Should you give your kids prebiotics?
By Beau Berman — July 14, 2021
How to Know Whether You Should Give Your Kids a Prebiotic Supplement
As an adult you may be privy to the importance of a healthy gut microbiome. You probably know the benefits of having enough good bacteria that are functioning in harmony. Perhaps you’re aware that prebiotics are the “food” for the probiotic bacteria in your gut — and how the two types work synergistically to improve our gut.1
But kids of course, typically don’t have this knowledge, and rely on their parents for nutritional guidance. Unfortunately, many children may suffer digestive upset or wind up getting sick, because of a poorly managed gut microbiome.
- They may be living off the "chicken nuggets, bread, and pasta diet" (non-nutritive foods)
- Their levels of key bacteria such as bifidobacteria may have decreased as they’ve aged
- An aversion or lack of access to fresh vegetables may mean they are not ingesting very much probiotic bacteria at all
If this sounds like your situation — what can you do?
The best course of action is to immediately do whatever you can to inject some fibrous vegetables into you child’s weekly diet.2
This doesn’t mean they need to eat asparagus at every meal, washed down by kombucha.
BUT … you should strive to incorporate foods like asparagus into meals on a regular basis.3
Does that seem unrealistic based on your children’s food preferences?
Then, how about getting them onboard with some of the prebiotic foods listed below?
- • Sunchokes
• Semi-green (unripened) bananas
• Whole oats
• Cocoa powder
• Wheat bran
If this STILL sounds like a fantasy then you may need to consider alternatives, such as supplementation.
There are dozens, if not hundreds, of kids’ probiotics and prebiotics on the market. But you should probably start with a quality prebiotic supplement instead of probiotics.
Prebiotics are like the fertilizer for probiotic bacteria.
The reality is that billions of probiotics already reside in your child's gut. So why waste money on extra probiotics that might not even belong in their body?
What you really need to provide is the food for the probiotics that are already in your child's gut (inherited from their mother when they were born via vaginal birth and/or through daily interactions with parents, such as breastfeeding, kisses etc).4
What Are the Benefits of Taking Prebiotics?
It’s important to first define and understand what prebiotics actually are.
Prebiotics are compounds in food that induce the growth or activity of beneficial microorganisms such as bacteria.
They can help probiotics in the gut to survive, stay, and multiply.
Typically, prebiotics are indigestible fibers (mostly carbohydrates) which the human digestive system cannot break down, but our beneficial bacteria in the gut love to consume. One particular strain of good bacteria that loves some good prebiotic fiber is called Bifidobacteria.5
The official definition of a prebiotic is: ‘a substrate that is selectively utilized by host microorganisms conferring a health benefit’.6
One natural way to boost your levels of bifidobacteria is via a red polyphenol powder — sometimes called “Super Reds”.7 These are made by various brands and range in price. They are comprised of red fruits such as raspberries, apples, pomegranate, et al. These powdered dark-red fruits are an excellent food source for bifidobacteria and can drive what are called “cross-feeding reactions.”8
You give the bifidobacteria what it wants and it will, in turn, feed another type of crucially important bacteria called akkermansia muciniphila. Eventually, these bacteria produce a Short Chain Fatty Acid (SCFA) called butyrate. Butyrate guides the body toward an anti-inflammatory state. This all words to heal the gut by sealing the gut lining. Butyrate can also stimulate our gut cells helping to promote regular bowel movements and reducing the occurrence of constipation.9
You can also encourage your children to eat red apples without peeling the skins. This is yet another completely natural way to leverage prebiotic fiber to enhance a specific type of bacteria in the gut. Red apple skins work to increase levels of akkermansia muciniphila — an important gut bacteria that some say is the single most important bacteria when it comes to gut lining. The idea is that if you restore this bacteria, you will restore your gut lining.10
Akkermansia Muciniphila is said to be extremely difficult to feed directly. However, apple skins are believed to be one of the only effective ways to give akkermansia what it needs to thrive.10
Higher doses of prebiotics are typically produced in powder form, because they are too bulky to fit into a small capsule.19
Prebiotics often have a naturally sweet taste so they can be pleasant to take, and they usually mix quite easily with various drinks.
Prebiotics tend to be very shelf stable and do not degrade easily over time, which renders them an excellent addition to a consistent health protocol.
Prebiotics are the main food source for probiotic bacteria living in your gut microbiome.
Types of Prebiotics
Prebiotics supplements have been on the market for years and there are some common players when it comes to the active ingredients:6
- XOS (xylooligosaccharides)
- FOS (fructooligosaccharides)
- GOS (galactooligosaccharides)
- Inulin (naturally occurring polysaccharides)
The three most researched and historically common prebiotics are FOS, GOS, and Inulin. Inulins are a group of naturally occurring polysaccharides produced by many types of plants, and most often extracted from chicory root, when it comes to the development of prebiotic supplements.
