Your toddler’s gastrointestinal system (gut/GI system) plays an incredibly important role in your child’s overall health – it is here that all nutrients are received, processed, and distributed to nourish the body. But did you know that there is a very special connection between your child’s gastrointestinal system and brain, known as the gut-brain axis? Also known as the enteric nervous system (ENS), scientists even call the gastrointestinal system the second brain1. Let’s take a deeper look at the gut and brain connection and what it means for your 13-15-month-old child’s heath.
The science behind the gut and brain connection
The gut and brain communicate through neurotransmitters – think of these as chemical messengers. Those that are produced in the brain (like serotonin) influence feelings and emotions. Interestingly, the gut also produces neurotransmitters that travel via the ENS. The ENS consists of millions of nerves, neurons and neurotransmitters that line the gut. Stretching from the oesophagus (the tube that takes food and liquid from the throat to the stomach) to the rectum, the ENS includes the vagus nerve, which connects to the hypothalamus in the brain. The hypothalamus controls hunger and emotions.2
Think of the vagus nerve as an extra-long phone line between the brain and the gut.3 The gut and the brain “talk” to each other via the vagus nerve, making it central to the gut and brain connection. For example, animal studies show the impact of stress (which originates from the hypothalamus in the brain) on the vagus nerve, reducing its function and resulting in gastrointestinal issues.4
Gut impact on the brain
Another important element in the gut-brain axis consists of the trillions of bacteria and other microorganisms that reside in your child’s gut (gut microbiome).2
Here are some of the things we know about how the gut microbiome could impact the brain.5, 6, 7, 8
They produce certain chemicals that influence the brain’s function, for example, short-chain fatty acids like butyrate and propionate that influence how the brain regulates appetite.
They encourage immune cells in the gut to produce cytokines that travel to the brain via blood. Cytokines are a type of protein that trigger the immune system to do its job.
Neurochemicals produced by gut bacteria are used by the brain to regulate cognitive processes like memory and learning.
Ninety-five percent of the body’s serotonin, which influences mood, is produced by gut bacteria.
Given this intricate relationship between the gut, its microbiome, and the brain, it is important that parents keep their toddler’s gut healthy and happy for optimal overall health.
How to support your toddler’s gastrointestinal development
Ensuring your toddler is not exposed to stressful situations can also help keep the microbiome healthy – research showed that exposure to stress can cause imbalances in the microbiome.11
The development of a healthy microbiome is essential to the optimal development of your child’s GI tract. According to research, three phases of microbial gut colonisation take place in a child following birth spanning four years: a developmental phase from three to 14 months; a transitional phase from 15-30 months; and a stable phase from 31 months onwards.10
Since your little one is now in the transitional phase, it is important to nurture his/her gut, keeping those good bacteria nourished and happy. One of the best ways to do this is through nutrition; specifically foods that are naturally rich in prebiotics that feed those friendly microbes. Most fibre-rich fruits and vegetables contain prebiotics, for example, bananas, green leafy vegetables, and garlic. Other good sources of prebiotics include wholegrains, yoghurt, as well as 2’-FL and prebiotics such as FOS in formula milk. You could also speak to a doctor about supporting your child’s gut with a probiotic supplement. Probiotics are live, beneficial microorganisms.
Lastly, research has shown that exposure to stress can cause imbalances in the microbiome11, and ensuring your toddler is not exposed to stressful situations can help keep the microbiome healthy.
1 John Hopkins Medicine. The Brain-Gut Connection. Accessed on 5th March, 2022 from https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/wellness-and-prevention/the-brain-gut-connection
2 Lima-Ojeda, J et al. Happy Gut Bacteria, Happy Brain: The Microbiota-Gut-Brain Axis. Frontiers for Young Minds. Published on 11th February, 2019. Accessed on 5th March, 2022 from https://kids.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/frym.2019.00015#:~:text=Gut%20bacteria%20have%20a%20strong,bacteria%20living%20in%20the%20gut.
3 Breit, S. et al. Vagus Nerve as Modulator of the Brain–Gut Axis in Psychiatric and Inflammatory Disorders. Frontiers in Psychiatry. Published 13th March 2018. Accessed on 5th March, 2022 from https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyt.2018.00044/full#:~:text=The%20vagus%20nerve%20carries%20an,thorax%20down%20to%20the%20abdomen.
4 Sahar, T. et al. Vagal modulation of responses to mental challenge in posttraumatic stress disorder. Biol. Psychiatry. Published 1st April 2001. Accessed on 5th April, 2022 from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/11297721/
5 Clarke, G et al. Minireview: Gut Microbiota: The Neglected Endocrine Organ. Mol Endocrinol. Published in August 2014. Accessed on 5th March, 2022 from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5414803/
6 Chambers, E et al. Control of appetite and energy intake by SCFA: what are the potential underlying mechanisms? Proceedings of the Nutrition Society. Published in December 2014. Accessed on 5th March, 2022 from https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/proceedings-of-the-nutrition-society/article/control-of-appetite-and-energy-intake-by-scfa-what-are-the-potential-underlying-mechanisms/A1EFBE12AD6F9838EBE3D7314D1EE1B4
7 Howes, L. How your gut might modify your mind. Chemical and Engineering News. Published on 8th April, 2020. Accessed on 5th March, 2022 from https://cen.acs.org/biological-chemistry/microbiome/gut-might-modify-mind/97/i14
8 Carpenter, S. That Gut Feeling. Monitor on Psychology, American Psychological Association. Published in September 2012. Accessed on 5th March, 2022 from https://www.apa.org/monitor/2012/09/gut-feeling
9 Hunt, K. Babies born by C-section have less of their mom’s gut bacteria. Here’s why that might be important. CNN Health. Published on 19th September, 2019. Accessed on 22nd February, 2022 from https://edition.cnn.com/2019/09/18/health/babies-gut-microbiome-birth-vaginal-c-section-intl/index.html)
10 The European Society of Neurogastroenterology and Motility. Infant gut microbiota develops in three stages. Accessed on 5th March, 2022 from https://www.gutmicrobiotaforhealth.com/infant-gut-microbiota-develops-in-three-stages/
11 Madison, A et al. Stress, depression, diet, and the gut microbiota: human–bacteria interactions at the core of psychoneuroimmunology and nutrition. Curr Opin Behav Sci. Accessed on 5th March, 2022 from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7213601/