If you’re worried about the state of your kid’s gut health, microbiologist Brett Finlay says it’s never too late to change things for the better. In fact, he says, many studies show that within a day of changing your diet, you can improve the health of your microbes, even later in life. “It’s like, ‘When’s the best time to plant an oak tree? Twenty years ago. When’s the next best time? Now.’ And I think that applies to microbiota, too. Start now, and even though you can’t reverse time, you can sure set the rest of your child’s life up nicely if you do it right.”
1. Get dirty We have to rethink how we let kids be kids, Finlay says. “If you watch them in action, they’re like little Hoovers, trying to put absolutely everything in their mouths. If that was so bad for them, we’d have evolved ways of avoiding it.” Studies show that kids on farms and kids with pets have higher gut bacterial diversity than pet-free urban kids. So don’t be so quick to wash away a little dirt (and ditch the antibacterial hand soap altogether—soap and water are all you need). “How dirty you could get used to be a badge of a good day’s play,” Finlay says. And that, he adds, is how it should be.
2. Feed your bugs Naturally, diet is important. “High amounts of carbohydrates and soda drinks are associated with reduced microbiota diversity, whereas diets high in fruits, vegetables and yogurts are linked with increased diversity,” says Alexandra Zhernakova, a researcher at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands whose work focuses on the composition of the gut microbiome. Because antibiotics are still used on Canadian farms to fatten livestock (a practice banned in Europe), look for meat and eggs that are antibiotic-free. Emma Allen-Vercoe, an associate professor of molecular and cellular biology at the University of Guelph, also recommends avoiding processed foods with artificial additives. “Most of these additives have never been assessed for their effects on gut microbes and those that have show detrimental effects,” she says. Instead, feed kids high-fibre, unprocessed foods.
3. Plan on probiotics There’s still a lot research that needs to be done, but studies do show that probiotics—living micro-organisms you ingest to help repopulate your good gut bacteria—restore good bacteria and prevent antibiotic-related diarrhea, says Natasha Haskey, a registered dietitian in Saskatoon who specializes in gut health. “The problem is, you just can’t buy any supplement on the shelf because not all probiotics are helpful in preventing antibiotic-associated diarrhea.” The most effective dosage is five to 40 billion CFU/day—meaning there are up to 40 billion live organisms in each dose, which not all products contain. Haskey says the strain of the probiotic is also important as it determines how the bacteria functions in the body. “The most effective strains at preventing diarrhea in children receiving antibioticsare Lactobacillus rhamnosus and Saccharomyces boulardii,” she says. The key is to start probiotics within 24 to 48 hours of starting antibiotics, then continue for at least two weeks afterwards.