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6 Ways To Improve Your Child's Digestion

digestion mood learning & behaviour

In my book, Raising Resilience, I discuss the Core Diet Strategies that help parents improve the health of their kids. Supporting digestion is one of them.

Supporting digestion is a core strategy because what goes on in the digestive system influences the entire body. Yes, the entire body.

When we work on digestion, the kids in the families I work with tend to start to feel and function better - they often become less picky with food, sleep better, they manage their stress better, become less irritable, they focus better and their energy becomes more even keeled. Of course, it depends on exactly what's going on and what strategies we use, but in general, things look up when the gut is functioning better.

If you're wondering why things get better... good question. Here's why.

(Related post: Why Probiotics Are Not The Answer To Healthy Digestion)

Why Digestion?

Poor digestion can be a player in your child’s irritability, disturbed sleep, aggression, tantrums, inattention, and hyperactivity. There might be more to the story, but here's why digestion is a crucial part to explore….

Digestion has two main roles:

1) Break food apart into nutrients that cells can use as fuel 

2) Eliminate waste the body doesn't want or need

If either of those two functions is "off" (and most often they both go off together), the body has an increased stress load to manage, while at the same time becomes malnourished - a double whammy that leads to reduced function and generally feeling unwell.

Let's get more specific.

If food is not broken down into nutrients that cells can use as fuel...

  • ...partially broken down food starts to cause irritation and inflammation in the intestine leading to pain, bloat, constipation and general discomfort
  • ...in some cases, this inflammation stimulates the immune cells that line the intestine which then signal inflammation in other areas beyond the gut itself. This extra stress can contribute to myriad symptoms like moodiness, headaches, joint pain and focus problems
  • ....cells lose their source of fuel and become malnourished, so body systems stop working well (even though you might be getting great food onto the table and into mouths)

If the body can't efficiently eliminate waste it doesn't want or need...

  • ...hormones, metabolites and chemicals that should be exiting out of the body through the stool and urine are instead reabsorbed back into circulation where they cause extra stress and interference
  • ... bacteria in the gut feed on the stagnant waste causing gas, digestive upset and more inflammation

Your child is not going to be feeling or functioning their best if this is going on!

There's More Going On In The Gut...

There’s also a heck of a lot more going on in the digestive tract that has little to do with the process of digestion itself.

About 5 to 10  pounds of at least 1000 different species of bugs live in your digestive tract. For the most part, these bugs are our friends.

Aside from helping to digest food, they:

  • regulate metabolism,
  • educate immune cells,
  • aid detoxification,
  • regulate appetite,
  • protect against pathogens,
  • create certain vitamins, hormones and neurotransmitters.

Those supportive bugs are basically master regulators - like Oz behind the curtain or the puppet master pulling the strings.

They're big players in our health for sure, and when microbial balance is "off" a vicious cycle of instability is set in motion. You'll hear that instability referred to as "dysbiosis" - it's a situation in which pathogenic microbes like parasites along with opportunistic yeast, bacteria and viruses start to thrive. When they do, the neighborhood starts going downhill as they alter the pH, erode the intestinal lining, eat up your food, and generally stress out the body.

(Related post (video): The Microbiome: The house of health)

So focusing attention on establishing healthy digestion yields big “bang for your buck” in a lot of ways, and for busy parents short on time, energy and resources who are worried about their child's health and function, that kind of efficiency is important.

6 Ways To Support Your Child's Digestion 

Supporting your child's digestion involves more than giving them a probiotic. We need to support the delicate balance of microbiota while also keeping all the digestive organs, pathways and mucosa happy and well nourished. 

In some cases, stool testing is helpful to figure out exactly what's going on in there, but here are 6 general strategies you can start with to support the system.

1. Set a Calm Tone for Meals

I know this can be tricky for busy families, but finding ways to help your child sit for meals and chew their food helps improve digestion a great deal.

Anxiety, worry, and eating on the run, activate the sympathetic arm of the nervous  system and stimulate the release of our main stress hormone, cortisol. Cortisol slows digestion, and contributes to the destruction of  beneficial gut flora and increased permeability of the intestinal lining. 

When you relieve tension, breathe, chew and slow down you prompt the release of the “rest, digest, and grow” hormones and improve digestion in general.

Some families like to use music, simple table games or essential oils to promote less stressful mealtimes.

2. Include Probiotic Supplements (and/or Fermented Food)

Probiotics are all the rage these days for good reason – they reinforce the helpful microbiota in the gut, helping to prevent pathogenic microbes from becoming too powerful.

