Do you sometimes feel at your wit’s end due to your child’s tantrums, whinging or tears? Is that exhaustion exacerbated by the judgements you can feel that people around you are making about your child’s behaviour?
Though we no longer live by the saying “Spare the rod and spoil the child” our society still presumes that parents (and the boundaries they set) are the main and most important influence on the behaviour and demeanour of kids. But now that idea is being turned on its head. By science. And surprisingly, it’s telling us that the biggest impact on how our kids feel and behave may be the health of their bellies. If your child has more bad belly bacteria than good, you could be in for a rocky ride. But that’s not the whole story – there is plenty that you can do to help.
The bacteria backstory
Our body supports more than just the healthy function of our cells and systems. It is also provides an ecosystem for trillions of belly bacteria that outnumber our human cells by 10 to 1. This means that for every cell in your child’s body, there are 10 times that number of bacteria cells– so their influence cannot be overlooked.
Those different bacteria populations make up what is known as the gut microbiome. They live on your child’s skin and in their mucous membranes such as the mouth, but the majority set up home in the gut (or large bowel).
Studies, including research from Glasgow University, indicate that babies born via caesarean may have less diverse bacteria, which may predispose them to conditions such as allergies. Unfortunately, many aspects of our modern lifestyle – including too much sugar, fast food, antibiotics and more time spent indoors and not in nature, can also give bad bacteria the edge. It may then start to crowd out some of the healthier bacteria populations and cause a huge knock-on effect for your child’s health.
A fast-growing body of research shows that too much unhealthy belly bacteria may cause or worsen health issues that often affect children, including asthma and eczema, other allergies, headaches, weight gain, tummy pain and also behaviour.
At the California Institute of Technology, research has shown that when mice are injected with a metabolite produced by unhealthy gut bacteria they develop issues like anxiety and behavioural changes associated with autism. This has led some scientists to start exploring whether unhealthy belly bacteria could be a major contributor to Autism Spectrum Disorder (which also affects kids with Asperger’s). Children with autism have also been found to have significantly lower levels of gut microbes, shows research from the University of Arizona.
How the belly influences emotions
Believe it or not, the bacteria in your child’s belly may send “I’m sad” or “I’m tense” signals via the Vagus nerve, which runs all the way from the belly to the brain. And if your child tends to worry, fidget or throw tantrums, this may all be due to their gut bacteria. More and more studies are confirming that belly bacteria may have an impact on mood and thinking and may cause depression. Gut bacteria may also produce chemicals called neurotransmitters, which cells use to communicate in the brain - and it may lead to cravings for sugary foods.
Though little research has been conducted in children, studies in adults are already pointing to the mental health benefits of a healthier bacteria balance. Research at the University of California found that people with a less healthy gut microbiome might be more likely to suffer anxiety. The study involved women aged 18 – 55, who were given two doses of probiotics daily and their anxiety levels noticeably reduced, compared with women taking placebo pills. So if your child tends to be a little wired or wound up, you might want to try out some of our take-home strategies to give their good belly bacteria a hand.
Supporting better bacteria balance Diet and the right supplements are the best way to give your child’s healthy belly bacteria a leg-up. Simple belly-boosting strategies include:
Serve more vegetables Research from Harvard University has shown that after just two days of eating an animal-based diet of meat and dairy foods including bacon, ribs and cheese, volunteers showed an increase in potentially problematic bacteria in their gut. They also showed higher colonization of fungi and viruses and more microorganisms that can trigger inflammatory bowel disease. Changes kicked in within 24 hours. By contrast, the balance of their belly bacteria rapidly improved when they ate a diet much higher in vegetables.
Tip: Hide vegetables by grating them into meals like meat patties and muffins. Make vegetable platters filled with a rainbow of foods. Also involve your child in growing veggies in the backyard to get them more interested in eating a wider range of vegetables.
Try probiotic supplements
These come in powder or tablet form with differing strengths and amounts of good bacteria. Most supplements utilise two strains of beneficial bugs, called Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium, because they tend to be hardier so they better survive the passage through your digestive system. Within those strains or families of bacteria, there are different members or sub-types, such as Lactobacillus Acidophilus, which is often found in Greek yoghurt.
There is evidence that some strains of probiotics, such as Lactobacillus plantarum, Bifidobacteria infantis and Bifidobacteria animalis, may help to reduce abdominal pain, flatulence and belly distension. Probiotics also appear to have potent anti-inflammatory effects, which can be really helpful for children who tend towards asthma, hay fever, eczema or a sensitive tummy.
Tip: Avoid probiotic drinks that are loaded with sugar or other sweeteners – even though they might boost your child’s good bacteria, the sugars will also be feeding their bad bacteria population too.
Offer fermented foods
Though foods like sauerkraut and pickles are enjoying a big comeback because of the fermenting buzz, your child may turn up their nose at these healthy offerings. If so, get them to sip on a little miso or drink some kefir or eat a good quality yoghurt with some fresh fruit.
Tip: If you are fermenting foods at home, make sure that you use a proper airtight container – mason jars don’t fit this bill and they could encourage the growth of unhealthy bacteria. Also, if your child has a tendency towards thrush infections or skin issues, try fermenting with salts and avoid fermented drinks like Kombucha, which contains a high level of yeasts which can encourage candida growth.
Teach your child to meditate
Stress can slam-dunk belly bacteria balance, causing a less healthy gut microbiome. So teach your child the skills of meditation and relaxation. With younger children, using breathing and music techniques to help them get into a more relaxed state. For older kids, buy an app with a variety of guided meditation options.