There are so many neurons in the gut that some experts have dubbed it the “second brain.”
In fact, research shows that the intestinal tract has more neurons than the spinal cord (!) and produces up to 90 percent of our serotonin, a neurotransmitter that is closely associated with mood and social behavior. Another surprising fact? The gut and the brain are connected by nerve fibers, so they are in constant communication—but it’s not the communication you’d expect. Roughly 90 percent of the signals being sent along the gut-brain transom are going from the gut to the brain, not the other way around.
Or, to put it plainly, the stomach talks more to the brain than the brain talks to the stomach.
Knowing all this, it’s not a surprise to learn that experts think that gut health (or lack thereof) influences mood and behavior. What’s more, they suspect that the gut’s influence on how we feel and act starts when we’re very young.
A study from Ohio State University Center for Clinical and Translational Science supports that hypothesis. Researchers looked at 77 children, ages 27 months and younger, and found that those toddlers with more microbial diversity in their guts ranked higher in measures of sociability, positive affect, and engagement with their environment than those with a less diverse microbial population.
It’s easy to write a catchy headline by making inferences about the findings—“Lack of Microbial Diversity Responsible for ‘Terrible Twos!’”—and while the study does hint that less microbial diversity in young children correlates with being more anxious—and perhaps more reactive (read: tantrumy) as a result, it’s worth remembering that correlation isn’t causation, says lead researcher Lisa Christian, Ph.D.
When it comes to your toddler’s tendency to scream and hurl Legos at you, a thousand different factors might be at play—from genetics to hunger to a bad night’s sleep.
That said, a diverse microbiome—especially in young kids, whose immune systems are just being built—is vitally important to overall health and well-being. Supporting a healthy microbiome is simple—and if your toddler throws a few less tantrums along the way, so much the better!
Here are some of the best ways to support a healthy gut microbiome in young kids:
Get good bugs in. Probiotics are key here. Pills are impossible for young kids to swallow. Opt for a high-quality probiotic in powdered form and use it as a sprinkle on a Paleo sweet treat, homemade grass-fed gelatin square, or any healthy snack. The powder is practically tasteless, and for picky eaters, you can pass it off as powdered sugar. They look identical!
Factor in ferments. Fermented foods are probiotic powerhouses. Kids might not cotton to the stinkiest, like kimchi and kvass, but yogurt can be a good choice. Opt for high-fat, low-sugar options, and consider nondairy alternatives, like coconut yogurt.
Make sure good bacteria have their own food. Healthy bacteria need food to live, just like their hosts, and they favor certain high-fiber foods. Bananas, jicama, onion, garlic, and chicory root top the list.
Ladle up some bone broth. This simple-to-make or easy-to-buy elixir is mineral-rich and profoundly healing for the gut. It’s delicious, too, so getting kids to eat it isn’t usually tricky.
Encourage a low glycemic diet + high healthy-fat diet. Bad bacteria love sugar, so keeping added sugar and high-fructose options out of the diet (or reserved as a special treat) can do wonders. The best way to curb sugar cravings for kids (and adults)? Healthy fats. Think avocados, olive oil, olives, coconut oil, nuts, and seeds.
Don’t fear the backyard. Let kids get dirty, muddy, and dusty. Exposure to good, clean dirt may help bolster immunity rather than weaken it.
When you do finally give them a bath, skip the antimicrobial soaps and hand sanitizers. Antimicrobial soaps kill all bacteria—good and bad. Opt for plain soap and water.