Let’s take a look at common misconceptions and offer a fresh perspective on children’s gut health for parents. Here are three childhood gut health myths that need to be busted.
MYTH 1: Lactose intolerance is common in early childhood
Lactose intolerance is often the go-to symptom that comes to mind when kids experience digestive discomfort after drinking cow milk. In truth, lactose intolerance is rare in children under the age of five.
Most infants produce the lactase enzyme to digest lactose provided by their mother’s milk and in most populations, lactase does not begin to decrease until ages 3-5.
Lactose intolerance is associated with a deficient or absent lactase enzyme. This results in an inadequate breakdown of lactose and subsequent fermentation by bacteria in the gut. This can cause diarrhea, abdominal pain, gas, and bloating.
Galactosemia and congenital lactase deficiency (congenital alactasia) are conditions that cause an inability to break down lactose in infants. They’re both very rare – galactosemia occurs once in every 48,000 births and congenital alactasia may occur only once in every 60,000 births.
Temporary lactose intolerance can happen following an infection or GI illness, such as rotavirus or celiac disease. These tend to resolve quickly once the condition is treated and the intestinal lining returns to normal.
Young children who experiences recurring tummy troubles after cow milk consumption are more likely to be suffering from the more common condition of cow milk sensitivity.
MYTH 2: Babies are born with a sterile gut
For many years, it was believed that the womb was a sterile environment and that baby’s gut microbiota was established at birth via passage through the vaginal canal, skin-to-skin contact, and breastfeeding, among other things.
More recently, research has pointed to the presence of microbes in infant’s first stool (meconium), which suggests that microbial colonization of the gut begins in utero.
Small amounts of bacteria have even been detected in the amniotic fluid and placenta. Interestingly, it’s been noted that the types of bacteria found in the placenta were most similar to those in the mouth, suggesting what mom eats and her oral hygiene can play a part in baby’s gut health.
MYTH 3: All food reactions indicate allergy
Food allergies, intolerances and sensitivities are all types of adverse food reactions.
Food allergy most commonly refers to an IgE mediated immune response to a food. Immediate (usually within two hours), moderate to severe symptoms can include rash, hives, wheezing, vomiting, and even anaphylaxis.
Food intolerance refers to a food reaction that is not mediated by the immune system. There are many potential triggers; some examples include tyramine in aged cheese, monosodium glutamate (MSG), or salmonella food poisoning.
Food sensitivity may encompass the delayed, mild to moderate symptoms associated with consumption of a food. Symptoms may be non-specific and affect multiple systems – including the skin and lungs. Digestive symptoms may include: bloating, gas, abdominal pain, diarrhea, and constipation.
For some children, a diagnosis of food sensitivity may be reached only after other possible causes have been ruled out or excluded, such as celiac disease or food allergy. Often, an improvement in symptoms is observed when the triggering food is removed from the diet.
Children’s gut health is complex and starts well before birth. By better understanding factors affecting gut health, parents can make choices to foster health and wellness for the whole family.