In my book, Raising Resilience, I discuss the Core Dietary Strategies to focus on if you want to improve the health of your kids. Taking steps to improve digestion is one of them.
I picked “eat to improve digestion” as a core strategy because what goes on in the digestive system influences the entire body. Yes, the entire body. It’s no surprise that talk of probiotics, sauerkraut and Kombucha is all the rage right now.
Focusing some attention on digestion yields huge “bang for your buck”. For busy parents who are short on time, energy and resources, that’s important.
Poor digestion can be at the root of your child’s irritability, disturbed sleep, aggression, tantrums, inattention, hyperactivity, and more.
Don’t get me wrong… there can be more to the story. But digestion is a crucial part. Here’s why….
Digestion has two roles: break food apart into compounds that are usable by the body as nourishment, and eliminate waste.
If food breakdown is not happening well then a few things happen:
If elimination is poor, a few things happen:
There’s also a heck of a lot else going on in the digestive tract that has little to do with the process of digestion itself.
About 5 to 10 lb. and at least 1000 different species of bugs live in your digestive tract. Their jobs include not only digesting food and regulating metabolism, but also include educating immune cells, aiding in detoxification, regulating appetite, acting as a physical barrier against pathogens, creating certain vitamins, hormones and neurotransmitters.
Those bugs are big players in your health for sure.
Supporting digestive function requires that we support the delicate balance of bacteria and yeast in the digestive tract, and keep all the digestive organs, pathways and mucosa happy and well nourished.
Here are 6 things you can do to improve the digestion of your kids. I suggest you pick one or two to start with rather than tackling them all at once.
1. Set a Calm Tone for Meals
I know this one can be tricky for busy families, but finding ways to help your child sit and focus on their food can help digestion a great deal.
When you relieve tension, slow down, and focus, you activate the parasympathetic nervous system which prompts the release of the “rest, digest, and grow” hormones. Anxiety, worry, and eating on the run, activates the sympathetic system which shunts resources away from long-term priorities like digestion.
Further, cortisol, our master stress hormone, can cause inflammation of the gut lining and seems to have the ability to open up the tight junctions of the gut and lead to increased intestinal permeability. It can also destroy beneficial gut flora.
2. Include Probiotic Supplements (and/or Fermented Food)
Probiotics are all the rage these days. And for good reason – they reinforce the helpful bacteria in the gut, helping to prevent pathogenic microbes from getting too powerful.
Recall that a healthy gut carries about 5 to 10 lb. of bacteria, whose jobs range from digesting food to regulating immune function, metabolism and gene expression.
A properly fermented food is one that is high in the type of bacteria, and sometimes healthy yeast, that keeps the gut environment in a healthy balance. Including fermented food in your child’s diet is the best way to keep the inner ecosystem of the gut healthy. The next best option is a good quality probiotic supplement.
3. Avoid digestion trouble-makers
It’s not difficult to destabilize the ecosystem of the gut. The following are some of the things that negatively impact digestive enzymes, microbial balance, and pH levels of the digestive tract. Avoiding these whenever possible will help ensure a healthy digestive system.
Avoid these as much as you can so they don’t interfere with your efforts. If you find your kids are exposed to any of there, spend some time focusing on all the other aspects here and in my book to get the digestive system back on track.
4. Include Foods Known to Heal, Soothe, and Nourish
There are many foods which help to heal, soothe, and nourish the gut lining, stimulate digestive juices, and reduce inflammation. Here are a few:
You’ll find many of these foods incorporated in my recipes here and in my book.
5. Focus on Flavonoid-Rich Foods
Flavonoids are phytochemicals; they are natural chemicals found in plants, and are essential for health.
Flavonoids are found in fresh fruits and vegetables, particularly those that have a rich colour. Red grapes, blueberries, blackberries, citrus (though be careful as lots of kids are sensitive to citrus), purple potatoes, onions, and purple cabbage are some foods rich in flavonoids.
Flavonoids seem to have a protective effect on the tight junctions in our digestive lining, have an ability to reduce gut inflammation, and help regulate probiotic bacteria colonies.
When foods are stored, cooked, and processed, flavonoid content is dramatically decreased. So eating some raw foods and the freshest possible, including a rainbow of colours, will help ensure good flavonoid intake.
I’ve recommended many phytonutrient supplements over the years to families who can’t get enough fresh fruits and vegetables into their kids, but the best one I have found is this one. Hands down.
6. Add More Fabulous Fibre
Adequate fibre in the diet is critical for optimal digestive function. Fibre does many things for digestive health. Here are a few things fibre does:
Include whole foods like beans, pumpkin, cauliflower, nuts, coconut, seeds, and high fibre fruits like apples and apricots every single day.
Most of us don’t get nearly enough fibre in our diets. Start to pay attention to how much your child is getting by reading food labels. If you think it’s less than about 20 g. a day, consider adding a fibre supplement to mix into foods and drinks to support digestive health. Choose one that combines both soluble and insoluble types of fibre.
Increase dietary fibre slowly as it can be irritating to a damaged digestive tract. If you see evidence of gas, bloat, pain, constipation, or diarrhea you need to either move more slowly or hold off on this strategy while you work on the others. Then try again.
A healthy digestive system is critical to health. I know you’re busy and you need to be efficient. That’s why I teach parents The 4 Pillars Of Resilient Health and simple things they can do that bring massive return on investment.
Focusing some attention on digestive health a little every day is one of those things. If you want to use food as a tool to improve your child's health, pick one of these things to start with and then work through the list.
These core strategies form my roadmap to help guide you in helping your kids achieve better health. You can read a bit more about this roadmap in this post.
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Jess is a Registered Holistic Nutritionist™ and Family Health Expert, specializing in brain health & resilience for kids. She is the author of Raising Resilience: Take the stress out of feeding your family & love your life, a mother and an advocate for children’s health. Her book and online resources have helped families all over the world improve the lives of their children with learning differences, anxiety, ADHD, autism and mood disorders by fitting the food and feeding piece into their health puzzles. She is the 2019 recipient of the CSNNAA award for Clinical Excellence for her work helping families get healthier, and she continues to work at bringing an understanding of the power of good nutrition to the mainstream conversation about children’s mental health, learning, and overall resilience through her blog, courses and as a contributor to print and online magazines. You can reach Jess at www.jesssherman.com
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