In recent years, it seems that everything you read about when it comes to health is about gut health, eating foods high in probiotics and taking probiotic supplements.
In our family, I do my best to get probiotics into my kids especially this time of year when colds and fevers are almost inevitable. In the last few months, we’ve also been working with a naturopath to help my older daughter who has food allergies boost her gut health and lower her immune response with a protocol that includes vitamin D, vitamin C, zinc and probiotics.
My kids also eat (and enjoy!) foods high in probiotics like fermented vegetables— no matter how strange they may seem. Of course, there are other healthy, delicious and convenient options that you can start to incorporate into your kid’s diet.
But first, let’s take a look at why your kids need healthy gut bacteria, what can throw it off balance, and how to boost their gut health.
Let’s get started.
Why healthy gut bacteria is important for kids
Healthy gut bacteria starts with the microbiome, which is a vast collection of 100 trillion microbes or microorganisms that actually live in and on the body, but most are found in the gastrointestinal tract.
Bacteria are one type of microbes and although we do everything we can to prevent our kids from coming into contact with bad bacteria that can cause colds and infections for example, there are also healthy bacteria that our bodies need to stay healthy.
Although researchers continue to study the benefits of probiotics and figure out what all the different types are good for, there is a lot we know now about the importance of healthy gut bacteria for kids.
A strong immune system
Kids are like little petri dishes for germs, especially when they’re in daycare and school. They all touch the same surfaces, share the same toys and put everything in their mouths. So if you have young kids, you know how often they get sick. Kids under the age of 6 in particular, get 8 to 10 colds a year!
Perhaps one of the strongest areas of research that has looked at the benefits of probiotics is immunity. In fact, a June 2018 study in the journal Synthetic and Systems Biotechnology, which was conducted in adults, showed probiotics are safe and effective remedy for colds and flu-like respiratory infections.
Better mood and behavior
The gut is often called the second brain because of the strong pathways that are along the gut-brain axis. In fact, the enteric nervous system, which directs the function of the GI system, has 30 types of neurotransmitters and 100 million neurons.
So although we often think the brain is entirely responsible for mental health, mood and behavior, experts say the gut has a lot to do with it too. While your kid will still cry and have meltdowns, optimizing healthy gut bacteria with foods high in probiotics may boost his mood and improve his behavior.
No parent is immune to bedtime battles especially with young kids, but research suggests probiotics may improve sleep. That’s because a whopping 90 percent of serotonin, the building block for melatonin, the “sleep hormone” is located in the gut. What’s more, certain bacteria in the gut are important for the production of serotonin, a 2015 study out of Caltech found.
A lack of fiber from fruits, vegetables and whole grains or dehydration is often to blame for kids’ constipation. But some kids have “functional constipation,” which can happen when they avoid going to the bathroom because they fear pooping will be painful. In those kids, an imbalance in healthy gut bacteria may be the cause and probiotics may help, according to a February 2019 review in the journal Frontiers in Medicine.
Eases colic and reflux
If you have a baby with colic or reflux, you know how tiring and stressful it can be but strengthening their gut health may help.
A March 2014 study in JAMA Pediatrics found when probiotics were given to infants during the first three months after birth they cried less and had less reflux.
Another 2018 study found in breastfed infants, probiotics can reduce fussiness and crying.
Improves allergies and eczema
Studies suggest probiotics may help with allergenic conditions.
In fact, a February 2018 meta-analysis in the journal PLOS One suggests taking probiotics during late pregnancy and while breastfeeding may reduce a baby’s risk for eczema. Another study out of Vanderbilt University suggests probiotics can improve symptoms of seasonal allergies, but more research is needed to make recommendations, the authors noted.
Can probiotics help kids with stomach viruses?
Research suggests that probiotics can help ease diarrhea after a round of antibiotics.
Yet in recent years, giving probiotics to kids to help ease diarrhea and vomiting for any reason has become increasingly common but new research shows it’s not effective.
According to a November 2018 study in the New England Journal of Medicine, a common type of probiotic called Lactobacillus rhamnosus GG, or LGG, which is sold over the counter as Culturelle, had no effect on kids’ symptoms. “Parents are better off saving their money and using it to buy more fresh fruits and vegetables for their children,” the study authors stated.
Are probiotics for kids safe?
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) released a clinical report in 2010 which states that products with probiotics seem to be safe for infants and children but the long-term effects are unknown and more research is needed.
They also say there are safety concerns in children who have compromised immune systems, are chronically debilitated or seriously ill and have indwelling medical devices like catheters or endotracheal tubes.
It’s also important to note that the FDA doesn’t regulate dietary supplements as rigorously as they do for prescription and over-the-counter medications.
What can disrupt healthy gut bacteria?
It’s ideal to have good and bad bacteria in the right balance in the gut, but there are so many factors that can throw it off.
If your kid has a bacterial infection, antibiotics are necessary, but they can also wipe out all the healthy gut bacteria which is why taking a probiotic can help restore balance.
Experts say eating processed foods and those high with sugar over the long term can lead to intestinal permeability or leaky gut syndrome. Leaky gut occurs when the tight junctions in the large intestine open and allow undigested food particles and pathogens in, which in turn elicits an immune response.
Leaky gut syndrome has been linked to various conditions including allergies, asthma, fatigue, autoimmune diseases, migraines and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).
If your kids eat a lot of foods that are in a bag, box, or package, chances are they’re also missing out on key vitamins and minerals that keep their guts and immune systems strong and keep them healthy.
Lack of sleep
Researchers are also looking at how sleep may affect gut health. In fact, an April 2019 study in the journal SLEEP suggest better sleep quality and less sleepiness are significantly associated with a richer and more diverse gut bacteria.
