Our digestive tract (gut) is home to a wide range of tiny living microbes.
In fact, there are over 500 species living there, made up from bacteria, virus, fungi and other such organisms.
Imagine a vibrant lake with an abundance of different species cohabitating in harmony and functioning in synergy with each other and their environment.
This microscopic ecosystem is known as our ‘microbiome’.
The last decade has seen a huge increase in research about the gut microbiome.
This research has shown that our microbiome plays an important role in our health.
In fact, it has many different but all ESSENTIAL functions.
- It breaks down fibre into short-chain fatty acids. This helps balance blood sugar, regulate appetite, control calories you absorb, which are all important for preventing Diabetes and Obesity.
- It provides food for the gut lining to grow and repair. This is important for digestive function and problems like Constipation, Irritable Bowel Syndrome and conditions related to food allergies and intolerances such Eczema, Acne, Hay fever and Asthma.
- They regulate the immune system to help prevent you from getting regular infections such as the Common Cold, Coughs and Flu.
- They signal to the brain and communicate with the nervous system – important for Good Sleep, Happy Mood and Reducing Anxiety and Depression.
- They help you absorb vitamins and minerals – important for Bone Health.
These guys may be little, but their role in our health is HUGE!!
And we are only at the tip of the iceberg in understanding them.
of how I became personally acquainted with my microbiome…..
Over two decades ago, when I was in my early 20’s, I took a couple of months out to contemplate my life’s direction.
I’d finished my music degree but couldn’t decide what I wanted to do.
As you may have read in the ABOUT section, I was passionate about the science of nutrition and the impact food had on my health, because I suffered with many chronic health conditions throughout childhood including – obesity, constipation, ear infections, eczema and acne.
I’d pretty much fixed myself by eliminating certain foods that aggravated my conditions.
I’d lost 2 stone, my ear infections had cleared up, my acne and eczema were 95% gone, and my digestion was functioning normally.
Then that Winter, I had three wisdom teeth trying to push their way through.
They kept getting infected, because the gap for them was too small, and I had to take numerous courses of antibiotics.
Christmas day was miserable because the infections left my mouth swollen and sore and I was unable to eat anything.
In January, my dentist whipped my wisdom teeth out, and I was left with three large gaping holes.
A few days later, with a prescription for metronidazole (a strong antibiotic) in one hand and my passport and rucksack in the other, I boarded a plane to India.
With in weeks of getting there my health began to deteriorate.
My acne returned, even worse than ever.
My gut was unhappy alternating with constipation and diarrhoea.
No amount of watching what I ate did any good.
Then one early morning, young and stupid, I was swimming in the Ganges, and saw a dead cow float past.
And I knew I was…….well,……I knew it wasn’t going to be good.
I was right, I contracted a nasty infection and a few weeks later had to come home.
I took a poo sample to the GP, and later that week got a phone call from the school of Tropical Medicine in London.
I had Giardia – a parasite living in my gut.
Another long course of Metronidazole and the worm was gone.
But my body was a mess.
Too many courses of antibiotics, on an already weak system whilst being exposed to parasites in India was too much for my body to bear.
The benefits of Antibiotics
Antibiotics are one of the most miraculous scientific discoveries of our lifetime.
Many infectious diseases that previously caused severe complications and often resulted in death can now be cured, easily.
When they’re really needed, they can be truly lifesaving!
At that particular time, I really needed them, and they got rid of that worm in under a week.
However, over twenty years ago, little was known about the impact of antibiotics on the microbiome.
But we now know that antibiotics…
- Kill off protective good bacteria
- Reduce the diversity of the microbiome ecosystem
- Leave the gut vulnerable and unprotected
- Increase bad bacteria that cause infections
We also now know that antibiotic use in babies and children adds to the risk of them developing allergies, asthma and weight problems.
This is just one of the reasons why Doctors like our friend GP Dr Luke and my husband Dr Alex (meet the team), are being recommended to refrain from prescribing antibiotics unless absolutely necessary.
So, what did I do?
With my then limited understanding of Nutrition, I took myself off to see a specialist.
She was a Pharmacist trained in Nutrition, and a clever individual who had expert synergistic knowledge on the subject.
She prescribed a healthy wholefood diet and some supplements (including Probiotics), and within three months I was as good as new.
This experience led me to study Nutrition, and after I qualified, I worked with this lady for six years, specialising in chronic conditions related to gut problems.
How is this relevant to you?
Perhaps you’re reading this because you suspect your child’s microbiome needs improving?
Well, you could indeed be right.
If you came to see me in clinic, here’s a checklist of questions I’d ask you;
Has your child had antibiotics in their lifetime? Even just once at birth?
Were they born by C-section?
Breastfed for less than 6 months?
Do they get frequent infections, or seem more susceptible to illness than other kids?
Have they had a tummy bug including vomiting or diarrhoea?
Do they suffer from any chronic health condition, such as colic, constipation, eczema, hay fever or asthma?
