As days become shorter and temperatures drop, the flu season is getting closer. Although staying at home sick for a few days sounds like fun to my 7 years old, it may not always be an ideal scenario for many parents. We all know that the food our children eat helps them grow well and stay healthy.
But eating well is important not only because it provides us with important nutrients helping to ward off disease but also because it maintains the gut microflora in an optimal shape. Some studies suggest that gut microflora affects multiple aspects of our health such as our nutritional status, emotional wellbeing, incidence of digestive diseases and our ability to defend ourselves against pathogens such as viruses and bacteria. These pathogens can be destroyed or not by the first line of defense provided by the bacteria of the insides of their gastrointestinal tract.
Healthy microbial composition of the gut, or gut microbiota, gets rid of potentially pathogenic substances like viruses, bacteria and toxins by deactivating or “out crowding” them. It also helps maintain an intact coating of our digestive tract, preventing “leaky gut syndrome” when partially digested foods and bacteria escape through mini gaps in the walls of digestive tract into the bloodstream. This condition has been linked to a host of inflammatory diseases such as arthritis, cancer, obesity and depression.” In addition, gut microbiota is a “home” to more than 75% cells of the immune system. Finally, it produces half a dozen vitamins and short chain fatty acids nourishing the cells of the large intestine.
More studies are needed to investigate the mechanism of interaction between “good” and “bad” types of gut bacteria, food components and disease-promoting factors. The role of nutrition in maintenance of healthy gut also still needs clarification through bigger studies. But it is clear that Western diet, low in fiber, whole grains, vegetables, fermented foods, high in processed foods, including refined carbohydrates, and red meat creates a misbalance in gut microflora. In this case, the number of good bacteria goes down, followed by the overgrowth of “bad” bacteria. Other important factors determining gut health are use of antibiotics, stress, genetics and age.
When it comes to protecting your child from common cold and other viruses “from inside” the following dietary principles of marinating healthy gut may be helpful:
- Shop, prepare and serve whole foods most of the time such as fruits and vegetables, legumes, nuts and seeds, eggs, poultry, fish and whole grains.
- Cut down on processed, sugar-rich, fiber-poor foods.
- Explore ancient grains such as kamut, millet, amaranth, teff and quinoa for a boost of fiber, essential fatty acids and other important nutrients.
- Make you plate plant-centered, build your meals around vegetables, legumes and grains rather than animal protein sources.
- Serve at least 5 servings of fruit and vegetables per day. One serving is ½ cooked or 1 cup raw fruits or vegetables.
- Add fermented foods to the diet. Good choices are: yogurt and kefir(make sure it contains live bacteria), fermented soy products such as miso and tempeh, fermented vegetables such as kimchi and sauerkraut.
- Supplement diet with probiotics. Recent research shows that certain strains of Lactobacillus may reduce your chances of getting a common cold by 12%. Talk to your doctor or dietitian about the best choice for your child.
Other ways to help your child stay healthy through the flu season:
- Make sure your child get adequate sleep (14-16 hours for babies under 12 months of age, 10-13 hours for children ages 1 to 3 years, 10-12 hours for preschoolers and school age children and 8-9 hours of sleep for teens)
- Help them get enough physical activity during the day. Children should be active for at least 1 hour a day and toddlers for at least 1.5 hours a day.
- Encourage frequent hand washing with soap for at least 20 seconds.
By Natalia Stasenko MS, RD
Gut Health and Immunity — It’s All About the Good Bacteria That Can Help Fight Disease, By Lori Zanteson Today’s Dietitian Vol. 14 No. 6 P. 58
Gut health’: a new objective in medicine? Stephan C Bischoff, BMC Medicine 2011, 9:24