The Benefits of Probiotics for Children
by Dr. Linda Chun
Many of us are familiar with yogurt and some of its benefits, but what about kombucha, kefir, miso and kimchi? These fermented foods are all good sources of probiotics that can improve the symptoms associated with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), eczema, allergies, diarrhea and infant colic. When it comes to optimizing overall health for both adult and pediatric patients, it is increasingly clear that probiotics can play a significant role.
By definition, probiotics are helpful bacteria or yeast that benefit intestinal health. Normal human gastrointestinal tracts contain intestinal flora, or gut bacteria, referred to as “gut microbiota”. Tens of trillions of diverse microorganisms make up this environment. Microbiota are involved in regulating digestion, pulling nutrients from food, supporting metabolism, strengthening the immune system, maintaining the intestinal tract integrity and protecting against growth of harmful bacteria. Studies show that while humans share similar intestinal bacteria, about two-thirds of microbiota is specific to each individual.
How do bacteria end up there? A full term baby’s intestinal tract is colonized by the mother’s microbiota during the natural birthing process. Additionally, breastfeeding provides beneficial bacteria (Bifidobacteria) from the mother’s skin and breasts. If a baby is born prematurely, by C-section, or is exposed to antibiotics because the mother received antibiotics during labor, that baby is at risk for acquiring less diverse gut flora, and less diversity is less beneficial. Research shows that people with conditions such as IBS, allergies, asthma or eczema tend to have less diversity in their microbiota.
A loss of balance in the gut microbiota, often caused by illness or the use of antibiotics, may contribute to health problems. Antibiotics kill not only harmful infection-causing bacteria, but also friendly, healthy microorganisms. Including fermented and fiber-rich foods and a probiotic supplement in the diet can help restore balance and fight off many common symptoms of disease. Additional research has shown that probiotics can be especially helpful when it comes to various pediatric medical conditions:
Allergies, asthma, eczema (atopic disease)
These common pediatric conditions may be hereditary. Mothers with a significant family history of these conditions may be able to reduce, with probiotic supplements, an infant’s risk of experiencing symptoms both before and after birth. A 2008 study conducted in New Zealand showed that when such a mother was given Lactobacilli rhamnosus GG during the last month of pregnancy, followed by the mother and baby taking it for six months post-partum, the risk of eczema was reduced by 50 percent.
A review done in 2012 of over 60 published studies on this topic concluded that use of probiotics was associated with an overall 42 percent decreased risk of developing diarrhea caused by treatment with antibiotics. Saccharomyces boulardii is a probiotic yeast that can be found in an over-the-counter supplement specifically for kids, and this product is helpful in preventing antibiotic-induced diarrhea. In general, it is good to take probiotics a few hours after each antibiotic dose and for an additional one to two months after finishing treatment.
Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
Studies done in 2010 showed that Lactobacillus GG and Lactobacillus reuteri DSM 17938 reduced frequency and severity of abdominal pain in children with IBS.
Although the studies are not consistent, there is research that shows Lactobacillus reuteri can improve signs of colic in infants.
While ongoing research is necessary, it is clear that probiotics can provide general and specific health benefits for pediatric patients. A good resource for parents to learn about the effectiveness and uses of certain probiotics and supplements is ConsumerLab.com. Through independent testing of supplements, ConsumerLab.com identifies which products do or do not contain the labeled amount of viable colonies of bacteria. It also provides information on scientific studies. Regarding safety, parents should always discuss this natural option with their pediatrician before adopting a probiotic regimen. Children with compromised immune systems, or who have IV catheters or indwelling medical devices, should not take probiotic supplements. Dosing for probiotics varies depending on the product and specific indication.
Linda Chun, MD, is an internist and pediatrician who practices integrative medicine at the OSU Integrative Medicine Clinic and in the Chronic Pain Clinic at Nationwide Children’s Hospital. For more information about integrative health at The Ohio State University, visit Go.OSU.edu/IntegrativeHealth.