In September 2017, the FDA banned triclosan in anti-bacterial hand soaps, but companies still add the pesticide to some dish soaps, personal care products and Colgate Total toothpaste.
The Environmental Working Group (EWG) says triclosan may cause changes in the hormone system, and harm reproduction and development, and studies show it may also alter healthy gut bacteria.
In fact, according to a May 2018 study in the journal Science Translational Medicine, mice who were fed a diet laced with triclosan for 3 weeks had significantly lower levels of a species of bacteria that has been shown to be anti-inflammatory.
Lack of physical activity
Exercise is important for kids’ overall growth and development and of course, it can prevent childhood obesity but studies suggest a lack of physical activity can affect gut health, regardless of what they eat.
According to an April 2018 study in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, (which was conducted in adults) regular exercise increases short-chain fatty acids which promote gut health.
How to give kids healthy gut bacteria
Fortunately, there are several ways to improve your kid’s gut health, both with diet and healthy habits.
Eat the rainbow
A whole foods diet that contains plenty of fruits and vegetables of all colors gives your kid the nutrition she needs for a strong immune system. These foods also contain prebiotics, or non-digestible food ingredients, that work with probiotics, the live microorganisms found in the gut, to grow and work to boost your child’s immunity.
Add fermented foods
Kefir tastes too tangy for me but my kids love it and that’s a good thing. The probiotics found in kefir and other foods like yogurt, kimchi, and naturally fermented vegetables, including sauerkraut and pickles can help improve gut health.
Consider taking probiotics
As previously stated, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) hasn’t recommended regular use of probiotics in children because there’s a lack of evidence for their efficacy. Of course like any supplement, if you want to give your kid probiotics, check with his pediatrician first.
Getting your kids outside is always ideal but during the dog days of winter or on snow days when you can’t get out, put on music and have a dance party or enjoy a game of Twister.
Let kids play in the dirt
Encourage your kids to get outside and get dirty—whether it’s digging up dirt, playing with the dog, or planting a garden together to expose them to healthy gut bacteria.
10 Foods High In Probiotics For Kids
Your kid’s diet is one of the best ways to promote a healthy gut and fortunately, there are many foods high in probiotics.
Kefir has a healthy dose of probiotics but read labels and you’ll discover most brands of kefir are high in sugar.
If you’re going to feed your kids fruit-flavored kefir, it’s probably OK as long as they have a low-sugar diet but keep portion sizes in mind. A better option however, is plain kefir which you can add fresh or frozen fruit to and blend into a smoothie.
2. Green peas
Green peas are an excellent source of fiber, protein and vitamins A, C, B6, and K, magnesium and folate. Surprisingly, they’re also probiotic-rich. In fact, a December 2018 study in the Journal of Applied Microbiology found that a particular strain—leuconostoc mesenteroides subsp. mesenteroides—can boost gut health. The study was conducted in mice however, so it’s not clear if the same findings can be replicated in humans.
3. Sourdough bread
Sourdough bread is made with a fermentation process that uses wild yeast and lactic acid bacteria that’s naturally present, making it a good source of probiotics.
Your kids may not immediately take to the taste of sourdough bread so serve a small piece with a pat of grass-fed butter, which has a dose of probiotics too.
If you’re looking for a gluten-free option, I recommend Simple Kneads.
Yogurt is one of the best foods high in probiotics. According to a March 2018 study in the journal Clinical and Experimental Allergy, babies who ate yogurt on a daily basis reduced their risk for allergies and eczema by up to 70 percent. The authors note however, that it’s unclear what type of yogurt and how much is actually beneficial.
When reading labels, look for brands that state “live and active cultures.” Also, avoid yogurts that are fruit-flavored or contain fruit because they’re usually high in sugar. Sugar can feed unhealthy bacteria in the gut so to get the full immune-boosting benefit, aim for yogurt that has less than 9 grams of sugar per serving.
5. Fermented pickles
Most kids love pickles, but most pickles on store shelves won’t cut it. To get the benefits of probiotics, you’ll want to look for pickles in the refrigerated section and those brands that are labeled “naturally fermented,” like Bubbies.
A popular Asian side dish, kimchi is a naturally fermented cabbage that contains probiotics and is rich in vitamins A, C, K, B6, folate and iron. Since kimchi is a bit spicy, give your kids a small amount alongside their favorite foods and they may actually try it.
Sauerkraut, another type of fermented cabbage, is a good source of probiotics as well as fiber, calcium and magnesium, vitamins B6, C and K, folate, iron and potassium. Most store-brands of sauerkraut don’t contain probiotics however, so look for those that state they’re naturally fermented.
A traditional Japanese condiment that’s made from fermented rye, beans, rice or barley, miso is one of the best foods high in probiotics. A good way to introduce miso to kids is to offer miso soup since it has a mild flavor and it’s delicious.
9. Coconut milk yogurt
If your kids can’t consume dairy or your family is dairy-free, coconut milk yogurt is a great option.
Like many types of yogurt however, coconut milk yogurt can be high in sugar so read labels carefully. Or find plain, unsweetened versions and add fresh berries for added fiber and a hint of sweetness.
Made with fermented soybeans, tempeh is a great source of probiotics as well as protein, iron and calcium.
Add tempeh to your favorite stir-fry or salad, or use it in place of meat on taco night.
Don’t forget prebiotic foods
It’s also a good idea to offer your kids foods rich in prebiotics, which are non-digestible food ingredients that work with probiotics to boost your child’s immunity.
Prebiotic rich foods include onions, garlic, leeks, asparagus, bananas, barley, oats, wheat bran, apples, Jerusalem artichokes, flaxseeds, cocoa, seaweed.