By: Susan Taylor
It has been a long time since my family has gone out to dinner. My 7-year-old son has not been good at sitting still for an hour in a restaurant. Last week, the combination of an evening music recital and an empty refrigerator meant that we were going out for dinner.
To my relief, he behaved quite well. My proudest moment came when the waitress asked for our orders. My son took one look at the children’s menu that offered only fried foods and exclaimed, “Mom, there’s nothing on this menu that my colon critters want to eat!” So I asked, “What do you think your colon critters would like?” He replied confidently, “Broccoli and brown rice.” Fortunately, the good people in the restaurant kitchen were able to steam some broccoli and get him a dish of brown rice.
Toward the end of our meal, the waitress approached our table and commented on our son’s healthy food choices. Hesitantly she asked, “What in the world are colon critters?”
I explained to her that I study and write a lot about the digestive system and the gut microbiome.
The term “gut” refers to the entire digestive system from the moment food goes into your mouth until waste is expelled. The gut microbiome is the entirety of bacteria which reside in the gut. The largest percentage of gut bacteria is found in the colon, large intestine, which is the final stage of digestion before pooping. In order for my son to grasp the concept of gut bacteria, our family refers to them as his colon critters.
Scientists are just beginning to realize the far-reaching importance of the gut microbiome, and why it matters for children. Gut bacteria help control the immune system, determining such things as whether your child has an allergic reaction to a peanut and how effectively she fights off a cold virus. In addition, the microbiome is involved in regulating metabolism and weight gain. Additionally, a recent study out of Ohio State University, found that the gut microbiome of toddlers may have a profound impact on both their behavior and their personality. Specifically, boys with a healthy microbiome were shown to be more outgoing and confident. Girls were more focused, and self-controlled.
Our waitress has two children, so she asked what she could do to make sure her kids had healthy colon critters. I wrote out a quick list on a napkin before we left. When I got home, I decided to type up the list so that more parents will know how to support their kids’ gut microbiome.
1. Feed the Colon Critters: Not all of the bacteria in the colon is healthy. About 15% are bad bacteria, and the good bacteria need to be strong enough to fight them off. If you do not feed the good bacteria, scientists warn that they could begin to feed on the mucus that lines the intestinal walls. A compromised colon wall can lead to inflammation, bowel disease, allergies and asthma. Colon critters eat dietary fiber, which comes from fruit, veggies and whole grains. Some of the best kid-friendly sources of dietary fiber are unpeeled apples, berries with seeds, high fiber cereal and beans.
2. Eat More Colon Critters: You should feed your kids probiotics, or good bacteria. You may choose to do this with an over-the-counter supplement, but my kid prefers to eat and drink his probiotics. All probiotic foods will be found in a refrigerated section since they are not shelf stable.
3. Do Not Accidentally Kill Your Colon Critters: We have become an over-sanitized society, and our kids’ microbiomes suffer for it. Swap out your chemical-laden household cleaners for natural ones, and cut back on the use of hand sanitizer. Antibiotics can significantly alter a healthy microbiome because they kill good bacteria as well as bad. Studies show that a child’s microbiome can take between 6 months to 2 years to recover after a round of antibiotics.
4. Introduce Your Colon Critters to Your Pets: Allowing your child to get dirty outside and to play with your family pets exposes them to different kinds of good bacteria, ultimately making their microbiomes more diverse. A diverse microbiome is better equipped to fight off bad bacteria. In fact, playing outside and being exposed to animals has been associated with lower levels of asthma and eczema.
It is very important to support your kids’ microbiomes. Teach them about the trillions of colon critters that live inside of them. Then offer them lots of fruits, veggies and probiotic foods to feed the critters. When they aren’t busy feeding their colon critters, let your kids play outside, get dirty and kiss the family dog. Basically, just let them be kids!