the American Academy of Microbiology. This means that our human body is more bacterial by nature than human. The main implication of this reality is that as a parent, you have both an opportunity and a responsibility to help nurture and cultivate the good bacteria that live inside your child’s body. 

What happens when “bad” bacteria take over your child’s gut?  

What do we mean by “good” or “bad” bacteria for a child’s health? Good bacteria are all the bacterial species that are beneficial to the human body by nature, helping in functions such as nutrient absorption, immune system regulation, and protection against pathogens, while all of the bad bacteria are those that cause harm or lead to human diseases. With a majority of the trillions of bacteria found living inside of the human gut, a delicate balance must be established between all of the different bacterial species in order to promote good gut health in kids. When there is an imbalance between good and bad gut bacteria in terms of abundance and species diversity (not enough good bacteria to fight off all of the bad bacteria), a condition called “gut dysbiosis,” or intestinal dysbiosis can occur. 

If your child has ever complained to you about stomach pain, excessive gas, or problems when going to the bathroom (chronic constipation or diarrhea), don’t ignore them. Sometimes you may think that your child is ok, and that their conditions are not as serious as they seem. However, maybe your child doesn’t tell you anything, but inside, they are suffering or experiencing symptoms that should not be ignored. As a parent, don’t be afraid to talk to your kid and ask them how they’re feeling. If you also ever noticed your child behaving strangely after a period of time, or display feelings that you know are out of the ordinary for them (such as irritability or social isolation), it’s possible they could be suffering from a gut bacterial imbalance. Studies have shown that children with healthy, diverse gut bacteria display more extraverted behaviors compared to those with less diverse gut bacteria [1].

If your child has gut dysbiosis, left unresolved, this issue could lead to bigger problems in the long-term. Some of the health problems associated with gut dysbiosis include the following:

  • Constipation, diarrhea, and related problems with passing stool
  • Low energy could result from a lack of good bacterial balance (since good bacteria mediate communication between the brain-gut axis and produce beneficial compounds for energy)
  • Mood disorders, anxiety, depression, and other behavioral problems [2]
  • Chronic diseases such as obesity, allergies, and autoimmune diseases (e.g., Crohn’s disease and autism) are associated with gut dysbiosis [3]

What you can do to improve the gut health of your child: 

Bacteria are unavoidable, that’s the reality of life. Everyday, we will come into contact with millions of bacteria from the air we breathe, the food we eat, the water we drink, and all the surfaces that we touch. As a parent, you need to make sure your child is getting enough good bacteria for their gut health since they will also come into contact with bacteria on a daily basis. 

You’ve probably heard from your doctor before that your child needs to maintain a healthy diet, exercise, taking a probiotic, and socializing with other kids to be healthy. However, your doctor may not have told you that there are many other things you can do as a parent to specifically take care of your kid’s gut health. Especially if your child is currently suffering from digestive problems, you would want to make sure to do three key things: (1) Remove any foods or environmental toxins that irritate or upset your child’s stomach and gut, (2) replace with healthier food choices, and (3) re-inoculate with good bacteria from a good quality probiotic. The most important thing from these three points is to cultivate a diverse gut bacterial community (many different bacterial species), because a diverse gut bacterial community has been shown to give the best health outcomes for people, regardless of age [4]

In greater detail, here are some steps you can take as a parent to really help your kid have the best digestion and gut health possible:

  • Avoid feeding your kid processed GMO sugar-filled foods (that may be contaminated with pesticides as well), and go with fresh, organic produce when possible
  1. A very interesting study recently published in July 2019 found that 100 million bacteria are found in apples, and organic apples in particular had a more diverse community of bacteria (diverse bacteria communities are associated with healthier guts) compared to conventional apples [5]
  • Avoid inflammatory foods that may cause a gut reaction or intolerance in your child, such as dairy (lactose), grains (gluten), peanuts, or other foods. Avoid them for a period of time (opt for alternatives) and see if their symptoms improve, then slowly reintroduce them and see how they feel
  1. Lactose intolerance can be addressed with fermented food such as kefir, since the good bacteria in this milk will have digested most of the lactose sugar, and so kefir in small portions should be gentle on the gut
  • Incorporate lots of fruits and veggies throughout the day, since both fruits and vegetables are rich sources of fiber (a prebiotic) that feeds the good gut bacteria
  1. There is no need to sacrifice on taste to eat healthy. Incorporate recipes that your kid will enjoy, and give the healthy recipes on our website a try
  • Probiotics: use fermented foods whenever possible (kefir, yogurt, sauerkraut, and kimchi for example) 
  1. Be careful with probiotic portions, since probiotics (especially fermented foods) can be loaded with billions of bacteria and giving too much to your kid at once could cause an upset gut reaction with gas and pain
  2. Yogurt is a tasty probiotic option, but avoid store-bought yogurt that has sugar and other artificial fillers. 
  • Exercise: Make sure your child gets enough exercise each week from playing outside, playing sports, or simply taking a walk or run outside to get some fresh air
  • Don’t oversanitize your child: Don’t overuse hand sanitizer (leads to bacterial resistance), let them play in the dirt, play with pets, and explore their surroundings outside. Of course don’t let them swallow dirt and pay careful attention to them, but don’t put too many restrictions in this area. All of these activities will allow their immune systems to develop defenses for the future, and maintain a strong diverse gut bacterial community since hand sanitizers are antibiotics and can kill off a lot of good bacteria from the skin
  • Promote good sleep habits: Sleep is extremely important for maintaining good bacteria and a good gut health. Don’t let your child stay up very late using a smartphone at night, that not only can ruin their eyesight, but also lead to poor sleep and gut health problems
  • Maintain a stress-free home environment, since the microbiomes of children are often more sensitive than that of adults 
  • Good social health: Make sure your kid has good friendships and feels loved and cared for by you, since stress or sadness resulting from a lack of strong relationships can lead to reduced good gut bacterial diversity in your child [6] 

How we have tried to improve our own kid's gut health:

When both of our children complained and suffered from GI issues, we knew we had to make smarter choices with them. We first started taking small steps to help improve their gut health by eliminating a lot of the culprits, which included processed snacks (we stopped buying them). Now, I will not claim we never have processed snacks in our house, but it is much less than before. We also started to use a time system as to when our kids could have those snacks and putting limits on them. Our kids are big snackers so this was a huge battle for us, but we slowly started to replace those culprit snacks with foods that helped promote their gut health. We were consistent about offering healthy foods to them as they were very resistant at first. 

Throughout this whole process, our kids also learned which foods were considered proper, whole foods (caloric and nutrient-dense foods), and those which were considered treat foods (those lacking in nutrients). We realized they often ate out of boredom, so we now offer snack plates which have 3-4 choices of healthy foods that we promote. For our family, we have emphasized taking baby steps when making changes in our kids’ eating habits and it is a continual work in progress. However, the positive changes we noticed have been exponential, especially in regards to behavior and irritability. 

A key ingredient that we have used and continue to give our kids is hydrolyzed collagen (collagen peptides). If you’re not sure exactly how collagen could help you or your kids, be sure to check out this article. For our kids, we typically use only half a scoop of our hydrolyzed collagen protein powder, since their bodies are smaller and do not have the same nutrient requirements as adults. This collagen not only provides them extra protein, but also helps them to feel full after eating to avoid overeating. 

You may be wondering whether your child could use collagen peptides and benefit from them. We would recommend that you consult with your pediatrician before introducing your children to collagen, since each child’s nutritional needs will differ. Check out our FAQ if you have any further questions about collagen in general. We always want the best health for our kids, and desire the same for you, our readers, to provide the best possible health for your own kids.

PLEASE NOTE that this article is not in lieu of medical advice from your doctor. All content found on this website, including articles, text, images, audio, videos, or other formats were created for informational purposes only.  This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. 

Khyati Kapur
Khyati Kapur