Another type of highly promising prebiotic is found in human breast milk. Human Milk Oligosaccharides (HMOs) have been proven to exhibit extensive health benefits for babies. The benefits were so marked that many formula-based milks now add HMO as an ingredient.20
The Prebiotic from Human Milk
Human Milk Oligosaccharide is a complex sugar molecule found in human breast milk and it is a type of prebiotic.
What’s important to know about HMOs is that they are highly selective — meaning that they precisely target certain strains of bifidobacteria. This is a good thing — because the growth of bifidobacteria is one of the chief activities in the gut that we want to encourage and support.21
For babies and infants, HMO is pretty much the gold standard when it comes to prebiotics.22
However, a new class of specially designed HMO supplements are now able to provide the same benefits for older children as well.
For example, PureHMO for Kids Powder contains two types of HMO, 2’-Fucosyllactose and Lacto-N-neotetraose. Scientists have identified roughly 200 different types of HMOs but these two are considered to be among the most abundant in breast milk.20
The advent of a pure HMO prebiotic available for after infants are done nursing is a major development — because it allows all children to reap the benefits of the most powerful prebiotic known to man.
HMO is somewhat paradoxical as it is simultaneously the oldest prebiotic in the world (naturally occurring in breast milk for centuries) and the newest prebiotic (gaining popularity as new research and formulations emerge that are beneficial for adults and children).
Some companies are producing HMO prebiotics that contain actual powdered human milk, while most of the new HMO companies create a bioidentical version of HMO with a molecular structure that matches that of the HMO you’d find in human milk.23
This process can be achieved in a number of ways — but one of the most popular methods is by precisely fermenting lactose and then purifying it — resulting in a sugar molecule that’s nearly identical to what you’d get from real human milk.24
If you’re slightly confused — don’t be alarmed.
It’s a complicated topic.
Try to remember it like this:
Prebiotics -> Oligosaccharides -> Human Milk Oligosaccharide (HMO)
When looking at the labels of any prebiotic you’re considering for your kids, you want to seek out Human Milk Oligosaccharide.
If you are only seeing FOS, GOS, or inulin in the ingredients, then it’s like you’re choosing to have the capability of a record player, when you could have had the sheer power of an iPhone.
HMO is clinically proven to be far superior to the older prebiotics such as FOS, GOS, XOS, inulin, etc.25
Human Milk Oligosaccharide has been found to build the gut lining, boost immunity, boost cognitive functions, and promote better motor skills.26
It almost sounds too good to be true.
But the research does bear out these benefits.
Other Types of "Prebiotics"
There are some other oligosaccharides that have not officially been classified as prebiotics yet, but essentially are prebiotics and that group includes:
Do My Kids Need Probiotic Supplements Too?
We've established that it can be very important for kids to take an advanced prebiotic supplement if they are not eating enough prebiotic foods, such as asparagus. But should they also be taking a probiotic supplement?
Some people, even experts, will say yes. But we believe that generally, the answer is 'no'.
There is a sort of myth about gut diversity. We hear all the time about how we need our gut bacteria to be diverse. While there is some truth to this (in the sense that we should not have just ONE type of gut bacteria), the nature of the “diversity objective” for gut health is quite hazy.
What exact percentages of bacterial strains do we need to have?
Does it vary person to person?
Are there strains that we don’t need?
Joel Greene, author of The Immunity Code, posits that there are only two types of bacteria that we need to focus on when it comes to the manipulation of our gut microbiome.
Greene also believes that nearly every single doctor-based solution, probiotic regimen, or therapy, is substantially less effective than food. This means that Greene prefers hyper-specific eating protocols for “spinning up” certain types of bacteria, as opposed to complicated treatments, therapies, and expensive probiotic regimens.27
While Greene is largely against probiotics, he is very much in favor of prebiotics such as those found naturally in food and in the form of Human Milk Oligosaccharide. In fact, he suggests a very specific protocol involving HMO supplementation and consumption of red apple peels in the first chapter of his book, aimed at restoring the gut lining in order to promote immunity and fat loss.
Greene believes that we should only focus on two types of bacteria:
- Akkermansia Muciniphila
He writes that if you have those two types of bacteria in your gut at the proper levels, then you have achieved the necessary diversity. He also says that these bacteria are foundational for having a peak level of immune protection and for keeping the body young.
Greene writes that gut bacteria is largely important because of its role in the digestion of carbohydrates: “if you don’t have diversity in the gut, you won’t digest carbs well.” Greene argues that if you DO have diversity in the gut (by having akkermansia muciniphila and bifidobacteria present in high levels) then you can handle a wider range of food including glutens and dairy.27
Food, Greene argues, is dramatically more powerful for creating radical change in the gut, than probiotic supplements.
