One in every two American children has a diagnosed chronic illness and the numbers keep rising. As a result, many parents are searching for ways to prevent and heal these conditions.
There are answers to be found in the microbiome, which affects and alters functions from the immune system to the nervous system, and deeply affects gene expression, inflammation and the likelihood of chronic disease. The health of the microbiome—or lack thereof—has far-ranging influence on a child’s overall health. It is important that we consider it whenever we’re dealing with chronic conditions in kids.
Consider this: Autism is found in 1 in 50 children, ADD/ADHD affects 1 in 9, and learning disabilities are present in 1 in 6. All three of these conditions link back to the microbiome, and probiotics are essential to attaining and maintaining a healthy microbiome.
According to a recent study published in Pediatric Research, children given probiotics early in life may be protected against neuropsychiatric disorders later in childhood, specifically for disorders on the autism spectrum.
Researchers randomly gave Lactobacillus rhamnosus or a placebo to 75 infants during the first 6 months of life and followed the children for 13 years. The gut microbiome was assessed at ages 3 weeks, 3 months, 6 months, 12 months, 18 months, 24 months and 13 years. By the time these children were teens, about 17.1% of the placebo group were diagnosed with ADHD or Asperger’s syndrome compared with none among the probiotic group.
Diagnosis of ADHD and Asperger’s syndrome by a child neurologist or psychiatrist was based on the ICD-10 diagnostic criteria. (Pärtty, A, et al. Pediatric Research. 2015; 77 (6):823-828).
A healthy microbiome is not only essential in preventing disease but also can help children become better learners. Adding probiotics to the daily diet and keeping gut bacteria happy will help maintain a balanced immune system and send signals to the brain that promote learning and enhance memory.
Probiotics for Allergies
With allergies affecting 1 in 3 children, eczema affecting 1 in 10, and asthma 1 in 8, it seems like something is definitely going awry in the immune systems of many of our kids.
There is a great deal of research linking a healthy microbiome to a strong and balanced immune system. According to a study published this year in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, researchers at the Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne, Australia, found that the addition of L. rhamnosus GG to standard peanut oral immunotherapy could boost response rates.
Children up to 10 years of age with peanut allergies were randomized to a probiotic plus peanut oral immune therapy for 18 months or a double placebo.
A double-blind food challenge with 4 grams of a peanut protein was given on the last day of treatment. If the child passed the challenge, they were challenged again after a peanut-free period of two to five weeks.
About 82% of patients in the probiotic group withstood the peanut challenge without mounting their typical allergic responses, and achieved possible sustained unresponsiveness. In contrast, only 3.6% of the kids on the immunotherapy alone were desensitized.
The authors note that further work is required to confirm sustained unresponsiveness after a longer period of secondary peanut elimination.
Still, the study demonstrates the important marriage between gut microbiome, allergies and inflammation. (Mimi T, et al. JACI. 2015; 135 (3): 737-744)
The Gut & the Skin
The connection between disruptions of the microbiome and manifestations of dermatitis has been verified by multiple studies.
In July, a systematic review published in the journal, Allergy, showed that administering probiotics in pregnancy and early infancy may help prevent infantile eczema and other atopic diseases.
Researchers at the University of Milan reviewed 17 studies representing 4,755 children. Overall, they found that when mothers and their infants took supplements, the children had a significantly lower relative risk of IgE-associated eczema. This was particularly true when the infants received products containing several different probiotic strains (Zuccotti G, et al. Allergy. 2015)
A previous meta-analysis looking at the effect of probiotics also showed that the risk ratio of eczema was significantly lower for infants treated with probiotics versus controls (Cuello-Garcia CA, et al. J Allergy Clin Immunol. 2015).
A number of other studies suggest that probiotic supplementation may help reduce the incidence of asthma, frequent colds, atopic dermatitis, rhinitis, and ear infections in childhood, though the data for these indications are not quite conclusive.
Lactobacillus and bifidobacteria strains act on different inflammatory pathways, but both produce anti-inflammatory effects.
L. rhamnosus GG has been very well studied and has been shown in a number of different settings to induce TH1, as well as regulatory cells and T regulatory cytokine profiles.
An Ounce of Prevention
Probiotic supplementation in children supports the “good” bugs in the gut and has multiple general and specific health benefits.
Probiotics are especially important in babies born by C-section, and also in babies exposed to antibiotics or steroids during pregnancy, labor, or while nursing. They are also worth considering if an infant’s mother has had a history of yeast infections, or the baby has had thrush or a yeast diaper rash. A family history of autoimmunity, digestive issues, alcoholism, diabetes, metabolic syndrome or other sugar-related illnesses is another reason to stress probiotic consumption from food and/or supplements.
Probiotics are well documented to be safe and effective at reducing gastrointestinal symptoms, like constipation and diarrhea, and can reduce the risk of infection caused by certain inflammatory bowel diseases such as ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease. They also make a lot of sense after a course of antibiotics to help repopulate intestines with healthy bacteria and balance the gut flora.
A healthy microbiome may be the key we need to help boost brain health, build immunity to help fight off harmful bacteria, improve the digestion of certain foods, and form a barrier against harmful chemicals in food. The healthier the gut, the more nutrients are absorbed and transported, and the healthier a child will be.
What to Look for in Probiotics
Fermented foods like sauerkraut, kimchee, kefir, miso and many others are rich in the healthy bacteria the body needs.
But for many babies and small children, probiotic supplements are the way to go. For maximum benefit, a mixture of strains from different groups of bacteria is more beneficial than just one group. Strains from the Lactobacilli, Bifidobacteria, and soil bacteria (Bacillus subtilis) usually work best.
For a baby or toddler, B. infantis is appropriate. Look for freeze-dried products, as freeze-drying puts flora into a state of suspended animation, keeping them dormant until it reaches your body. The brand Bio-Kult, for example, provides 14 strains of beneficial bacteria and offers multiple formulations. Choose an age-appropriate product. Children are often prescribed dosages of 1 billion to 10 billion CFU, depending on what keeps the child well and rebalanced. Significant adverse effects are rare.
Extinguish the Flames
At any age, starting low and slow is important in healing dysbiosis or leaky gut. This is especially true in little kids.
As one introduces Bio-Kult into the digestive system, the probiotic bacteria start destroying pathogenic organisms, which then release toxins. This reaction is known as the die-off. Symptoms include, but are not limited to, fatigue, nausea, cravings, bloating, diarrhea, constipation, low-grade fever, mild headache and emotional irritability.
Although the symptoms should go away in three to seven days, whatever characteristic symptoms the patient originally had may temporarily get worse.
When this type of reaction occurs, keep the dose steady until die-off symptoms disappear, then increase the dose and let that settle. Build the probiotic dosage slowly, increasing it only after the die-off resolves.
Children should be on a gut-healing diet (limited amounts of sugar, refined grains, and inflammatory foods; lots of vegetables, high-quality protein and healthy fats) until the gut lining heals and the fire of chronic disease is quelled.
With their whole lives ahead of them, nothing should hold children back, least of all chronic disease.
A simple change in diet and the addition of just a few supplements, including probiotics can make all the difference for children at high risk for chronic inflammatory conditions.