Recent research is starting to reveal that what we call a “gut feeling” is more than just an expression. In addition to influencing digestion and immune function, research is demonstrating that gut health can have a powerful impact on children’s mood and behavior. Could gut health and behavior be linked? Perhaps. For parents trying to raise happy, healthy kids this is big news (it could even mean dealing with fewer tantrums along the way!)
How Does the Gut Influence the Brain?
Scientists used to think that communication went exclusively top-down, from the brain to the gut; for example, a stressful or anxious event was thought to lead to changes in appetite, constipation or even loose stools. Now, it’s recognized that this interaction is much more ‘bi-directional’. This means that it’s a two-way street: the brain impacts gut function, and the gut impacts brain function.
Gut Health and Behavior
The health of gut microbiota appears to influence emotional behaviors. A healthy gut may help children manage stressful situations, reduce anxiety and improve memory function for example. Children with intestinal dysbiosis (which happens when the number of harmful bacteria in the gut outnumber the beneficial bacteria) may be more prone to acting out, low moods and even hyperactivity.
What Parents Can Do
One of the biggest ways parents can influence gut health in the short and long term is by taking a look at the diet. Eating a diet rich in fiber, choosing whole foods and checking labels to help choose products free from added sugar or sulfites, contributes strongly to gut health.
Dysbiosis may be triggered by food sensitivity – the most common being to gluten, cow milk, soy and eggs. These foods can cause reactions such as bloating, gas, constipation or diarrhea and can negatively impact gut health. An easy way to identify any potential food sensitivity is by keeping a diet diary for one week to track symptoms and consumption.
If food sensitivity is suspected, there are lots of great-tasting options, such as gluten-free bread or cereal and goat milk dairy now available.
As parents, the greatest tool we have in raising healthy happy kids is ensuring their diet is working toward the same goal we are. By promoting a healthy gut, we aren’t just helping them digest food better and stay healthy, we’re giving them a good gut feeling that translates to happy kids and happy families.