We can all picture her: that smiling supermom in commercials who's at war with germs. She keeps her kitchen squeaky-clean with antibacterial sprays, spritzes sanitizer onto her kids' hands as soon as they come in the door, and even makes sure that the toilets in her house are free of offensive bacteria.
It's become really commonplace to think that we are engaged in a battle against bacteria. After all, anyone who's been around kids knows that they'll get into anything and everything, and that means they could be exposed to bacteria that might potentially harm them. We've been led to believe that if you really want to keep your kids safe, happy, and healthy, you need to make sure that they and their surroundings are as sterile as possible.
A Case of Good Intentions Gone Wild
As a parent, you naturally want to make sure that you're doing everything in your power to give your kids the best life possible. From cheering them on through life’s ups and downs to helping them learn about their world, you're on it––and if you're like many parents, this probably includes keeping them as clean as possible. It's not only part of socialization and growing up, it's meant to keep them healthy, and safe from germs.
On the surface, this makes sense. Germs, including bacteria, are associated with all kinds of changes in health. The issue is, we've been operating under a misunderstanding about them for a while now. Research in the past century has been largely focused on the bad things that bacteria can do to us, but groundbreaking research in the past decade or so has begun to shed some light on what's really going on between bacteria and humans, and it's painting quite a different picture.
Think All Bacteria Are Bad? Think Again
Studies are still ongoing, but it's become clear that instead of being something to fear, most bacteria we encounter are actually really helpful to us. In fact, the more bacteria we're exposed to, the better.
Why? It has to do with your microbiome. This is the ecosystem of bacteria that live inside and on your body, and it's so fundamental to your well-being that researchers are starting to classify it as being just as important as any of the other major organs in your body. In a nutshell, the healthier and more diverse your microbiome––particularly the one in your gastrointestinal tract––the better your chances of optimal health.1
And how do you make sure that your gut microbiome is happy? You create conditions where your bacteria can really thrive. This includes things like eating foods that the beneficial good guys in your gut can use as fuel, exposing yourself to new strains of bacteria so that your gut microbiome is abundant with diverse microbes, limiting the amount of antibiotics that come into your body through medicine and food, and steering away from antibacterial cleaning products.
And That's Where Cleaning Comes In
Because we didn't really understand the role of the gut microbiome up until fairly recently, we've tended to have a kind of scorched earth policy when it comes to bacteria. This includes putting antibiotics into our bodies both through medications and through the food we eat and using antibacterial cleansers that kill all kinds of bacteria, not just the kinds that can have unpleasant effects on us. The end result? We tend to live in environments that are largely stripped of bacteria.
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When you combine this with the fact that we're spending more and more time indoors (only 10% of American children spend time outdoors every day), this means that not only are we getting rid of the bacteria in our homes that could support our well-being, we're also not exposing ourselves to some of the best sources of new, different bacteria that could help our gut microbiomes repopulate and balance themselves.
Microbial Balance Is Particularly Important for Children
Why? Because just like the other parts of their bodies, our kids' gut microbiomes are still developing. While children are born with some bacteria in their bodies, they are colonized with a lot more during the birth process; during breastfeeding (about 30% of bacteria come from breast milk!); and when they are exposed to other sources of bacteria throughout their childhood.2
We can't overstate how important bacterial exposure is for overall health. Having a healthy gut microbiome is associated with maintaining optimal digestion and absorption of nutrients, an ideal weight, a balanced mood, even clear skin!
It’s also key for supporting good immune function, which is where something called the Hygiene Hypothesis comes in. Epidemiologist David Strachan has done a body of research on how children’s immune systems develop and perform. In a nutshell, his research indicates that children’s immune systems are “trained” to react properly to all the things that can cause poor health by exposure to microorganisms. The more microorganisms they’re exposed to, the more robust their immunity is likely to be. But in recent decades we’ve gotten extremely focused on sterility, and children are being exposed to far fewer bacteria. If the Hygiene Hypothesis is correct, it would explain the huge increase in immune hypersensitivity we’ve seen in the last 50 years.
Bottom line? A healthy gut microbiome is one that’s built on a foundation of consistent exposure to a wide array of bacteria. It may sound counterintuitive, but it’s absolutely key, since a microbiome that's out of balance or underdeveloped (often because a person wasn't exposed to enough bacteria as an infant or child) is associated with many negative effects on the body, including things like seasonal sniffles, digestive troubles, a tendency to catch whatever's going around, and even less-than-optimal mental health.3
How to Expose Your Kids to Friendly Flora
Frankly, they'll probably enjoy the process, and incorporating some of these tips will ensure you’re steadily adding back the many good guys that modern life tends to destroy.
1. Ease up on the cleaning.
This is probably not a message you ever expected to get as a parent. While we're not saying that you should let dishes pile up for days on end or stop taking the trash out, you don't have to buy into the overzealous notions of cleaning that our culture tends to espouse. When you do clean, try to use natural cleansers as much as possible, and steer clear of those that are really packed with harsh chemicals or antibacterial substances.
The same goes for personal hygiene. While of course we would never suggest skipping out on showering altogether, try to ease up on making sure that your children are squeaky clean at all times, and give them gentle, chemical-free products to clean themselves with. It's better for them, better for the environment, and very easy to start implementing.
2. Let your kids play outside as much as possible.
The more time they can spend outside, the better. Not only will your kids be getting more exercise and enjoying all the benefits that being in nature brings, they'll also be exposing themselves to some great new strains of bacteria. Just as in any ecosystem, the more diverse the population in their gut microbiome, the higher the chances are that it will remain healthy.