Recall that a healthy gut houses about 5 to 10 lb. of microbes, whose jobs range from digesting food to regulating immune function, metabolism and gene expression.

Properly fermented foods and probiotic supplements contain the type of bacteria (and sometimes yeast), that keep the gut environment in a healthy balance. 

Including fermented food and probiotics in your child’s diet is generally a great way to keep the inner ecosystem of the gut healthy but if they lead to gas, bloat or increase irritability, it's time to run some functional gut tests to see what's going on in there. You still have options, but you'll need ones that are targeted to your particular situation.

(Related Post: How To Ferment Food For Your Kids)

3. Include Foods Known to Heal, Soothe, and Nourish

I almost always suggest families add foods into the diet before they consider taking anything out. There are many foods which help to heal, soothe, and nourish the gut lining, stimulate digestive juices, and reduce gut inflammation.

Here are a few:

  • Garlic and onions stimulate the production of bile
  • Lemon and raw apple cider vinegar help normalize stomach acid 
  • Peppermint, ginger, raspberry leaf, and chamomile teas soothe and tone the stomach lining
  • Papaya and pineapple contain protein-digesting enzymes
  • Okra, leeks, mushroom, slippery elm can be helpful for healing a damaged lining 
  • Berries (particularly blueberries), turmeric, ginger, wild fish, cold-pressed virgin olive oil, cruciferous vegetables (like broccoli or kale), and garlic can decrease inflammation

You’ll find many of these foods incorporated into recipes in my book. If they cause pain or discomfort like probiotics (which sometimes happens when the ecosystem is very out of balance), you'll need a more targeted plan. 

(Related Post: Top Mistake Parent's Make When Changing Their Child's Diet)

4. Avoid digestion trouble-makers

It’s not difficult to destabilize the ecosystem of the gut. Sugar, stress, smoke, chemicals, plastics, antibiotics and anti-inflammatory medication are some of the things that throw off digestive enzymes, microbial balance, and pH levels of the digestive tract.

Even though I avoid restricting a child's diet as much as possible (we nourish before we restrict), hard-to-digest foods like gluten and non-fermented cow's dairy tend to destabilize the environment, particularly if it's not so healthy to begin with. Avoiding these eases stress on the system.

(Related Posts: Best Dairy Alternatives; Do Gluten and Sugar Impact Child Behavior?)

5. Focus on Flavonoid-Rich Foods

Flavonoids are plant chemicals 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 have a protective effect on the tight junctions of the digestive lining, can  reduce gut inflammation, and help regulate probiotic bacterial colonies.

When foods are stored, cooked, and processed, flavonoid content is dramatically reduced. So eating some fresh raw foods and including a rainbow of colours in your child's diet will help ensure good flavonoid intake. There are also some good flavonoid-rich supplements available.

6. Add More Fabulous Fibre

Adequate fibre in the diet is critical for optimal digestive function. Not only does fibre act as a "magnetic broom" to clean the intestine of waste and bulk up stool, it also provides food for our gut bacteria to ensure they stay healthy and in good balance.

Whole foods like beans, pumpkin, cauliflower, nuts, coconut, seeds, and high fibre fruits like apples and apricots supply helpful fibre.

(Related post: Healthy Homemade Apple Sauce For Intestinal (& Overall) Health)

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. 

Increase dietary fibre slowly as it can be irritating to a damaged digestive tract. If your child starts experiencing gas, bloat, pain, constipation, or diarrhea, or if their mood, sleep or behavior get worse as you increase fibre, you need to hold off on this strategy while you work on the others. Consider functional testing to see what microbes are out of balance. 

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Bottom Line

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 to focus in on 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're still not getting anywhere with these strategies, functional gut testing can help shed some light. 

About Jess Sherman, FDN-P, M.Ed, R.H.N

Jess is a Functional Diagnostic Nutrition® Practitioner, Registered Holistic Nutritionist™ and Family Health Educator 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, and the creator of The Resilience Roadmap™ - a systematic process to help parents help their kids feel and function better. Her book and online resources have helped families in 44 countries improve the lives of their children with learning differences, anxiety, ADHD, autism and mood disorders by helping them find hidden stressors and fit 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 bring 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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The content on this website and in the guides and courses offered here is meant to provide information so that parents can make informed decisions and discuss these issue with their health care teams. It is not intended as, nor should it be considered a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, treatment, or individualized care.