Better Gut Health for Kids: A Back-to-School Guide

by | Updated: August 12th, 2023 | Read time: 6 minutes

Kids’ gut health is so essential that one study declared, “The gut microbiome should be thought of as an organ system that has important effects on childhood development.”

But the busy mornings, late nights and snack-fueled homework sessions that come with the back-to-school season can disrupt the developing microbiome and set kids up for disease later in life.

Here’s why good gut health matters for your kids—and how you can support it as they transition into a new school year.

Smiling Mother Supporting Gut Health for Kids Feeding Toddler Daughter a Healthy Breakfast

Why is gut health important for kids?

Kids’ microbiomes specialize in functions like synthesizing vitamin B12, controlling inflammation and metabolizing amino acids involved in the gut-brain axis. These functions are important for the growth and development of:

  • The lungs
  • The central nervous system
  • The brain and cognitive function
  • The immune system

Research suggests that the school years are a formative time for kids’ microbiomes, so gut health during this period could affect health in adulthood.

Dangers to kids’ gut health

Common challenges and lifestyle patterns during the school season can undermine gut health in childhood and adolescence and disrupt healthy microbiome development.

1. Eating refined foods high in fat and sugar

Packaged snacks and fast food, two convenient back-to-school staples, are often full of sugar, fat and refined carbohydrates—but not fiber. Such ultra-processed fare can increase harmful bacteria in the gut and shift the microbiome toward a pro-inflammatory state.

Without fiber to feed on, good gut bacteria essentially starve and can’t repopulate to balance out pro-inflammatory populations. This can lead to dysbiosis, a microbial imbalance associated with poor health and disease.

2. Dealing with excess stress

Periods of high stress—like dealing with a busy school schedule and a heavy homework load—have been shown to promote leaky gut in animal studies. Leaky gut may allow pathogens, proteins and other particles to pass into the bloodstream from the gut, which can lead to inflammation, allergies and immune problems.

Stress is also a risk factor for irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). A proper balance of good bacteria appears necessary for proper gut nerve function and animal studies have shown that dysbiosis may increase the hypersensitivity responsible for IBS gut pain and discomfort.

3. Not getting enough sleep

It’s not unusual for kids to stay up late doing homework, watching TV or texting friends, but this pattern can affect the gut microbiome over time. More than one night of disrupted sleep may:

  • Reduce microbial diversity
  • Increase disease-promoting microbes
  • Promote leaky gut
  • Increase the production of pro-inflammatory compounds
  • Affect mood through altered neurotransmitter metabolism

Since almost 35% of kids don’t get enough sleep, these problems could become significant concerns if the school year includes too many late nights.

4. Being sedentary

According to the CDC, kids between the ages of 6 and 18 spend an average of 7.5 hours per day in front of screens. And these numbers appear to be trending up, which is bad news for kids’ gut health.

All that sedentary time may reduce the number of health-promoting gut bacteria and overall bacterial diversity. This may be partly due to the high-fat, high-sugar food choices that tend to correlate with passive activities like watching TV and playing video games.

5. Gaining weight

Too much junk food and too little active time can increase kids’ risk of obesity—and alter their gut microbiomes. Studies show that the ratio of Firmicutes to Bacteroidetes in the gut tends to increase with BMI, and the Lactobacillus species L. reuteri may also be associated with obesity.

Significant differences between the gut microbiome populations of obese children and those at a healthy weight suggests that obesity may have a more serious effect on gut health for kids than adults.

Gut health for kids: 4 steps for improvement

No matter what challenges your kids face during the school year, a good gut health plan can help them come through with their microbiomes intact—or even healthier than before.

Make kids’ gut health part of your back-to-school routine with these microbiome-friendly strategies.

Feed your kids a gut-healthy diet

The number one way to support a growing microbiome is to feed your kids more fiber from foods like vegetables, fruits, whole grains and beans. Good gut microbes break down the prebiotic fibers in these foods to produce compounds that improve gut health, reduce inflammation and support immunity.

To boost your kids’ fiber intake, replace ultra-processed snacks with:

At meals, try tricks like swapping beans for meat in chili, adding vegetables to pasta dishes and stirring leafy greens into soups.

Encourage microbiome-boosting exercise

Exercise increases microbial diversity, boosts immune-supporting gut bacteria, and lowers the risk of obesity-related microbiome changes. In children with obesity, exercise can shift the microbiome toward a healthier balance and reduce pro-inflammatory signals.

Encourage your kids to turn off the TV, put down their phones and get moving with fun family activities like:

  • Taking a walk or hike in a local park
  • Visiting a nearby playground
  • Biking around the neighborhood
  • Playing yard games

Hobbies like sports, dance, or gymnastics are also great ways for kids to stay active.

Practice good sleep hygiene

Kids in middle and high school need between eight and 12 hours of sleep each night to refresh and recharge. For the sake of their gut health, put boundaries around bedtime. (Yes, even for teenagers.)

Removing screens from the bedroom is also key to good sleep. Blue light from phones and TVs can disrupt kids’ circadian rhythms and rob them of restful slumber. Instead of screen time, encourage activities like reading, doing crafts or playing board games before bed.

Beat stress with play

Outdoor play can improve kids’ moods and help them feel less stressed. In addition to the benefits of stress reduction in gut health for kids, spending time in nature may also increase microbiome diversity. The effects appear to be short term, but kids who play outside could still benefit from improved immune function and reduced inflammation. And since play adds more active time to kids’ days, it can help them maintain a healthy weight and prevent the dysbiosis associated with increased BMI.

Does my child need a probiotic?

If you focus on supporting good gut health for your kids, their microbiomes should thrive without probiotics. However, probiotic supplements may be beneficial if your child requires multiple courses of antibiotics due to illness.

Antibiotic exposure can kill off beneficial bacteria and promote dysbiosis. Probiotics could help your child’s microbiome recover from antibiotic use and restore balance, but not all research shows benefits from using probiotics with antibiotics.

A healthy high-fiber diet, active recreation and a consistent sleep schedule should be all your kids need to conquer the challenges of the school year with confidence and good gut health.

These statements have not been approved by the Food and Drug Administration. These products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent disease.

Featured Products

MegaFood MegaFlora Kids Probiotic
Garden of Life RAW Probiotics Kids
Vitacost KidHealth Probiotic Tabs for Kids Cherry
Theresa Sam Houghton

As Chief Nerd at The Modern Health Nerd, Theresa “Sam” Houghton is helping plant-based and better-for-you CPG and DTC brands understand their customers and create better content.

Sam has been writing content for over 12 years and believes in the power of storytelling to connect with customers. She is a graduate of both the Bauman College Nutrition Consultant program and the T. Colin Campbell Center for Nutrition Studies Plant-Based Nutrition Certificate program and uses this expertise to bring a unique perspective to content writing.

Her writing appears regularly on NutritionStudies.org and has been featured on Green Queen Media. She has been a guest on the Vegan Visibility podcast, UnchainedTV's Lunch Break LIVE, Chef AJ Live, the ProteinX Virtual Coffee series, the Behind Their Business podcast and Let's Eat with Mark Samuel. When she’s not writing or cooking, Sam likes to read and study the Bible, cook tasty plant-based food, hang out at farmers markets and knit crazy socks.