Doctor Doni

Gut Health for Kids: Empowering the Next Generation with Dr. Elisa Song (Episode 212)

My friend and colleague Dr. Elisa Song is an integrative pediatrician who specializes in helping children and families with their gut health. She trained as a medical doctor at Stanford and UCSF and then became an integrative practitioner. She has helped so many people with her website and her book, both called Healthy Kids, Happy Kids. 

From an early age Dr. Elisa knew she wanted to work with kids. She was planning to be a public policy children’s rights advocate and went along the whole path until somewhere in her junior year, she saw a flyer for the American Holistic Medical Association conference. This is before it was really called Holistic Medicine; it was called Alternative Medicine. 

She drove down to the Santa Clara Convention Center, and her mind was blown. She realized she wanted to help people using natural approaches. She chose to become an MD, and then integrate preventive care into her practice.

Integrating Holistic Approaches in Medical Training

So how can we integrate some of our more natural, holistic modalities to heal and really help kids thrive? And how about even, in the first place, trying to figure out some of the root causes of what’s going on so we could even prevent the possible need for heavy-duty pharmaceuticals or prevent a diagnosis from even ever happening, whether it’s eczema, ADHD, or whatever it is? 

More and more parents are thinking that way. Like, how much of what we eat, what medications we take, and what we’re exposed to in our childhood influences the rest of our lives? So it’s this opportunity to really establish a person’s health long-term.

We have this golden opportunity as pediatricians or family practice doctors, caring for these babies, these infants from the time they’re born, to really influence and shape how their future health develops. It’s an opportunity that isn’t tapped into enough in the conventional pediatric world, and it’s really through no fault of pediatricians. Our kids can’t wait because right now, our kids do have a crisis of chronic disease. We need to get to a place where microbiome gut health, gut-brain connection, gut-immune system connection are discussed in all medical training. 

The Importance of the Microbiome in Pediatric Health

All health starts in the gut. There are many studies backing up this idea that your child’s gut microbiome, from the moment they’re born and how it gets shaped, especially in those first thousand days, the first two and a half to three years of life, really informs how their immune system, what path their immune system will choose to take, and how their brain and their synapses and all of those brain connections will form and which ones they keep.

Dr. Elisa shared that one particular study of nearly 800,000 children, looked at infants who were given antibiotics or antacid medications in the first six months of life and found that in those children, they had a significantly increased risk, something even up to double the risk, of developing every single allergic disease by the time they’re four years of age. 

And the number of kids with eczema, asthma, and hay fever are all climbing, and so we can attribute that to, “What is the impact of antibiotics and antacid medications?” They’re immediate disruptors of the gut microbiome. 

And especially what we found over the decades is that our children’s gut microbiomes have changed, that they have way less of this beneficial probiotic bacteria called Bifidobacteria. And that has been linked, even in adults, let’s say with COVID-19. One study found that the patients who had more severe outcomes had less Bifidobacteria in their gut. 

When we see that 80% of our immune system is housed in our gut microbiome, we can see why this naive immune system in a baby, that’s relying on their gut microbiome to shape it and to tell it how to form, if we have a disrupted gut microbiome, we might not have the results that we really want.

The Gut-Brain Connection and Mental Health

Then we have this crisis of mental health in children and teenagers. 

Now we know that at early ages when your infant and your toddler’s brain is exploding with new connections, that this brain development is following how the microbiome is also rapidly changing during these times of development.

You can literally see every day they’re like, “Oh my gosh, their brain’s different. They learned something new.” And it’s most likely the case that it’s how the microbiome is changing and developing during these times that influences how a child’s brain is really forming and changing.

And so, if we can help support that gut-brain connection via the vagus nerve and help support the gut microbiome with all of the beneficial bacteria that create around 90% of our body’s serotonin to help us feel calm and relaxed and 50% of our dopamine, which helps kids with attention and focus we can see why supporting the gut microbiome, especially during these formative years, can really help to create more healthy, positive, optimal brain connections.

The Importance of Judicious Antibiotic Use

When kids are getting exposed to antibiotics it’s not that we want to say antibiotics are bad or don’t use antibiotics. It’s more like, how can we be preventive and only use antibiotics when necessary? Because if we use them too much, it disrupts the microbiome.

We also know that too much use of antibiotics creates resistance. Some experts are predicting that by 2050, antibiotic resistance is going to become a leading cause of death worldwide. 

Antibiotics can be absolutely necessary and appropriate in some cases, but we also know that they are often inappropriately prescribed, and for children, that number can be up to 70% of prescriptions. 

Antibiotics are oftentimes prescribed for viruses, and we know they are not effective at getting rid of viruses. So, as practitioners and as parents, we want to be good antibiotic stewards from a public health standpoint and really make sure that when we are prescribing or using antibiotics, that they really are absolutely necessary. 

And then, from that more naturopathic, functional medicine, integrative perspective, we also want to know how to mop up and restore the disruption to your child’s gut microbiome after they’ve had antibiotics. And this is even if they’ve had antibiotics in the distant past, there likely is going to be some cleanup and restoration that has to happen.

