The presence of high levels of toxins in the modern world can adversely affect the development of fetuses and children. The umbilical cord provides for nutrients for the growth of the fetus in a mother’s womb. However, at the same time, it also carries chemicals and pollutants from the modern day’s environment. According to a study by the Environmental Working Group, a total of 287 industrial chemicals were found in 10 newborn babies . Coupled with the decline in nutritional quality of a child’s diet, there has been an increase in the incidences of chronic diseases such as eczema, obesity and several types of infections .
Other than improving the diet of our children in this modern-day environment, the role of supplementation cannot be undermined. Various supplements such as prebiotics can help to improve our gut health by enhancing the growth of beneficial gut bacteria. Our gut is also linked to various other body systems such as the brain via the gut-brain axis, and the central nervous system . How can we utilize this benefit and promote healthy growth and development for your children? Read on the find out more.
Our gut comprises of trillions of microorganisms. This unique set of microorganisms harbored within the gut is also commonly referred to as the gut microbiota (or gut microbiome). It comprises of various species ranging from bacterial, to viral, to fungal species. A healthy gut comprises a set of microorganisms that are largely beneficial to our health (e.g., Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium spp.), minimizing the species that are detrimental to our health .
The innate set of gut microbiota is thought to be the most suitable and optimum for oneself and it starts developing as early as when the fetus is in the mother’s womb . This optimum composition deteriorates as we age. Along with poorer modern-day diets lacking in prebiotics (i.e., food for the beneficial gut bacteria) as well as increased use of medications such as antibiotics, the composition and amount of good gut bacteria decreases even faster. This would lead to poorer gut health which may lead to negative effects such as constipation, unhealthy blood pressure , sugar  and cholesterol levels , as well as poor cardiovascular , respiratory  and immune health .
A child’s development can be divided into 4 distinct phases: infancy, preschool, middle childhood, and adolescence. Any divergence from certain developmental milestones could be a signal for disease such as obesity, allergies, or asthma . The gut microbiota of a child can be affected by the following:
The infants’ gut microbiota will mature into a more complex one that resembles an adult-like gut microbiota after the first year of life. Use of medications such as antibiotics can also affect the composition and amount of gut microbiota. Read on to find out how the gut microbiota of a child will affect the different elements of his or her general development.
The gut microbiota plays a role in the general physical growth by affecting nutrients absorption and growth hormone signaling. A disruption in the gut microbiota can affect the infant’s weight. Studies have been done to examine the effects of gut microbiota on malnutrition and poor growth. Fecal matter of malnourished twins was transplanted into mice and subsequently developed weight loss and metabolic changes . A separate study in Bangladesh children also shown significantly altered gut microbiota composition in children with malnutrition .
These studies done point to the possibility that the gut microbiota plays an important role in affecting the general physical growth of an infant, on top of dietary modifications.
The brain and the gut communicate bidirectionally through the gut-brain axis. Research in mice have found that a normal gut microbiota can affect normal brain development as well as behavioral functions . In studies involving humans, the alteration of gut microbiota (i.e., dysbiosis) was also associated with neurodevelopmental issues such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) .
Dysbiosis can result in changes in the metabolite profiles, which then affects the bidirectional communication with the CNS.
During the infants’ developmental stages, the immune system and gut microbiome are co-dependent on each other. The gut microbiota often acts as the first line of defense against pathogens by activating the infant’s innate immunity. The gut microbiota is also involved in production and differentiation of certain immune cells such as the T cells . Other immunological diseases such asthma and allergies may also be associated with changes in the gut microbiota .
Other than the gut-brain and gut-immune axis, there are also studies which demonstrated the existence of a gut-lung axis. This communication involving the gut microbiota and lung microbiota plays a role not just in gastrointestinal functions but also in lung immunity . Dysbiosis has been associated with respiratory diseases such as asthma, one of the most common childhood diseases . Metabolites produced by the healthy gut microbiota through fermenting prebiotics may also have anti-inflammatory effects in the lungs .
Although not directly involved in the development of these organs and systems in the infancy stage, the gut microbiota has profound effects in these areas as the infant and child grows up:
The gut microbiota can act as a central regulator for metabolism. As the gut microbiota develops rapidly in the early years of one’s life, it is crucial to ensure optimum health of our gut microbiota to prevent such long-term cardiovascular and metabolic complications that may arise due to a poor balance of gut microbiota .
The importance of gut health in the healthy growth and development of a child cannot be undermined. With gut health and the gut microbiota having effects around most of the body systems’ development, it is crucial we maintain a healthy balance of beneficial gut bacteria. This may be achieved through taking prebiotics to enhance the growth of the good gut microbiota.