Reviewed by Dr Angelica L Dumapit and Physician Jolene Chong
How to Improve Gut Health in Children
Published | 7 min read
Your child's gut health plays a pivotal role to help them grow and maintain their overall well-being. Learn more about the causes of gut disorders in children and ways to improve their digestive health.
Our gut is quite incredible. A healthy gut aids in digestion, helps with the absorption of nutrients, aids in our immunity, and aids in waste removal. That is why it’s so important for everyone, including children to have good gut health.
A child’s gut microbiome – bacteria that are essential for immunity, nutrition, and physiological development – is still flexible before the age of three. Beyond this age, the growth of a microbiome will become harder to support. A poorly functioning gut may present fatigue, indigestion, stomachaches, or disturbed sleep. It can also weaken the immune system, impair nutrient absorption, and even lead to anxiety and depression.
For Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), the health of the spleen relates to the proper functioning of the stomach and digestive system. It’s also believed that the spleen is where digestion, absorption, and distribution of nutrients and essence (Jing) originates. Therefore, learning how to improve your child’s gut health will help enhance their immune system as well as prevent pediatric illnesses and Functional Gastrointestinal Disorders (FGIDs).
Let’s explore the primary causes of gut disorders and ways to improve the health of this vital organ.
What Are Gut Disorders In Children?
Gut issues in children can be presented in a variety of ways. Environmental factors can influence microbial diversity and potentially cause dysbiosis – an imbalance of gut bacteria. Consequently, this can lead to various disorders. Common gut disorders in children include gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), inflammatory bowel syndrome (IBS), constipation, or celiac disease.
In addition, gut disorders may be caused by the following ailments:
This mode of childbirth is a significant factor in newborn gut microbiome development. Studies show that a cesarean delivery can have negative implications on an infant’s gut microbiome and immune system. It can also make infants susceptible to allergies and immunodeficiencies such as asthma and inflammatory bowel diseases (IBD). Infants might require an herbal formulation to aid with digestion.
Cesarean deliveries will also expose an infant to colonized hospital flora. This will put them at a higher risk of developing respiratory disorders. Separately, the procedure may delay breastfeeding and physical contact between mother and child. Breastfeeding supports the development of gut microbiota during the early stages of life. A mother’s touch, meanwhile, helps a newborn to breastfeed better and for longer which aids in supporting their digestive tract.
Infants are more prone to sepsis and bacterial infections as compared to adults. Because of this, a physician may prescribe the use of antibiotics. However, the use of the medication can have short- and long-term effects on your child’s health. For instance, it can give rise to certain autoimmune diseases.
Therefore, ingesting antibiotics can disrupt the natural build-up and reduce the diversity of gut bacteria. Clostridium difficile is a common infection after one takes antibiotics. It can affect people of all ages and is responsible for many colitis cases in people who use the medication. Be sure to discuss the use of antibiotics with your doctor and only use them during the time allotted by your doctor.
External and internal pathogens
TCM believes that external and internal factors are the root of pediatric gut disorders. “External factors may include Wind, cold, heat, dampness, dryness, or Fire. These pathogens can enter and harm the Spleen directly, and trigger gut-related conditions. A viral, bacterial, or parasitic infection can also have a similar effect on the gut. Internal factors can include improper dietary habits a genetic predisposition, emotional distress, accidental ingestion or poisoning, or a side effect of medication use, “ explains Eu Yan Sang physician Jolene Chong.
Other signs of gut issues in children
Visit a doctor should your child be consistently experiencing any of these symptoms:
- Abdominal pain
- Bloody stools
- Loose stools
- Issues with eating or their appetite
- Issues with digestion
- Excessive belching or gas
- Issues with sleep
- Weight loss or gain
- Issues with sleep
How to Improve Gut Health in Western Medicine
In order to treat a gut issue, your child will need a diagnosis from a doctor. Clinical treatment of gut disorders aims to ensure that your child’s symptoms will cause no further harm.
In Western medicine, this might involve meeting with a specialist such as a pediatric gastroenterologist who treats digestive disorders in children. Testing might also involve the following:
- Blood test
- CT scan
In addition, a doctor might also suggest a specific diet with gut health foods that your child should follow, surgery, or medication as a course of treatment. Processed, sugary foods may be removed. A doctor might also suggest an elimination diet where they can pinpoint certain triggers. On the bright side, the presentation and treatment of pediatric gut disorders can also change as a child gets older. The most important thing is to address the current issues so they don’t become a bigger problem down the road.
