The Adolescent Gut-Brain Connection

Learn how gut health affects a child’s developing brain

There is a community of 38,000,000,000,000 microorganisms (mostly bacteria) living in and on you – your microbiome. It represents 50 percent of our bodies cell count and fundamentally changes how we think about health today.

Children develop their microbiome in the womb and throughout early childhood. Increased stress, illness, antibiotic use, and poor dietary habits can all cause an imbalance of bacteria in our child’s gut. When the balance of good to bad germs in the microbiome gets tipped, infection and/or illness may occur. In fact, 70 to 80 percent of the immune system is contained within the digestive tract. With results from the latest microbial research, we now know how important gut health is to maintain long-term health.

If you can start your child on a health path to a balanced microbiome, it can lead to lifelong health benefits such as improved immune system, decreased constipation risk, increased calcium absorption for strong bones, better appetite control and less obesity, and improvements with their heart and brain development.

The Gut-Brain Connection

Recent studies show that the health of the bacteria in our intestines can directly affect our mood and brain chemistry – this is referred to as the gut-brain connection. Have you ever felt ‘butterflies’ in your stomach? Felt ‘nauseous’ in certain situations? Children’s GI tract, or “second brain” is extremely sensitive to emotion. This was confirmed in a 2019 study where researchers found that the infant’s microbiome composition can influence the development of basic behavioral traits.

Allergies, inflammatory bowel disease, increased crying, upset stomach, reflux, constipation, diarrhea, certain skin conditions, and vitamin and mineral deficiencies in our children may be caused by an imbalance of their gut microorganisms. 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. Another review by American Family Physician found that when probiotics were given to pregnant and breast-feeding mothers, the development of eczema and allergies in their infants was reduced.

Another promising path for future research is investigating how gene mutations in the nervous system relate to microbes in the gut. Up to 90 percent of people with autism suffer from gut problems, but no one really knows why. New research reveals the same gene mutations in autistic children , found both in the brain and the gut, could be the cause. This suggests that if we know these microbes interact with the brain via the gut-brain axis, could modifying them improve mood and behavior in autistic children? While this would not reverse the gene mutation, it could make a significant difference in the quality of life for autistic children and their families.

Probiotics and Prebiotics

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), probiotics are defined as “live microorganisms that, when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit on the host.” Probiotics occur naturally in fermented dairy foods such as yogurt, kefir products, aged cheese, all which contains live cultures. Pro Tip: look for the words “live and active cultures” on the product. Other food sources of probiotics include kimchi, sauerkraut, miso, tempeh, and kombucha. 

Like all living things, probiotics need to be fed in order to remain active and healthy. Prebiotic fiber acts as a fertilizer to the good bacteria living in the gut. Prebiotics are found in foods such as bananas, soybeans, bananas, onions, garlic, leeks, artichokes, asparagus, and wheat bran. Prebiotics can be consumed on their own to stimulate the gut microflora, or with probiotics.

Supplements vs. Foods: What’s Better?

Research has also revealed that a diet rich in whole, unprocessed foods will encourage the growth of good bacteria in the gut, helping to establish a stronger immune system. According to Dr. Merle Sogge, MD, FACP, EJD, Chief of Gastroenterology at Kaiser Permanente Central Valley, “Diet plays a very important role in [a] child’s digestive health as well as overall health.” He recommends avoiding processed, greasy, and fatty foods as well as sugary goods like soda.

Getting nutrients from whole foods is always best, but if your child is unable to get enough from foods alone a supplement may be in order. Dr. Sogge recommends discussing probiotic supplements with your child’s pediatrician first and only buying supplements from reputable brands/stores. If your doctor recommends giving you child probiotics, consider powder, which can be mixed in your child’s favorite drink or food, or chewable forms.

Where to Buy:

Sheri’s Sonshine Nutrition Center  
6 N. School Street
Lodi, CA 95204

Artesian Natural Foods
145 Lincoln Center
Stockton, CA 95207

Greens Nutrition
1906 Pacific Avenue
Stockton, CA 95204