In the glamour stakes, the gut ranks somewhere alongside the armpit in the eyes of most people, and is generally left to its own devices. Far from simply being a means of getting food from one end of our body to the other, the gut is the powerhouse of our immune system, and a factory for brain chemicals. I spoke with Rosanne Sullivan from The WellBeing Centre in Auckland and found out why we should be giving this part of our body a whole lot of love and attention.

“It’s estimated that roughly 80 per cent of our immune system is location in our gut”, says Rosanne Sullivan, ” and a significant amount of serotonin (our ‘happiness hormone’) along with other brain chemicals are made in the gut. Yet despite being one of our biggest organs, the gut is not often a popular topic of conversation. But it’s something we should pay a lot more attention to, as the negative effects of an under-performing gut can present in surprising ways.

“The gut is a big, long tube”, explains Rosanne,  “existing to extract goodness from food whilst providing a barrier to unfriendly organisms and toxins entering the blood stream. Good gut flora (the “good” bacteria) keep the cells of the gut healthy. When they’re out of balance with interlopers, such as bad bacteria or certain yeasts, the gut may become permeable, meaning toxins or even food particles could make their way into the blood stream”.

A hostile takeover

Certain foods, stress and antibiotics have the potential to upset our insides.

With diet, it’s the usual suspects we know we should avoid that could trigger or exacerbate a gut imbalance. Rosanne suggests minimising the family’s intake of processed cane sugar, refined white flour, sugary soft drinks and too much fruit juice.

Rosanne points out, “It can be hard to avoid antibiotics, as they are necessary to treat certain illnesses. But antibiotics kill off some of the good bacteria in the process of killing off the bad bacteria, so multiple courses of antibiotics without re-balancing the gut may cause issues. Good flora numbers may also decrease for adults and children during periods of stress”.

What can happen when the good guys are outnumbered?

Reflux, colic, excessive spilling, eczema, oral thrush and nappy rash are on Rosanne’s list of symptoms that could signal your baby’s system isn’t working as it should, and she suggests a nappy check for unusually sloppy or hard stools, or for undigested food (for babies on solids).

“Sometimes”, says Rosanne, “a temporary food intolerance can occur when good gut flora is at a sub-optimal level. For example a child may have tolerated dairy all their life, but a compromised gut barrier following a bout of sickness or course of antibiotics has allowed dairy proteins into their blood stream. This could trigger an immune response to dairy. Temporarily avoiding dairy whilst taking measures to boost gut flora can help bring things back to status quo”.

Aside from tummy troubles and skin woes, Rosanne points out that with so many brain chemicals being manufactured in the gut, it’s worth giving your child’s gut flora a bit of attention if you notice a change in behaviour. No promises though – it might just be the terrible twos kicking in! And, of course, do contact your GP if you have serious concerns about your baby or child’s behaviour.

Building up your family’s flora

Probiotics

Rosanne says taking probiotics is a great way to help good bacteria repopulate the gut when numbers have been depleted (for example, after a course of antibiotics). Available from pharmacies, health food stores and directly from Naturopaths, probiotics are available as loose powders or in capsule form for babies through to adults, and generally need to be kept refrigerated.

“Following a course of antibiotics, 3-6 weeks of probiotics is beneficial in regenerating good gut flora”, Rosanna suggests.

For children and babies on solids: You can try adding probiotic powder to drinks or cold food (e.g. mix into yoghurt).

For babies: Try mixing probiotic powder with a little cooled, boiled water and feed it to them from a soft spoon. If you’re having trouble getting probiotics into a breastfed baby you can even sprinkle some of the powder on to your nipple during feeding.

Everyday diet

Besides taking probiotic supplements, there are foods we can introduce into the whole family’s diet that will help promote good gut flora numbers day-to-day. Rosanne’s top picks are:

  • Fermented foods such as sauerkraut, kimchi and miso soup
  • Coconut kefir (you can find this in the fridge in health food stores)
  • Milk kefir, and plain yoghurt
  • Sourdough bread might be an alternative to standard bread.

(Note: Sauerkraut and kimchi need to be unpasteurised as the pasteurisation process may kill the good bacteria. Most New Zealand-made ones fit the bill, which can be found in the chiller of specialty food stores, or you could try making your own at home.)

For babies, Rosanne suggests using an eye dropper to drop a few drops of sauerkraut juice, straight on to their tongue: “Some babies make a funny expression the first few times they try sauerkraut, but they soon develop a taste for it”.

Pregnancy

Prior to birth, a baby’s gut is completely sterile. Gut flora is passed from mother to baby at birth, from the birth canal, and/or from the mother’s skin following delivery. With that in mind, building up a healthy maternal gut flora during pregnancy is a good way to help your baby on the path to a healthy gut and immune system. Along with the healthy, balanced diet always recommended during pregnancy, you could try boosting your good gut bacteria with kefir, plain yoghurt or fermented foods such as sauerkraut.

Breastfeeding

Many a breastfeeding mother has suffered through a bout (or five) of mastitis. Sometimes home remedies such as massage and a warm shower may stave off mild mastitis, but antibiotics are often needed to combat the flu-ish, painful condition if it becomes serious.

Antibiotics passing through to the baby via breast milk can be a cause of concern for parents. Rosanne explains “taking probiotics may be of benefit to your baby during and after a course of antibiotics. You can take them yourself, AND give them directly to your baby as well – there are special formulations for babies and children. Probiotics can help to repopulate good gut flora, and if thrush/nappy rash occurs in the case of a yeast imbalance, then a Candida cream with zinc might be helpful as well”.

If you suspect you or your child has an ongoing gut flora imbalance, it may be helpful to see a naturopath. In the case of severe or sudden illness, always seek immediate attention from your doctor, or call 111 in an emergency situation.

Dr Nicola Mohan from Mt Eden Village Doctors adds her views on the probiotic movement:

“Our gut contains a multitude of beneficial bacteria, and when this balance is disrupted (for example by antibiotics) problems such as antibiotic induced diarrhoea can result. A probiotic is a preparation containing live bacteria that aims to replenish or add to the number of helpful bacteria in the body.

Research supports the use of probiotics in some settings – for example, probiotics are routinely given to very premature babies in neonatal units to protect them from serious gut inflammation. There is promising evidence to suggest that probiotics may also be useful in shortening the duration of an infectious diarrhoeal illness and preventing bowel upset following antibiotics, helping clear gastric infections, and reducing the frequency of upper respiratory tract infections (the common cold). Probiotics might provide benefit in a number of other situations, and many studies continue to investigate this, as well as the optimal type, dose and duration of use of probiotics.

While probiotics are generally thought to be safe to take, with few to no side effects, people with serious problems of the immune system or severe gut disease should seek medical advice first”.

Published in the August/October 2016 edition of Little Treasures Magazine (New Zealand)

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