There is most probably not a week that goes by without parents asking me about probiotics for their baby, either for general health or for specific gastrointestinal conditions. I have just come from the a Gut Microbiome Conference in Paris, so it seems fitting to write about this topic in this blog entry.
So, the bacterial flora constitute 90% of the total number of cells associated with our bodies and only the remaining 10% are human cells. So in fact, we are more bacteria than human! There is not doubt in the scientific community that the microbiota of the gut is part of the answer to our health and also the cause of many illnesses. There are numerous studies indicating an abnormal bacterial flora in children with allergic disease, inflammatory bowel disease and even specific trends in children that are under/overweight have been found. This all sounds very exiting, but here is where the problem lies: your microbiota changes with age, diet, genetic background, antibiotic use in early childhood and environment. So that means, although your baby may have about 40% overlap in bacterial flora with another baby, the rest is unique to them and is determined by the factors mentioned above. I often have parents that have have had their child’s bacterial flora evaluated at very high cost, that ask me what to give in regards to probiotics, but disappointingly I have tell them that I do not know as I do not know what is “normal” for their child.
In disease (i.e. allergy, reflux, inflammatory bowel disease, irritable bowel disease) they are starting to identify target strains that have specific functions, that is very exiting and many of us working with dietary interventions in children are starting to use these products, BUT I always say to parents that it may not always provide you with this magic symptom relief.
So, what can you do? First of all, the more diverse the diet (in particular with fruit/vegetables and grains) the more diverse the gut bacterial flora and diversity has been linked to health. If you do want to give a probiotic to a healthy baby as a general rule of thumb you would aim for Bifido strains for < 6 months old as this is the predominant strains in a breast fed child and then complementary foods increase Lactobacilli strains increase, so then using these strains may be more useful. Go for a reputable brand, that has actually in what it is supposed to have and if your child has a specific diagnosis, consult your dietitian about what the best strain is to use. An important message to get out, is that strains of probiotic are specific so one may help with one condition but not with another. Another important message is that when your child is on an antibiotic, to choose a probiotic that is resistant to the antibiotic, otherwise the well-meant probiotic will also be killed by the antibiotic.
I leave you with these thoughts and most importantly, that healthy eating also creates a healthy gut.