August 30, 2020 8 min read
Probiotics have many benefits for both adults and kids, particularly when it comes to immunity and digestion.
However, most probiotic advertising is directed at adults, because many of them have severe and long-term gut imbalances.
But does this apply to kids too? Should kids take probiotics and, if so, what are the benefits?
Let’s look at what probiotics are and how they could be beneficial for kids.
Simply put, probiotics are “good” bacteria that promote life. Your body is home to billions of bacteria known as microflora, most of which reside in the gastrointestinal tract.
Here, they provide numerous health benefits, particularly in terms of protecting the gut and immune system. In fact, these tiny microorganisms play many different roles in the normal, healthy functioning of your body.
The gut microflora are established in a baby’s gut almost immediately after birth with bacteria picked up during the passage through the birth canal.
Breastfeeding is also very helpful during a child’s early years because breastmilk provides additional bacteria to nourish that microflora.
As a child grows and develops, their gut microflora develops too. It’s their personal defense system against invading pathogens. However, this flora is highly vulnerable to internal and external influences.
Gut bacteria are affected by everything a child faces in daily life; their diet, age, gender, stress, environment, and even the things they touch and smell.
Numerous studies have shown that microflora can provide many clues to a child’s overall health and wellbeing, and even contribute to their health as an adult.
Many digestive problems and disorders can be linked to imbalances of gut bacteria, which in turn can lead to other serious conditions affecting the whole body.
Food allergies, behavioral disorders (such as autism and Asperger’s syndrome), mood issues, autoimmune diseases, skin disorders (such as eczema) and even some cancers have all been linked to the health of the gut. (1)
So, when it comes to keeping kids in good health, probiotics are a good place to start!
The first two years of a child’s life are often considered the most important period of their immune system development.
It’s in this time that a baby is exposed to pathogens for the first time, and when their body first begins generating antibodies to fight them.
This period is also an important time for the growth and development of the brain and body. In fact, it’s when the brain undergoes its most rapid period of growth – around one percent a day! Most of this occurs in the prefrontal cortex, responsible for language processing, attention, inhibition and flexibility.
Research has shown that the immune system and the gut microbiome are intricately connected. That’s why it’s so important to build on that gut microbiome so that it can flourish as the child grows.
Kids can be fussy eaters as they grow up. Some of them will refuse to eat vegetables and fruit, while others seem to eat very little of anything!
Probiotics are vital for helping kids get the nutrients from the food they do eat while supporting proper digestion. And, when their digestive system is working properly, their appetite will, too!
When the gut microbiome is depleted or impaired, digestion can be significantly slowed down or speeded up. This can mean that food passes through the gut without the body being able to obtain the nutrients it requires.
The ‘good bugs’ in the gut work alongside digestive enzymes to break down food that enters the stomach so the body can use it properly.
This is done in a special process called fermentation, which occurs as food moves from the stomach into the small intestine. Proper fermentation is vital for creating valuable enzymes and nutrients which are essential for healthy function.
These nutrients include B vitamins, vitamin K and short-chain fatty acids. (2)
Without these nutrients, a child’s development would be severely compromised. Children need a huge range of nutrients as they grow: nutrients to support energy production, tissue development and maintenance, cognitive function, and hundreds of other processes.
At birth, a mother passes her own beneficial bacteria and antibodies onto the newborn, providing the first barriers of defense.
But this alone isn’t enough. This passive immunity will gradually decrease over the first few months of a child’s life.
That’s why it’s so important that the child receives enough nutrition to support the development of a strong immune system as early as possible.
And, because up to 80% of immune cells are located in the gut, diet is the best place to start!
The cells lining the gut interact with both the innate and adaptive immune systems, which means a child’s gut is the first line of defense between their internal body systems and external pathogens.
Any disease-causing microbes that enter their body must first get through several defense systems before reaching the bloodstream. (3)
The gut microflora are constantly working to fight off pathogens by ‘programming’ your immune system to secrete antibodies. (4)
They also regulate the acidity in your gut, and prevent pathogens from attaching to the intestinal membrane.
Throughout life, these properties help the body to manage any harmful bacteria it might encounter in everyday life.
Infections, diseases and even autoimmune conditions can occur because the bacteria in the gut haven’t been able to do their job properly. That’s why a diet rich in probiotics – or probiotic supplements – can help to support a child for their entire life.
Colic affects between 8 and 15 percent of babies. However, probiotic bacteria how now been found to play a major role in the treatment and prevention of this common infant illness.
A study published in JAMA Pediatrics found that giving infants probiotics in the first three months of life may help prevent colic, constipation, and acid reflux. (5)
A study from the American Academy of Pediatrics showed that the probiotic strain Lactobacillus reuteri is more effective than a placebo at reducing and treating colic in newborns. (6)
Researchers even found that the probiotic group was almost twice as likely to recover than those who were only given a placebo. The babies in the study who were given probiotics also cried much less, suggesting that their symptoms were more tolerable.