Plus, you really want to try to expose your children to as many different types of bacteria as possible when they're young so that their immune system develops to respond appropriately to all the different substances they're going to encounter throughout their lives.
Now, we realize that this is probably going to be easier if you live in a place that has a lot of open space. But even if you live in a very urban area, there are still ways to get some nature into your kids' lives. Day trips to the country, visiting petting zoos, or having a picnic in a local park can be great ways to spend time in nature.
3. Make sure they’re socializing.
Anyone who’s had kids in school knows just how fast they can pass bugs around. And while this seemingly magical ability of microorganisms to spread from one kid to another with even the briefest of contact is a pain when it comes to unfriendly bacteria, it can also work to your advantage in getting your kids exposed to the good stuff.
So make sure that your child is spending time around other children. This is particularly important if you’re homeschooling them or if they’re only children, since their socializing time is naturally more limited. Plus, studies show that children who grow up with siblings tend to be healthier long term than those who don’t. The difference in potential health is so great that it’s well worth the effort to replicate a sibling-like environment for your kid via playdates and similar situations if they’re an only child.4
Finally, when the kids are hanging out, don’t stress too much over them getting up close and personal. The more bacteria that gets spread around, the better!
4. Try doing some bacteria-friendly crafts.
You’re probably already spending some time playing or doing crafts with your kids, why not do some that will help you introduce them to bacteria? One really easy one is planting a garden or growing some potted plants inside––potting soil has lots of beneficial bacteria in it. The same goes for building sandcastles or making plaster casts with sand. You could even try your hand at doing some home fermentation. It’s easier than you think, and fermented foods actually become fermented through the presence of good bacteria. (Plus, they’re great for your gut.) And speaking of, why not...
5. Incorporate some gut-friendly foods into your family's diet.
What you eat has a huge impact on the health of your microbiome, so do what you can to incorporate prebiotic foods into your family's diet. (Prebiotic foods are those that contain fibers that feed beneficial bacteria.) Chances are you're probably already doing this somewhat, but there's always a chance to try out something new. Some of our favorite suggestions for prebiotic foods include garlic, bananas, asparagus, and kefir. We've also got lots of gut-friendly recipes in our blog archives.
Of course, one of the best ways to make sure that your kids are getting all the prebiotics their friendly flora crave is by supplementing their diet with a prebiotic powder supplement. That way even the pickiest of eaters still get the nourishment their gut bacteria love.
6. Spend time around animals.
If you have the time and space to really care for a pet, they can be a big help when it comes to supporting your child's microbiome. Research shows that children who grow up around animals tend to have much higher levels of two specific types of bacteria that are associated with appropriate immunity and optimal weight. So the next time you get the "But Moooom, I promise I'll take care of it every day!" speech, you might want to think twice before saying no. But don't worry if a pet isn't in the cards right now––spending time with animals at a friend's house, farm, or petting zoo can all be good too.5
7. Consider supporting your kids' microbiomes with a probiotic.
If your kids have recently been on a course of antibiotics or were born via C-section, you may want to consider giving their gut some love by going directly to the source: the microbiome. One of the best ways to make sure that your kids' guts maintain a good bacterial balance is by supplementing with a high-quality daily probiotic formula. With a premium probiotic like PRO-Kids, your kids will get four targeted strains of beneficial bacteria delivered directly to their intestines, where they're needed most.
You naturally want the best for your child's health, and now that you know just how much the friendly flora in their gut can do for them, you can take steps to support the health of their precious microbiome, too. So let the cleaning go for a bit, send the kids outside, and relax, knowing that you're not only supporting your kids' gut health––you also get a little more “me” time while you do it!
1. Hao, W.L., Lee, Y.K. (2004). Microflora of the Gastrointestinal Tract: a Review. Methods in Molecular Biology, 268, 491-502.
2. Madan, J. C., Hoen, A. G., Lundgren, S. N., Farzan, S. F., Cottingham, K. L., Morrison, H. G., . . . Karagas, M. R. (2016). Association of Cesarean Delivery and Formula Supplementation With the Intestinal Microbiome of 6-Week-Old Infants. JAMA Pediatrics, 170(3), 212.
3. Arrieta, M., Stiemsma, L. T., Dimitriu, P. A., Thorson, L., Russell, S., Yurist-Doutsch, S., . . . Finlay, B. B. (2015). Early infancy microbial and metabolic alterations affect risk of childhood asthma. Science Translational Medicine, 7(307). doi:10.1126/scitranslmed.aab2271
4. Strachan, D. P. (1989). Hay fever, hygiene, and household size. BMJ, 299(6710), 1259-1260.
5. Fall, T., Lundholm, C., Örtqvist, A. K., Fall, K., Fang, F., Hedhammar, Å, . . . Almqvist, C. (2015). Early Exposure to Dogs and Farm Animals and the Risk of Childhood Asthma. JAMA Pediatrics, 169(11).
Rachel Allen is a writer at Hyperbiotics who's absolutely obsessed with learning about how our bodies work. She's fascinated by the latest research on bacteria and the role they play in health, and loves to help others learn about how probiotics can help the body get back in balance. For more ideas on how you can benefit from the power of probiotics and live healthier days, be sure to subscribe to our newsletter. To learn more about how a healthy microbiome can enrich your life, subscribe to our newsletter.