It’s never too late to improve gut health, even if your child has taken antibiotics or other medications that can disrupt the gut microbiome. A Danish study found that infants exposed to antibiotics, even before birth, had a higher risk of developing mental health issues later in childhood and adolescence. The more rounds of antibiotics, the higher the risk.

Many common medications, such as antibiotics, painkillers, antidepressants, steroids, and acid blockers, can also disrupt the gut microbiome. This disruption may contribute to worsening mental health symptoms over time, even if the medications initially seem to help.

As parents, it’s important to be compassionate with ourselves and understand that sometimes antibiotics are necessary, especially for serious infections in infants. However, now that we know more about the impact on the gut microbiome, we can take steps to promote gut health moving forward.

This includes identifying root causes of health issues, addressing nutritional deficiencies, and implementing a gut-healing regimen. Understanding your child’s health history is key to determining the best path forward.

Making decisions about your child’s health is one of the biggest responsibilities as a parent. 

Being informed can help you make the best choices for your child’s well-being.

Empowering Kids as Health Advocates

Involving children in learning about healthy eating can lead them to make better food choices themselves. Rather than just instructing them what to do, explaining the reasons behind it allows kids to understand and take ownership. 

When parents educate kids about nutrition in an engaging way, kids will surprise you by reading labels, trying new healthy foods like fermented vegetables, and embracing positive habits. It’s about working together as a team, not just dictating to kids who don’t understand the “why” behind it. Both kids and adults are more likely to stick with something when they grasp the reasons for doing it.

When kids are young, parents have full control over their diet. But that changes as they start going to school, parties, etc. and get exposed to unhealthy foods. Simply saying “no” or labeling foods as “bad” isn’t effective long-term. 

Kids need to understand the reasons behind healthy eating guidelines. Otherwise, they won’t embrace it, leading to pushback or an unhealthy relationship with food. Explaining the “why” in an age-appropriate way allows our kids to make informed choices as they get more independence with food decisions.

Eating for Microbiome Health

Eating the right foods can help keep your gut healthy. Eat foods with fiber, fermented foods, and plant nutrients. These “champion” foods help the good bacteria in your gut grow.

Don’t just eat whatever you want. Choose foods that nourish your gut ecosystem.

As kids get older and buy their own foods, teach them to read labels carefully. Some ingredients like added sugars and artificial sweeteners can be bad for the gut. They can cause inflammation, brain issues, leaky gut, and mess up the balance of good/bad gut bacteria.

Watch out for sugary drinks like frappuccinos that have way too much added sugar – sometimes over 40 grams when 25 grams is the daily limit. Having sugary drinks less often and eating more fruits, veggies, and beans helps keep the gut healthy.

It’s all about balance when it comes to nourishing your gut microbiome. The goal is to make choices that are healthy for both you and your gut bacteria.

Many “hydration” and “energy” drinks market themselves as having “no sugar.” However, they often contain artificial sweeteners like sucralose, acesulfame potassium, and saccharin instead. These artificial sweeteners can be just as addictive, if not more, than regular sugar. Research shows they disrupt the gut microbiome.

While too much regular sugar is unhealthy, it may be better for kids to have less of it rather than consuming artificial sweetener products. The ideal approach is to minimize sugary foods and drinks in general.

Finding the right balance involves becoming aware of potential gut disruptors in your diet and making informed choices that truly nourish your microbiome. Moderation is key for packaged items, even the ones marketed as “healthy.”

The Impact of Sleep on Gut Health

Just two days of poor sleep disrupts the gut microbiome. And it takes a full week of getting enough quality sleep to restore balance. This shows how crucial sleep is for gut health.

Many cultures, including in America, often undervalue the importance of sufficient sleep. Kids today are overscheduled with too many activities. They have to wake up early for school, then stay up late for sports, clubs, or other commitments. Their window for sleep keeps getting smaller and smaller.

As children get older, their schedules get even more demanding. Games or practices can go as late as 8:30 or 9:00 at night – past when parents normally go to bed. Cramming in too many activities robs kids of the sleep they need. Adequate restorative sleep, around 7-9 hours per night, is essential for a child’s gut microbiome and overall well-being. So families need to prioritize getting enough high-quality sleep over overscheduling.

The Gut-Brain Connection and The Vagus Nerve

One important topic to discuss with kids is the connection between the gut and brain. When we help the brain stay calm and relaxed by engaging the vagus nerve, it benefits the gut microbiome. And having a healthy, balanced gut microbiome helps keep the brain healthy and happy too.

A study on children found that improving vagus nerve function and heart rate variability could increase the diversity of gut bacteria – even without changing diet. This shows the power of the gut-brain link.

Dr. Doni explains how we help our vagus nerve to recover from stress.

Learning about the vagus nerve can help kids understand their bodies. Knowing ways to engage this nerve through breathing exercises supports overall health in many ways.