He believes that by following a specific food-based protocol, you can rapidly recolonize the bacteria in your gut, in a way that you could never do via probiotic supplements. Greene says the problem with probiotic supplements has to do with where they release in the gut, which is difficult to control with any precision. He believes that the rise in cases of people with SIBO (Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth) can be attributed to supplementation with probiotics.
His argument is that only food can deliver “the precise mix of fibers that ferment the right bacteria in the right place.”
Greene does acknowledge the probiotic supplements can have their place — but he feels it should be only with the guidance of a qualified practitioner.
The Impact of Aging on Our Gut Bacteria
As we age, there is a documented shift in the species of bacteria in the gut. Unfortunately, we tend to lose some important health-promoting species and gain bacteria that accelerate the aging process.28
There is a gut bacteria profile that happens to be shared by the world’s leanest, healthiest, and longest living people: the two species of such value to your system are called gut symbionts. The top gut symbiont that we lose with age is bifidobacteria. Each strain of the bifido family can have its own specific effects.29
As kids, we have about 95% bifidobacteria in our gut but as adults the number declines to approximately 5%.
A 2016 scientific study on bifidobacteria and human aging found that declining levels of bifidobacteria correlated to nearly every major marker of declining health.28
Bifidobacteria helps humans digest carbs, protects against pathogens, and supports production of vitamin B and antioxidants. It’s also a core of immunity.
Thankfully, gut bacteria is rapidly modifiable.
So by giving your kids whole apples with peels, red polyphenol powder, dark red berries, and HMO prebiotic, you can help to properly populate the bacteria in their gut.30
Research shows this leads to better immunity, a healthier gut lining, improved cognitive development/function, and improved motor skills.
It can also directly mitigate symptoms of IBS such as gas, bloating, stomach pain, constipation, and diarrhea.
These are some benefits of bifidobacteria:
- Oral administration of bifidobacteria has been proven to protect against tumors and melanoma
- Bifidobacteria correlates with decreased inflammation status and improved ability to use blood sugar for energy instead of storing it as fat
- Bifidobacteria stimulates production of FAIF, a protein that suppresses fat storage
- Bifidobacteria promotes production of butyrate, the molecule controlling gut barrier permeability and immunity
- Bifidobacteria longum produces a major protein called serpin that sidesteps gluten intolerance
- People who have lived a long life — over 100 years old — all have significantly higher levels of bifidobacteria than humans who live an average lifespan, who are in old age
But how does feeding just one or two types of bacteria lead to a diverse gut? The answer lies in what are called cross feeding reactions, which we touched on earlier.31
If you feed bifidobacteria, the metabolites of bifidobacteria feed other bacteria. Essentially you don’t need to feed for diversity — just properly feed the bifidobacteria what it needs to ferment.31
How do you do it?
Bifidobacteria longum digests HMO, a carbohydrate, and it creates anti-inflammatory signal molecules and proteins that tighten the gut junctions. Akkermansia Muciniphila is “downstream” of the cross feeding reaction from bifidobacteria. It is a master regulator of the gut lining. It consumes mucins, which are a component of gels.32
By eating mucins in the gut layer, Akkermansia has been shown to be the primary bacteria thickening the gut mucous layer. Akkermansia creates key proteins called pill proteins, which have a direction effect on Interleukin-10, which is the primary signal to shut the gut junctions.32
Akkermansia can also contract the surface area of the gut, resulting in sealed and tightened gut junctions, and less food energy being absorbed. Joel Greene calls it a “calorie dial”. The more akkermansia in the gut, the fewer calories absorbed, which is why it’s positively correlated with being lean, having lower body weight, and reduced weight gain.
Some specific benefits of Akkermansia Muciniphila:
- Akkermansia controls much of the immune homeostasis in the gut by influencing immunoglobins and T-cell responses to antigens
- Akkermansia controls genes involved in fat storage and blood sugar function
- Akkermansia also correlates with preventing weight gain
- Low levels of akkermansia are correlated with Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD)
- Akkermansia strains are pivotal in vitamin B12 synthesis
- Increasing akkermansia has been proven to reduce inflammation of fat tissue
How to feed akkermansia?
Apple peels, cranberry extract, and concord grape polyphenols can promote the growth of akkermansia, as can HMO, through cross feeding reactions.33
Food has physical properties that simply cannot be replicated by probiotics. Food has a bulkiness to it as it carries through the digestive system. You can effectively coat the internal lining of the gut with butyrate, leading to massive beneficial impacts.
So, your kids should be getting prebiotics into their system, either via food, or via an advanced prebiotic supplement, like HMO.
32. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33191780/ 33. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6223323/