The gut is best known for its role in digesting food, but it actually does a lot more than that. It absorbs nutrients; works closely with the immune system and even has a direct connection with the brain. In order to keep the gut healthy, we need to look after the bacteria that lives there – and there’s a lot! Bacteria have long had the reputation of being bad for our health but there are an awful lot of useful bacteria too. In our gut, the different types of bacteria help to train our immune system, extract nutrients from the food we eat and can even affect gene expression. Luckily it’s not that difficult to keep them thriving.
Encourage kids to eat a varied diet
Eating a varied diet with plenty of wholegrains, beans, fruit and vegetables is really useful for gut health in two ways. One, it helps food move through the digestive tract, and two, it’s what many of the bacteria like to eat. The more variety in plant foods you get, the greater variety of gut bacteria you have. A lot of parents lament the fact that their kids hate vegetables and won’t touch wholemeal bread, but it’s really worth persevering with encouraging them to try these foods as it is definitely possible to learn to like them. It can take around twenty times for a food to move from unacceptable to tolerable but if you are persistent (and patient!) it will set your kids up for healthy habits for life.
As well as fibre, the other things that really help food move through the gut are water and moving around. Constipation is a common complaint in people of all ages and the first thing to check is if you are getting some physical activity every day, and if you are keeping properly hydrated. Even children as young as 2 years old need around 1.3 litres of fluid a day, increasing to almost adult levels of around 2 litres by the time they are 9yrs.
Studies have shown that coming into contact with different natural environments can help boost the number of different bacterial strains in the gut. Bacteria make their way into us when we breathe in microscopic particles in the air. This helps reduce the risk of allergies by training our immune systems to tolerate non-harmful bacteria. Taking a trip to the countryside or visiting a farm is a great way to do this.
Exercise to increase useful gut bacteria
So once the bacteria are there, how can we improve their numbers? As well has helping to move food through the gut, exercise has also been shown to increase numbers of some really useful gut bacteria. But so can getting enough sleep. Even two nights of disrupted sleep has been shown to upset the balance of some bacteria thought to be involved in obesity. Children of about 2yrs need a total of around 13 hours of sleep, which gradually drops to around 9 hours for teenagers – every night. It’s recommended that adults sleep for around 8 hours. If any of your family is getting less than this, it may be affecting your gut health.
Advice from Jo Travers, dietician for Love Your Gut