An engaged vagus nerve promotes mental health, reduces inflammation from stress, and nurtures a thriving gut microbiome. It also positively impacts the immune system and overall well-being.

Stress and not being able to calm down can cause many problems in kids. It can trigger asthma attacks, skin rashes, missed periods, hives, stomach aches, feeling sick, and acid reflux.

Helping kids use their vagus nerve through breathing, mindfulness, and meditation is very important. These should be seen as “must-dos”, just as important as any vitamins or medicines.

But in our society, we don’t value breathing and meditation enough. Doctors see mental health as separate from the body. But the mind and body are actually closely connected by the vagus nerve.

Teaching kids and families about the vagus nerve can help their whole health – mind and body. Simple breathing exercises have big benefits. We need to make these practices more valued and used.

Many see yoga, breathwork, mindfulness, and meditation as not that important. We think we’ll do them “when we have time.” But we must make time for these practices. The main benefit is supporting the vagus nerve and heart rate. As a nice side effect, you also feel calmer and happier.

We often forget that breathing happens naturally all the time. When stressed, being told to “take a breath” can feel annoying. But the point is, taking a deep breath actually helps calm the nervous system through the vagus nerve. This has a positive effect on the whole body.

We should be excited to remind each other to take a breath. Encouraging deep breathing has no downsides. It’s a simple way to engage the vagus nerve.

The Power of Belly Breathing

We often say “take a breath” but don’t think about its importance. Belly breathing, or diaphragmatic breathing, is a great vagus nerve exercise. We have to breathe all day anyway, so learning belly breathing isn’t extra work for kids. 

It’s breathing by engaging the diaphragm muscle in the belly. This exercises the vagus nerve, improves heart rate, increases calmness and happiness, and even supports the gut microbiome.

Many adults struggle to belly breathe properly at first. Over decades, we get used to shallow chest breathing from being stressed and rushed. Our shoulders rise instead of allowing deep belly breaths.

The technique is placing one hand on the chest and one on the belly. Imagine a balloon in your belly that inflates on the inhale and deflates on the exhale, with no shoulder movement. This takes practice.

But once mastered, belly breathing can be done anytime – in class before a test, after an upsetting interaction, or whenever anxiety strikes. Taking 10 slow belly breaths engages the vagus nerve to promote regulation, focus and calm. It’s such an amazing tool.

Empowering the Next Generation with Health Knowledge

Dr. Elisa is passionate about teaching kids healthy habits from a young age. Imagine if children learned tools for physical and mental well-being starting in infancy through the teenage years. Having this knowledge could positively impact their health for life in many ways.

She shares so much valuable information on nurturing the mind-body connection in her book Healthy Kids, Happy Kids. Her approach makes scientific concepts accessible and practical for families to implement.

Thank you again so much for joining me, Dr. Elisa, and sharing with us everything that you’re doing to create shift and change for our children and future adults in our world. 

If you would like to learn more about Dr. Elisa and how she can help you check out her website here. You can also find her on Instagram @healthykids_happykids and Facebook @Elisa Song, MD – Healthy Kids Happy Kids. And you can check out her book Healthy Kids, Happy Kids here.

Dr. Doni’s Perspective on Good Gut Health

I completely agree with Dr. Elisa! I see children in my practice as well, and absolutely find that dietary choices, healing leaky gut and optimizing the gut biome have a profound influence on their health, including their energy, mood, and focus. 

I recommend a specific food sensitivity panel from a private lab, a DNA analysis of gut bacteria, and a cortisol/neurotransmitter panel to determine what is needed in each case. It is absolutely possible to restore gut health, as well as adrenal and neurotransmitter levels, using nutrients, herbs, and dietary changes. 

I also help my patients to address infections without needing antibiotics (as much as possible). We can use nutrients, herbs and homeopathy safely and effectively to resolve infections quickly.

It’s one of the most amazing things in practice to help children and teens to learn about their bodies, and what they need, in order to feel good!

To learn more, tune in to my free Leaky Gut Masterclass. Adults and children both can benefit from healing leaky gut and balancing gut bacteria.

I also created an online Leaky Gut Program so you can start implementing for you and your family right from home.

I also believe it is possible to eliminate the effects of stress, trauma, toxins and infections by resetting our stress hormones and helping our body and mind to recover. I help patients with chronic complex illness in my practice every day – by phone and zoom, anywhere in the world. You can set up a one-on-one appointment here.

To learn more about my approach using my Stress Recovery Protocol® which involves optimizing cortisol and adrenaline levels to heal the adrenals, as well as neurotransmitters, using nutrients, herbs and C.A.R.E.™ – my proprietary program to support clean eating, adequate sleep, stress recovery and exercise – I encourage you to read all about it in my latest book Master Your Stress Reset Your Health.

Thank you so much for joining us for this episode of How Humans Heal. Please subscribe if you haven’t already, so you don’t miss the next episode. And I look forward to connecting with all of you again very soon.

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