Posted by Dr. Matt Hand on Jul 28, 2022 12:00:00 PM
Almost universally, systems of medicine are based on the premise that gut health is central to overall health. Chinese, Ayurvedic, and other ancient healing paradigms have understood the crucial role of the gut for thousands of years.
An increasing number of kids complain to their doctor about an upset stomach, digestive discomfort, nausea, infrequent bowel movements, or loose stools. Any modern pediatrician will agree that the number of children with GI issues is off the charts.
So, the question remains: why? Many factors contribute to this uptick in gut problems among kids, such as processed foods, high stress, and an increasingly sanitized environment. Understanding the intricacies of these causes is critical to supporting a healthy gut in children.
Poor gut health can stem from a myriad of factors. The following three are perhaps the most common causes of an imbalance in children’s gut microbiota.
Today, children’s diets are largely comprised of ultra-processed foods, which have been shown to impact the gut microbiome significantly. These foods don’t just contribute to struggles with weight management, blood sugar control, and heart health—regularly eating processed and packaged foods also increases the proliferation of “bad” gut bacteria. Ultra-processed foods mainly refer to soft drinks, desserts, and snacks with high amounts of food additives like emulsifiers and artificial sweeteners.
Have you ever felt butterflies in your stomach or had a “gut feeling?” Most kids intimately understand this sensation, and it’s no coincidence.
The GBA (gut-brain axis) is a bidirectional link between the gut and the brain. More specifically, the GBA refers to the communication between the central nervous system and the enteric (also referred to as the intrinsic) nervous system. The enteric nervous system (ENS) is a division of the nervous system that lives in the gut and controls its function. Your gut contains 500 million neurons connected to your brain via nerves in your nervous system, especially the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve sends messages in both directions: from the gut to the brain and vice versa. Studies show that digestive problems often ensue when vagus nerve activity is inhibited by stress. Furthermore, high stress levels over time seem to reshape gut bacteria in and of itself.
While the increased prevalence of C-sections and their impact on gut health is highly debated, the evidence does demonstrate a connection between dysbiosis and C-sections versus vaginal births, potentially setting a child up for specific health problems down the road. Measures can be taken to regain a healthy gut microbiota with C-sections, such as infant probiotics and breastfeeding.*
Increased use of antibiotics in children has also taken a toll on gut health and might be linked to certain health problems. It’s essential to discuss antibiotic use with your child’s pediatrician and be sure to use them only when absolutely necessary.
Getting children to eat a healthy and balanced diet isn’t always easy, but it is foundational to good gut health. If your child is a picky eater, try kid-friendly foods that support the gut, like plain yogurt with honey (dairy or dairy-free), a colorful variety of vegetables and fruits, adequate animal or plant-based protein, and plenty of healthy fats.
As much as possible, avoid foods known to cause a heightened inflammatory response—like fried foods and refined carbohydrates—and instead choose foods rich in antioxidants. Simple swaps like blueberries for popcorn, dark chocolate for milk chocolate, and leafy greens for iceberg lettuce can make a difference in getting kids the nutrients they need for proper gut and overall health.
Kid-friendly probiotic foods include plain yogurt, kefir, and fermented vegetables like raw sauerkraut. Since these foods tend to be acidic, a probiotic supplement can help fill in the gaps. Many pediatric probiotic supplements are low in CFUs and strain variety, so look for a multi-strain product with at least 3-10 billion CFUs per serving.
Other herbal supplements that support gut health include turmeric, basil, dandelion, and other bitter plants.* Ginger teas and chews can be kid-friendly and support gut motility and regular bowel movements.* Many practitioners recommend 400-600 mg of magnesium citrate per day with hard or infrequent stools.*
In the past two years, the number of children experiencing mental and emotional health issues has skyrocketed. Stress is at an all-time high, and many parents are unsure how to reduce stress and encourage self-care for their children. Lack of social support, pressures to be productive, and a fast-paced lifestyle with little downtime all accumulate to create a high-stress environment for many kids today.
Studies show a tangible link between gut health and regular exercise. If exercise isn’t naturally incorporated into your child’s day-to-day routines, look for opportunities to get outside and move around as much as possible.
If you, like many parents, worry about your kid’s immune, mental, and emotional health, emphasizing gut health is a vital first step. Pay attention to digestive discomforts like bloating, gas, and stomach discomfort, but also consider less obvious issues connected to the gut, such as anxiousness, poor sleep, and lack of concentration. Address gut health with foods, lifestyle, and exercise immediately, and discuss a personalized supplementation plan with your child’s doctor.
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