If the answer is yes to any of these questions, then this advice is for you.
5 ways to improve your child’s gut flora
1) Offer a Diverse Range of Foods
There are over 500 species of bacteria in your gut.
Each species requires different nutrients for growth.
As we’ve seen above, a diverse gut microbiome is considered to be a healthy one.
A diet consisting of different food types can lead to a diverse microbiome.
Unfortunately, the Western diet is not particularly varied and is often rich in the wrong type of fat, sugar and sweeteners.
Many urbanised children live on a beige diet – consisting of bread, cereal, pasta, crackers and biscuits. More on the trouble with that here.
In comparison, a traditional diet would have contained a rich supply of fruit, vegetables, and herbs.
By introducing a wide variety of foods to your child’s diet you are doing their health a big favour.
One way you could do this is to buy seasonally and opt for a fruit and veg box scheme. Not only will the foods be richer in nutrients, but you’ll get a good variety each week.
2. Offer the right kind of fibre.
Fruit, vegetables and legumes offer the best source of fibre.
Fibre provides a healthy environment for your gut.
Fibre is prebiotic in nature, meaning that it feeds the gut microbiome making it strong.
Some high-fibre foods that are good for your gut bacteria include;
Berries, apples, peas, broccoli, cauliflower, lentils, nuts, seeds, beans, oats and chickpeas. Wheat bran, on the other hand, has been shown to aggravate conditions such as constipation and IBS.
The people at THE GUT STUFF, offer a lovely downloadable healthy fibre chart.
3. Include Fermented Foods
Fermented foods are naturally rich in good bacteria to replenish the gut.
For centuries, many cultures have known the health benefits of eating natural probiotic yoghurt. It was thought to have been invented in 5000 BC!
The ancient Indians named yoghurt and honey ‘food for the gods’ and in Greek, Persian and Turkish traditions it’s known for increasing vitality and longevity.
These days we know more about yoghurts health giving properties.
People who regularly eat LIVE NATURAL PROBIOTIC yoghurt (not the sugary flavoured kind) tend to have healthier (Lactobacillus) and less disease-causing bacteria in their digestive systems, plus lower incidence of chronic or allergic diseases including Irritable Bowel Syndrome.
Other naturally fermented recipes to enjoy:
Switch from supermarket bread to Sourdough (read the issue with supermarket bread here)
Try easy sauerkraut instead of coleslaw (recipe here)
Prepare overnight oats for breakfast instead of cereal or toast (recipe here). More on the topic of breakfast here.
Include a daily immune boosting smoothie. (recipe here).
All of these foods are rich in lactobacilli, a type of bacteria that can benefit your child, by preventing gut inflammation and enhancing gut health.
4. Avoid sugar and artificial sweeteners
Artificial sweeteners are now widely used as replacements for sugar.
However, some studies have shown that they can negatively affect the gut microbiome and lead to blood sugar imbalances, and weight gain.
Further more, sugar and refined grains (white flour, rice, baked goods, muffins, bagels, biscuits, cakes, sweets etc), encourage the growth of bad bacteria and fungus, over the their healthy counterparts, largely because they lack the fibre that feeds the good guys.
Processed foods also contain a concoction of ingredients that negatively impact gut health.
Need I say it?????
Limit Sugar. Avoid Sweeteners. Eat Whole Foods!
5. Give a Supplement
If your child is suffering with any chronic condition or had antibiotics, I would seriously consider a course of probiotic supplements – the best ones will be reviewed here on the blog soon.
One final story…….
When our daughter was two, we had a stint in Uganda for my husband’s research on Infectious Diseases.
She was the age where she was into everything; dirt, dogs, furry caterpillars and other wiggly creatures. We were also potty training her.
A few months into our trip she caught Giardia.
We recognised the signs immediately.
A stool test confirmed our suspicions and we gave her a course of Metronidazole.
Afterwards, we repopulated her gut with a probiotic supplement, and focused on the food choices I recommend above, to feed those little guys and make them strong.
‘All disease begins in the gut!’Hippocrates, documented 2000 years ago.
So we need to look after our microbiome and keep our gut as healthy as possible throughout our entire life!
Have you enjoyed this post? Have you a gut friendly recipe or tip you’d like to share? OR any other thoughts? I’d love to here from you.
Cox, L. M., & Blaser, M. J. Antibiotics in early life and obesity.
Nature Reviews Endocrinology, 11(3), 182 (2015). Doi: 10.1038/nrendo.2014.210
Korpela, K., Salonen, A., Virta, L. et al. Intestinal microbiome is related to lifetime antibiotic use in Finnish pre-school children. Nat Commun 7, 10410 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1038/ncomms10410
Les Dethlefsen, David A. Relman. Incomplete recovery and individualized responses of the human distal gut microbiota to repeated antibiotic perturbation. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Mar 2011, 108 (Supplement 1) 4554-4561; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1000087107