Babies who were given probiotics during the first week of life were found to develop fewer symptoms of colic and constipation. This is believed to be due to the way in which probiotics influence the balance of bacteria living in the digestive system (7).
Kids are exposed to pathogens all the time – in their environment, in their food, the air, and whatever they might be playing in.
It’s very common for the healthy bacteria in their gut to be compromised or depleted by illness, medication, poor diet, and other lifestyle factors.
When the gut becomes imbalanced, kids may be more susceptible to infection and illness.
Antibiotics are sometimes necessary to kill infection-causing bacteria. Unfortunately, they also destroy much of the good bacteria in the gut.
This can leave a young person’s immune system vulnerable to bad organisms to multiply and take over, and potentially even causing secondary infections from yeast and bacteria.
Probiotics are frequently recommended for restoring the gut microbiome after illness, infection, or a course of antibiotics.
Probiotic supplements contain live, healthy strains of bacteria that are naturally found in the body. Most supplements include a blend of several species.
A South African doctor was one of the first to show the incredible benefits of probiotics in children. He suspected that an imbalance in the gut microbiota of children with serious undernourishment might be linked to their weight loss.
He gave the children antibiotics to reduce the colonization of harmful bacteria, then gave them probiotic yogurts to ‘seed’ their gut with beneficial bacteria. The result was that the children recovered far more quickly than those who did not receive the probiotics. (8)
Diarrhea-related illnesses can be extremely debilitating to young children. In some developing countries, persistent diarrhea (lasting more than 14 days) accounts for one-third of all diarrhea-related deaths. However, probiotics may be a life-saver.
A Cochrane review showed that probiotic supplementation in children suffering from long-term diarrhea was able to reduce the duration and frequency of loose stools, as well as reducing the number of days spent in hospital.
One particular study in India investigated the effects of giving Lactobacillus rhamnosus to children who had been hospitalized with diarrhea.
The researchers found that the probiotic reduced their diarrheal illness by four days and that the average hospital stay was reduced by eight days. (9)
Other studies have already shown that probiotics are helpful for patients with antibiotic-associated diarrhea, traveller's diarrhea, irritable bowel syndrome, inflammatory bowel disease, and infantile colic.
An American Family Physician review has shown that that probiotics may even help treat inflammatory bowel disease and the duration of diarrhea caused by gastroenteritis. (10)
The use of probiotics for treating atopic dermatitis in children has increased in recent years.
Parents are now finding that probiotics may be more helpful than pharmaceutical medication for treating their children’s skin conditions.
Researchers say that probiotics help to introduce healthy bacteria to the gut and create a barrier to reduce inflammation, which can trigger inflammatory skin conditions such as eczema, psoriasis and dermatitis.
When given to pregnant and breast-feeding mothers, probiotics were found to reduce the development of eczema and allergies in their infants.
Atopic dermatitis is often linked to other allergic diseases such as food allergies, asthma and seasonal allergies. It makes sense, then, to prevent more allergies from developing. The concept of restoring gut bacteria may be the best way to do this.
One study showed that a probiotic strain that helps to treat diarrhea (Lactobacillus rhamnosus) was also able to reduce the incidence of atopic dermatitis in at-risk infants up to the age of seven years.
A 2005 study showed a similar result. When probiotics were given twice daily to children with moderate to severe dermatitis, they had significant improvements over those who were only given a placebo.
Further research has suggested that high doses (3-50 billion CFu/day) of Lactobacillus rhamnosus, Bifidobacterium lactis and Lactobacillus acidophilus probiotics in single or multi-strain formulas appear to be the most effective for both preventing and treating eczema. (11)
As well as supporting the development of the immune system in early life, probiotics play a major part in healthy brain development.
During the first years of life, while the gut microbiota are becoming more diverse, a child’s brain is also developing. Researchers have suggested that any disruptions to the gut flora during this critical period can have a negative effect on postnatal brain development.
Probiotics can not only help promote gut microbiota and overall health, they can also relieve mental disorders in adults.
This is believed to be through lowering levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines in the body and reducing the production of stress hormones. At the same time, probiotics help to boost important mood-boosting chemicals such as tryptophan.
There is now substantial evidence that probiotic supplementation during the first six months of life may reduce the risk of development of psychiatric disorders later in life.
Probiotics have been shown to contribute significantly to brain development during the first 1000 days of life. This is due to the critical formation of the cerebral cortex during early life and ending in adolescence, which is linked to gut microbiota colonization and maturation.
Although environmental factors are also able to influence brain development, the way in which the gut bacteria matures in early life is also influenced by several environmental factors.
Breastfeeding, for example, has important beneficial effects on child neuropsychological development, which is again linked to probiotic transmission. (12)
There is now plenty of evidence to show that probiotics can benefit children's health in many ways and may reduce the risk of various health conditions.
While more research is pending, it’s generally a good idea to find ways to get as many health-supporting probiotic bacteria into children while they’re young: through breastfeeding, supplements, and food.
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