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What is the Brain Gut Axis and How Does It Affect Kids?

Have you ever felt butterflies or nauseous when nervous? Or perhaps you’ve “gone with your gut” while making a decision? Children experience this, as well. Gut health in children is a broad topic that goes beyond digestion. Research on the role of gut health and its impact on children’s brain/mental health and its interconnection is providing interesting findings for further discovery and action.  

The Brain Gut Axis

The gut and the brain communicate continuously through the system called the enteric nervous system (ENS). In simpler terms, it is known as the gut-brain-axis or the microbiome-gut-brain axis. This axis consists of a mesh of nerves that passes through the pancreas, gastrointestinal tract, and gallbladder.

In the ENS, the gut microbiomes are the key players as they can be good, bad, or harmless. These microbiomes produce chemicals such as neurotransmitters that send signals from the gut to the brain. Neurotransmitters help in communication among neurons in the brain and the ENS of the gut. Five of the most common neurotransmitters include: acetylcholine (associated with Alzheimer's disease and myasthenia gravis), dopamine (ADHD and Parkinson's disease), glutamate and GABA (epilepsy and seizures), and serotonin (depression).

This communication is hampered when there is a scarcity of good bacteria or an overgrowth of bad bacteria in the gut, which results in a number of issues - including anxiety, cognition, chronic headaches, irritability, depressed mood, and brain fog in kids.

More research is exploring the role of gut health and its direct impact on kids’ mental health. According to Science Daily and NIH, a little imbalance of microbiome in the gut reduces neurochemical serotonin production that leads to brain-related problems. Studies such as these suggest there is much to learn about optimizing neurotransmitter production in the gut.

As kids can face some brain-related issues whenever the microbiome in their gut is imbalanced, it is evident that the microbiome is a delicate balance. One way this balance is disrupted is through the use of antibiotics. Antibiotics kill both good and bad bacteria in the digestive tract. Good bacteria are needed to break down the food in the intestine, absorb nutrients, and guard the digestive system. Therefore, some doctors recommend taking a probiotic while consuming antibiotics to help replenish the gut’s good bacteria.

Further, to keep the gut healthy, caregivers can consider limiting sugary foods, giving children probiotics to maintain good bacteria on one end of the day, and antibacterial botanicals known to kill bad bacteria (such as oregano) to their kids on the other end of the day. Oregano oil is used to treat small intestine bacterial overgrowth (SIBO). In fact, one article on NCBI states that oregano is more effective than antibiotics in kicking away gut parasites.

Probiotics Role In A Child’s Gut Brain Axis

There are many different strains of probiotics. Probiotics that contain bifidobacteria and lactobacilli strains have been particularly shown to improve healthy bacteria levels in the gut. According to a study, these probiotic species prevent diseases like IBD, obesity, cardiovascular disease, etc.

There are studies that talk about how bacteria in the gut affect brain health. A study from KU Leuven University in Belgium states that dialister and coprococcus are the two kinds of bacteria that play a significant role in mental health. In this study, it was noted that people with lower levels of these bacteria are more likely to be depressed.

Research is learning more and more about the impact of probiotics on mental health, immune health, mood, and the brain. The rise of prebiotics on the impact of probiotics for a healthy gut microbiome has garnered attention. It is thought that prebiotics work as “fertilizer” for the probiotics. Prebiotics are found naturally in foods like leeks, onions, garlic, chicory, beans, and potatoes. A healthy gut microbiome supports behavioral and emotional regulation. Research suggests that good bacteria in the gut help optimal neurotransmitter production, which influences optimal brain function.  

As research and data grow, it is becoming clear that taking probiotics regularly offers a wide range of benefits to children, such as a healthier immune system, healthy bowel habits, weight, metabolism, mood, and focus. Perhaps one day there will be a new adage, “A healthy gut leads to a healthy mind and body.”

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