Diet, Disease and Our Children: The Gut Microbiome May Determine Health

We hear more and more about the importance of our microbiota, particularly our gut flora, in relation to health. This is with good reason, approximately 80 percent of our immunity comes from our gut. Immunity is our body’s defense mechanism against infection or a foreign substance.

Many factors impact our gut microbiome and it begins at birth if not sooner. A child’s type of birth—C-section or vaginal birth—and whether a baby is breastfed or formula-fed, alters the gut flora early on. The microbiome is further influenced by our environment, our long-term diet, stress and the drugs we take (including antibiotics). Diseases start in the gut and the integrity of our microbiome sets the potential for long-term conditions such as allergies and autoimmune diseases. If our gut is not healthy, we are not healthy. Many diseases and conditions start to manifest early in childhood but too often these symptoms go undiagnosed until later in life when it has progressed to a chronic condition due to long-term inflammation.

Food is digested in the gut and the micronutrients get absorbed into the blood. When inflammation is present, the intestinal walls become more permeable and larger food proteins pass through the intestinal lining. The body responds by making antibodies that attack not only the foreign invaders, but certain tissues of the body with similar protein patterns leading to allergies and autoimmune disease.

Foods considered to be highly inflammatory are staples in our children’s diets. These include dairy, gluten, soy, corn and sugar. Peanuts contain naturally occurring molds that can trigger an immune response causing inflammation. It is no wonder why there has been a rise in the number of kids with food allergies. Food sensitivities, on the other hand tend, are under-diagnosed because often when a child comes in with vague complaints—such as stomach aches, eczema, headaches or diarrhea—food is not considered to be a trigger unless in the case of an allergic reaction.

Diabetes, obesity, food allergies, asthma and autoimmune disease are much more prevalent in children today. One of the greatest impacts on our health is the deviation from the foods that our ancestors ate. Our ancestors ate with the season and consumed foods that were unprocessed and natural, whole foods from the earth. Today, we tend to rely heavily on processed food and snacks to get us through our day. Our children are fed sugar-laden foods that also contain many food additives and colors, dyes, and preservatives. These unhealthy foods feed the bad bacteria in the gut and cause an overgrowth of harmful bacteria. Some of the effects are headaches, stomach aches, brain fog, sluggishness and cravings.

When a child complains of daily stomach aches, frequent headaches, rashes or constipation, diet should be at the top of the list for possible cause. Keeping a food journal can be beneficial in determining food sensitivities. Parents often believe these conditions are hereditary while allopathic practitioners tend to treat the condition without determining the root cause. Optimal health can only be achieved when the root cause is identified and addressed. It is true that our genetic makeup sets the foundation for our health; however, the determining factor of whether a gene is turned on or off is a direct correlation to what we put inside our bodies. The foods we feed our children early influence their food preferences and health. Hence, genetics “load the gun” while the environment ultimately pulls the “trigger”.

We can help children keep their microbiota intact by:

  1. choosing a vaginal birth when the conditions are favorable. This will help the baby’s gut be colonized by the mother’s microbiome;
  2. breastfeeding to pass on antibodies;
  3. exercising;
  4. staying well hydrated and rested;
  5. eating whole foods;
  6. avoiding processed foods, sugar and sugary drinks;
  7. limiting stress; and
  8. working with an integrative practitioner who understands the correlation between food and disease.

“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” The saying is appropriate. We need to be proactive when it comes to our child’s health.

Cindy Wechsler, a certified pediatric nurse practitioner practicing at Fairfield Family Health, focuses on integrative and holistic medicine. She specializes in the natural treatment of common childhood conditions, including gastrointestinal disorders, allergies, food sensitivities, behavioral issues and headaches. She teaches infant massage and offers lactation counseling. Connect at 203-254-9957 and FFH.com/Cindy-Wechsler.