Your Child and Their Gut: Does Your Child’s Gut Determine Who They Are?
There is an unquestionable connection between our brain and our gut. Whenever you feel your stomach sink at the sound of bad news or make an important decision, you talk about “gut feeling."
When we meet someone for the first time, we talk about our “gut instinct”, which is our first impression of the other person. This connection isn’t just a metaphor because your brain and gut are connected by a giant network of neurons, chemicals, and hormones making them in constant communication with each other.
This connection provides non-stop feedback on how hungry you are, how stressed out you’re feeling, and anything you've eaten that may result in disease. This complex connection, called the brain-gut axis, helps to moderate your body and keep you alive.
The endemic nervous system works as a kind of ‘second brain’ in your gut. Connected to both the brain and the gastrointestinal system, these connections monitor the body – right from the esophagus to the anus. This system is actually so complex and independent that it can operate without any input from your central nervous system.
But what is the purpose of this ‘second brain?’ It can’t write a best-selling novel or carve a stunning statue, but it does help manage your gut. This raises more questions as to why your gut needs a “second brain.” Is it to help you digest food properly, or does it communicate with the microbes in the stomach?
Our body is filled with trillions of organisms called microbiome, and most of these live in our digestive system. They speak to our brain, and they are integral to our survival.
It is clear that the gut has a huge influence over the body and how it works. But can we use this information to lead healthier, longer lives?
How Babies Are Delivered May Affect Their Gut Development
For a long time, researchers believed that babies were born with sterile gastrointestinal tracts. meaning they had yet to encounter any gut bacteria. They believed that the first micro flora to colonize a baby’s system was the mother’s skin and genitourinary tract during birth.
However, recent research shows that babies start to acquire their gut bacteria in utero from their mother’s digestive system. These bacteria are affected by the mother’s diet and lifestyle leading to an increased risk of certain disorders.
Other factors can influence the microbes that each child is born with. A recent study revealed that babies who are born via natural birth have different gut bacteria to babies who were born via C-section. When born naturally, the baby is exposed to bacteria from the birth canal, which is an ideal way to start the formation of the baby’s gut microbiota.
On the other hand, the study found that babies who were born via C-section had gut bacteria which are significantly different than their mothers. Despite this, researchers noted that while C-section babies receive less of their mother’s microbes during birth, they are still able to receive the microbes through the skin and mouth.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that children who were born naturally have greater advantages when they become adults. These gut bacteria can either thrive in number or not depending on the food the child eats.Therefore, it is difficult to know if the benefits of being born naturally carry through into adulthood.
An Unhealthy Gut Increases The Risk of Asthma and Allergies
Children who were born via C-section are more likely to suffer from allergies than children who were born naturally. A recent study has found that this may be due to less diverse gut microbiota.
The study from Sweden found that babies who were delivered via C-section had less diverse gut microbiota during their first two years of life. There were noticeably low levels of Bacteroidetes, which are linked to protection against allergies.
"Sometimes Caesarean sections are necessary. But it is important that both expectant mothers and doctors are aware that such a delivery may affect the child's health," said Maria Jenmalm, study author and Professor of Experimental Allergology at Linköping University.
A second study seemed to agree, finding that babies with fewer types of bacteria in their gut at three months old are more likely to develop allergies to milk, egg, and peanut.
The study, funded by the Candian Institutes of Health Research and AllerGen NCE, involved more than 3,500 families and their new-born infants.
"We are continuing to study this process," said Meghan Azad, lead author of the study. "Ultimately, we hope to develop new ways of preventing or treating allergies, possibly by modifying the gut microbiota."
Antibiotics May Disrupt A Child’s Immune System
Antibiotics are widely prescribed across the U.S accounting for one-quarter of all medications given to children. A third of these prescriptions are considered unnecessary.
In addition to the rising concerns about antibiotic resistance, recent research has found that antibiotics can disrupt a child’s gut microbiome. This can have long-term consequences such as obesity, autoimmune diseases, and allergies.
Researchers developed a framework for how antibiotics may be causing these outcomes. For instance, antibiotics may destroy essential gut bacteria that help immune cells to mature.
Children's Behavior Is Influenced By Their Gut Bacteria
Toddlers are well known for their terrible tantrums, but these feelings actually might not be their fault. Researchers from the Ohio State University have found that their gut bacteria may be to blame. The researchers found that the abundance and diversity of bacterial species appear to affect behavior, especially among boys.
The researchers found that extroverted personality traits, such as being outgoing and loud, were associated with certain types of microbes, such as microbes from the Rikenellaceae family. While the effects within girls were less consistent and fewer than within boys, behaviors, like self-restraint and cuddliness were associated with a lower diversity of gut bacteria.
The study wasn't aimed at finding ways to help parents modify their children’s behavior. Rather, the research provides key clues about how and where chronic illnesses, such as obesity and asthma start.
The Benefits of Probiotics
Probiotics, together with a healthy diet, can be used to help preserve gastrointestinal health for a long time. Until recently we knew little about how this worked, but a recent discussion at the Gut Microbiota for Health Word Summit in 2014 promised to find out more about the link between gut microbiota, food, and probiotics.
