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Probiotics benefit children’s health

Probiotics aren’t just to help women avoid that oh-so predictable yeast infection after a round of antibiotics. Children, research finds, can also benefit by having their digestive system in balance. Here’s why you should consider probiotics for your kids.

Little girl eating yogurt

Probiotics are beneficial bacteria

Boosting a child’s “good” or beneficial bacteria may ward off antibiotic-associated diarrhea and a whole host of other childhood illnesses. Yet despite the explosion of companies promoting foods filled with healthy “live and active cultures,” the studies on children are relatively new. In addition, kids’ colons are not all the same and not all probiotic formulas and bacterial strains are equal. However, it may be worthwhile for parents to get their kids to regularly gobble up these good for you bugs.

Probiotics 101

Probiotics are live microorganisms that exist in the human body. They colonize inside the intestines and other parts of the body, including the skin. Where “bad” bacteria invade the body and cause imbalance and illness, “good” bacteria promotes health throughout the body.

Probiotics work by competing for space with bad bacteria (i.e., they keep the growth of harmful bacteria in check) and stimulate the immune system in ways that help the body recognize harmful organisms. The numbers of each kind of bacteria change depending on age, diet, health status, and use of drugs and supplements.

Today’s modern lifestyle destroys intestinal flora as a result of people overusing antibiotics, eating too many processed foods, and illness. In response, the balance of healthy intestinal bacteria is negatively affected. Kids are just as susceptible as adults if not more so, to having an imbalance.

Ingesting foods or supplements with probiotics increases the amount of beneficial bacteria in the intestinal tract and has been found to aid digestion, boost the body’s immune system, and fights off harmful bacteria.

Foods With Beneficial Bacteria

Some experts believe it’s better to opt for eating foods with naturally occurring live cultures because many products and supplements fail to pass consumer tests.

Yet, E. Farnworth in the article Probiotics and Prebiotics (, November 1998 ), explains that bacteria in probiotic products such as yogurt, kefir and fermented vegetables aren’t generally found in the human intestine. The intestinal environment can actually be a hostile place for these foreign bacteria. As a result, bacteria in probiotic products don’t colonize the intestine but are flushed through and eliminated quickly from the body. The bacteria that do thrive do so because they’re able to adhere to the intestinal wall and use the semi-digested food that is passing through the intestines.

You can increase your child’s beneficial intestinal bacteria in three ways: feed them foods with naturally occurring live cultures, foods with added live cultures or supplements.

Foods with naturally occurring live cultures

This source of beneficial bacteria is comprised of fermented foods.

Fermented foods with naturally occurring live cultures:

  • Some yogurts and yogurt drinks such as kefir
  • Sour cream
  • Sauerkraut
  • Buttermilk
  • Acidophilus milk
  • Pickles
  • Kombucha tea
  • Whey

Food Products with live and active cultures

Food companies are increasingly promoting products they claim are loaded with live and active cultures. Yet the explosive trend is more than just a marketing ploy.

Pasteurizing modern foods has all but destroyed the naturally occurring flora found in foods. As a result, companies are fortifying products with probiotics to re-introduce beneficial bacteria. The concentrations of added probiotics in food products, however, are likely too low to do much good, says Dr. Michael Cabana, chief of general pediatrics at UCSF Children’s Hospital.

Of the several hundred probiotic-product lines on the market in North America only, “15 to 20 have clinical studies behind them,” explains Gregor Reid, a professor of microbiology at the University of Western Onatrio’s Lawson Research Institute, for The Wall Street Journal.

While there are numerous studies exploring probiotics’ potential, (in the 1990s there were one or two published probiotics studies a year, while in 2005, over 350 studies were published), few in the US address probiotics use in children.

Probiotics and Illness in Kids

Research has found that probiotics have been successful in reducing bowel inflammation or infectious diarrhea, preventing antiobiotic-induced diarrhea, and preventing urogenital infections, such as yeast infections.

On-going research on the use of probiotics and children shows promise to treat or reduce:

  • Ear and respiratory infections
  • Eczema
  • Atopic dermatitis
  • Asthma
  • Colds
  • Colic
  • Lactose intolerance
  • Dental cavities
  • Urinary infections
  • The risk of obesity due to their metabolic effects

Research on children and the benefits of probiotic use is still relatively new so scientists still aren’t clear which strains work best and in what dose. The jury is still out if probiotics are effective to treat respiratory allergies and other allergies in children.

Results largely depend on the individual child, and in particular, what kinds of probiotic microorganisms the child has living in her digestive tract. Different species of probiotics may actually inhibit each other.

Talk to your pediatrician before giving your infant or child probiotic powders or supplements. Your child’s doctor can help determine the ideal strains of bacteria and dosages.

Beneficial Strains of probiotics

Many doctors suggest feeding children the probiotic organism that already exists in the human digestive system.

Researcher Brad C. Johnston and colleagues found that the most promising microorganisms for therapeutic use are:

  • Lactobacillus rhamnosis GG May be especially appropriate as a treatment for childhood diarrhea caused by rotavirus.
  • Lactobacillus sporogenes (another bacterium)
  • Saccharomyces boulardii (a yeast)

Look for doses of 5 to 40 billion colony forming units/day.

Prebiotics are important

Prebiotics are nondigestible food ingredients that stimulate the growth, and/or activity of beneficial microorganisms already in people’s colons. They can help bifidobacteria and lactobaccilli flourish. When probiotics and prebiotics are mixed together, they form a synbiotic, which means they work together more effectively than a probiotic alone to improve the intestinal “friendly flora.”

Prebiotics largely come from carbohydrate fibers called oligosaccharides. They’re not digestable, so oligosaccharides remain in the digestive tract and stimulate the growth of beneficial bacteria. Fruits, legumes, and whole grains contain oligosaccharides. Fructo-oligosaccharides may be taken as a supplement or added to foods. Yogurt made with bifidobacteria contain oligosaccharides. Unlike probiotic bacteria, prebiotics are not destroyed when cooked, so they are easy to include in everyday meals.

If you breastfeed, your baby is already receiving prebiotics because breast milk contains oligosaccharide molecules. Additionally, prebiotics are now being added to some formulas so if you bottle feed your baby, you can look out for a brand with prebiotics.

For preterm infants and people who are very ill or suffer from immune deficiency, probiotics may increase the risk of bacterial and fungal infection. However, the Lactobaccillus strain, which occurs naturally in fermented dairy products, like yogurt, seems to have a long track record of safety.

Consult with your child’s pediatrician

Probiotics and prebiotics supplements may be beneficial for children, particularly to treat cases of diarrhea. For other conditions, supporting evidence is less clear. Before investing in probiotic or prebiotic supplements for your child, speak to a pediatrician to determine the safety, the ideal strains to use, and the appropriate dosage.

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