How to Improve Your Child’s Gut Health, According to TCM
TCM, on the other hand, helps to treat or manage these conditions by tackling their sources.
Eat the right foods
Parents have a pivotal role in keeping gut problems at bay during the different stages of child development. Eating a balanced diet when breastfeeding can provide newborns with an adequate intake of nutrients. Proteins, vitamins D and E, and minerals like calcium, iron, and zinc are essential for healthy development.
At six months old, you can start weaning your child by gradually introducing them to soft, liquid foods. When your child turns one, you can refine their diet by feeding them fresh foods, including whole grains and high-fiber fruits. Do refrain from giving them foods and beverages that are cooling in nature. These can harm the spleen yang, thus aggravating gut disorders.
As they get older, continue to nourish their bodies by feeding them a diverse range of gut health foods such as miso, beets, kombucha, kefir, fennel, papaya, and ginger.
Use herbal formulations
You can also give your child herbs and traditional ingredients to promote food digestion, reduce gut burden, boost spleen and stomach function, and improve nutrient absorption and distribution.
These include hawthorn (Shanzha), malt (Maiya), grain sprouts (Daoya), and chicken gizzard (Jineijin). Oddly enough, a herbal product called ‘Divine Comedy’ (Shenqu) is also beneficial for digestive health. This artificial Chinese medicine uses flour, almond puree, red bean powder, and the juices of cocklebur and fresh artemisia. You can use herbs like astragalus (Huangqi), Codonopsis (Dangshen), Poria (Fuling), and hemp seeds (Huomaren) to promote healthy bowel movement and remove excess spleen dampness. Research also shows that Qiwei Baizhu powder nurtures the growth of good gut bacteria.
Though, physician Chong cautions, “Due to a child’s tender age, select herbs with less extreme properties and cease medication once the child recovers fully. This is to avoid disrupting the child’s natural yin–yang balance, which can affect their recovery and development processes.”
Older children can also help to boost their gut health by taking probiotics, which can also help with immune health and overall well-being.
Give your child herbal tonics proportionately. An excessive intake can impair normal spleen function, compromising food digestion and nutrient absorption. It can also bring about or delay recovery from gut disorders.
This modality focuses on stimulating distinct acupressure points or areas of the body. These are unique to children and can help allay or treat pediatric diseases. It uses massages, acupressure stimulation, and multiple forms of body manipulation to remove blockages and promote free-flowing blood and qi.
Tuina is also non-invasive, convenient, and painless. Because of this, it’s commonly prescribed to alleviate specific digestive system disorders, such as constipation, diarrhea, vomiting, stomachaches, or a poor appetite.
Likewise, you can consider using acupuncture, cupping, and moxibustion. With acupuncture, the stimulation of the acupoints is more precise, needles are shorter, and the execution is brisk and gentle. Sometimes, the expert will remove the needles immediately after stimulating the acupoints. Cupping is suitable for older children. The duration of this treatment is dependent on a child’s age and medical condition. Moxibustion is performed briefly until the skin shows mild redness.
It is possible to improve your child’s gut health. Identifying gut issues will shape their overall well-being as they grow into adults. Seek advice from a doctor who can provide a diagnosis and a course of treatment. In addition, if you’re looking to use herbal ingredients, it’s advisable for you to speak to a TCM physician. This will enable you to determine the right herbs or tonics for your child’s particular body constitution.
- BMJ Journals. 2020. Childhood functional gastrointestinal disorders. [Accessed on 28 January 2022]
- Maine Health. 2020. Pediatric Digestive Disorders. [Accessed on 28 January 2022]
- NCBI. 2010. Pediatric Digestive Disorders. [Accessed on 28 January 2022]
- Nemours Children’s Health. 2020. Irritable Bowel Syndrome. [Accessed on 28 January 2022]
- Hopkins Medicine. 2020. Your Digestive System: 5 Ways to Support Gut Health. [Accessed on 28 January 2022]
- National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. 2020. Digestive Diseases Statistics for the United States. [Accessed on 28 January 2022]
- National Library of Medicine. 2018. Development of the Gut Microbiome in Children, and Lifetime Implications for Obesity and Cardiometabolic Disease. [Accessed on 28 January 2022]
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