"Diet is a central issue when it comes to preserving our gastrointestinal health because by eating and digesting, we literally feed our gut microbiota and thus, influence its diversity and composition," said microbiota expert Professor Francisco Guarner.
"If this balance is disturbed, it might result in a number of disorders, including functional bowel disorders, inflammatory bowel diseases and other immune mediated diseases, such as celiac disease and certain allergies.”
Also, metabolic conditions, such as type 2 diabetes and, perhaps, even behavioral disorders, such as autism and depression, can be linked to gut microbial imbalances. Although a disrupted microbial equilibrium can have many causes - infectious pathogens or use of antibiotics among them - the role of our daily food and lifestyle is crucial."
Many companies selling probiotic foods and drinks claim that using probiotics can benefit your brain and overall mental well-being, but most scientists question the validity of their claims. Now there is evidence that links conditions, like depression and autism with the guts microbiota.
Probiotics Useful In Early Life
Many studies have found that probiotics can be beneficial at any age, most especially during the first stages of child development. When given to babies, certain probiotics can help lower the risk of gastroenteritis, eczema, diarrhea and enterocolitis.
Probiotics can also help prevent diseases in children who were not breastfed or were born via C-section. Further studies show that probiotics help to diversify the child’s gut microbiota.
Probiotics can be used in other ways, too. For patients who are immuno-compromised, it can be beneficial to take a probiotic-derived product.
While we have already discovered various benefits of probiotics, there is more to learn. Recently, researchers found that when they administered a certain probiotic-derived substance to mice. It helped prevent a certain form of cell death. This fascinating discovery could lead to later trials to see if probiotics could be as equally beneficial to humans.
Probiotics Don’t Help Children With Colic
Probiotics are regularly prescribed for babies with colic, but this may be a mistake. Recent research has found that probiotics may be ineffective at treating colic (excessive crying with no known cause in babies).
This large study contradicts the results of previous studies which link colic to probiotics. The researchers split babies with colic into two groups and gave one group probiotics and the other a placebo. They found that the babies who had been given probiotics fussed and cried significantly more than the babies who were given the placebo.
While further research will help clarify the results, it is worth noting that is this the largest trial of probiotic intervention in infants with colic to date.
So can colic be treated? The illness has no long-term effects, and it is possible that the children are more likely to remember the treatment than the illness, so it may simply be a case of babies cry – as awful as it feels.
Taking Probiotics Can Improve Your Mood
A recent study has found that people focus less on bad feelings and memories after a month of probiotic administration.
Psychologists Laura Steenbergen and Lorenza Colzato split participants into two groups and gave one group probiotics while the second were given a placebo. They found that after four weeks of taking the probiotics, participants had less ruminative, recurring thoughts about their past.
“Rumination is one of the most predictive vulnerability markers of depression,” said Steenbergen, “persistent ruminative thoughts often precede and predict episodes of depression.” These results could be used in the future to help treat the symptoms of depression, a mental disorder that affects millions of people every day.
Colzato said: “Even if it's in the preliminary stages, these results provide the first evidence that the intake of probiotics may help reduce negative thoughts associated with sad mood. As such, our findings shed an interesting new light on the potential of probiotics to serve as adjuvant or preventive therapy for depression.”
Using Probiotics To Improve The Health Of Your Gut
So how can we use probiotics to benefit our lives? Hundreds of drinks claim to be filled with probiotics, but many scientists question if they are actually beneficial.
"The challenge is to clearly determine which organisms are beneficial and exert a preventive or therapeutic effect. And for those that can duly be termed 'probiotics', the range of applications has to be defined more precisely than has been done so far," said Professor Guarner.
According to the World Health Organization, fermented dairy products containing probiotics, such as yogurt and soft cheese, have a positive health effect on the body. There are also probiotics in pickles, sauerkraut, miso soup and sourdough bread.
There are also foods that should be avoided, as they can negatively affect your gut, such as food with high quantities of animal fat, or greasy foods.
American Gastroenterological Association. "Feeding gut microbiota: Nutrition, probiotics key factors for digestive health." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 10 March 2014. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/03/140310111541.htm
BMJ-British Medical Journal. "Probiotics do not help infants with colic, study finds." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 1 April 2014. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/04/140401210408.htm
Justin Sonnenburg and Erica Sonnenburg, PhDs. "The Good Gut: Taking Control of Your Weight, Your Mood and Your Long-Term Health." Penguin Press. Penguin Group (USA), LLC, a Penguin Random House Company.
Cell Press. "The infant gut microbiome: New studies on its origins and how it's knocked out of balance." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 13 May 2015. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/05/150513125126.htm
Ohio State University Center for Clinical and Translational Science. "Toddler temperament could be influenced by different types of gut bacteria." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 27 May 2015. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/05/150527091438.htm
Linköping University. "Cesareans weaken gut microbiota and increase risk of allergies." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 8 August 2013. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/08/130808124056.htm
Nederlandse Vereniging voor Psychonomie (NVP). "People less focused on recurrent bad feelings when taking probiotics." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 14 April 2015. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/04/150414083718.htm
University of Alberta Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry. "Infant gut bacteria and food sensitization: Associations in the first year of life." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 4 March 2015. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/03/150304130915.htm