Our family spent 6 years trying to figure out the cause of our son’s extreme picky eating. It was so bad that his doctor diagnosed it as a case of “failure-to-thrive” (scary words to hear from your doctor), as he gained very little weight during the first 2.5 years of life.
We were worried that he was doing permanent damage to himself, but we could not get him to eat anything other than his usual favourites: pasta with butter, bread with melted cheese, and macaroni and cheese.
His paediatrician ordered many tests to see if there was a serious medical condition that was causing his limited diet and weak appetite, but all results came back normal. We tried the advice given by behavior and eating specialists, but nothing helped.
Our first glimmer of hope was a suggestion made by our new paediatrician, when we moved from California to Singapore when our son was 5. He told us, “I don’t know if this will help, but there has been some recent research that shows that probiotics can help stimulate appetite in cases of extreme picky eating, like this.” With high hopes, but very low expectations, we purchased probiotic capsules from a well-regarded brand.
Beneficial bacteria for human health
There are 10 times as many microbes (bacteria and fungi) as there are human cells living in and on our body. The average person has between 1.5 and 2.5 kg microbes living in her digestive tract at any time, and recent research shows that these friendly bacteria (also known as “probiotics”) are not merely using our bodies as a place to live, they also help our bodies to function.
Research shows that there are some friendly bacteria (also known as “probiotics”) that help our bodies to function. | Photo: iStock
Probiotics train the immune system by helping it to distinguish between harmful and helpful particles that get breathed in or swallowed. They support the immune system by helping to fight off disease-causing bacteria and viruses.
They also assist in digesting food, regulating our metabolism, and helping to control appetite. They may even provide psychological benefits by reducing depression and anxiety.
Research is starting to reveal that an unhealthy or out-of-balance mix of bacteria in one’s digestive tract may be linked to several conditions that affect our health and well-being:
• Anxiety, depression, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD)
• Allergies, asthma, eczema
• Auto-immune disorders
• Digestive problems (Diarrhea, Irritable Bowel Syndrome, Acid Reflux)
• Picky eating
What can disturb healthy gut bacteria?
Babies who are bacteria-free in utero get their first exposure to healthy bacteria from their mothers. While the embryonic sac is believed to be totally sterile, newborns pick up their first bacteria as they pass through the birth canal.
A mother’s breastmilk also provides her baby with probiotics. The bacteria that he gets from his mother and from his early environment will “colonise” the baby’s gut, usually by 2 months of age.
Mums can help to provide their babies with probiotics during the first few months by breastfeeding. | Photo: iStock
Once established in infancy, the mix of bacteria in his gut tends to be relatively stable throughout his life – unless it is disturbed.
However, being born by Cesarean Section or fed exclusively with infant formula does have an effect on the types of bacteria that baby is exposed to.
Studies have shown that babies born through natural birth have a mix of gut bacteria similar to the gut bacteria found in their mother’s gut – with plenty of Lactobacillus bacteria to help digest milk. Babies born via C-section, however, have gut bacteria that more closely resemble their mother’s skin – often lacking in bacteria that aid digestion and train the infant’s immature immune system.
Antibiotics are excellent at killing disease-causing bacteria, but they also kill many of the good bacteria at the same time. Oftentimes, the mix of bacteria that re-populate the gut following a course of antibiotics are different than the original mix.
This is why many doctors are starting to prescribe antibiotics only when necessary and often recommend taking probiotics along with them. Anti-bacterial products (such as soaps) can also harm the healthy microbes in our bodies.
Diet can also contribute to the growth of unhealthy gut bacteria.
The modern day diet is filled with highly refined foods and sugars, which can promote the growth of certain gut microbes that are harmful. | Photo: iStock
The modern diet, which is heavy with highly refined foods and sugars, can feed certain harmful gut microbes, such as yeast. Yeast is a fungus that normally lives in the gut in small amounts, but can be problematic if it increases its numbers.
Psychological and physical stress, age and alcohol consumption can also impact the mix of microbes in a person’s digestive system.
Gut bacteria and picky eating
There can be many causes of picky eating. Personality, sensory issues, psychological aversions and bad habits are possible culprits.
In certain cases, however, it appears that an imbalance in the mix of microbes that live in a child’s gut may contribute to extreme picky eating.
There is a connection between the gut and the brain, which has been proven in repeated scientific experiments. The bacteria living in our guts eat what we eat.
There may be certain bacteria that “crave” particular kinds of food, which may explain the nature of your child’s picky eating behaviour. | Photo: iStock
Doctors theorise that certain bacteria “crave” particular kinds of food and can communicate with the brain (perhaps through chemicals they produce). In this way, they can actually influence the kinds of food their host “chooses” to eat.
Thus, if a child has an imbalance or overgrowth of certain unhealthy gut flora, those unwelcome gut bugs might lead him to crave specific types of food. For example, an overgrowth of yeast may cause a child to crave starchy foods with simple sugars (like white bread).
For kids who have an unhealthy mix of gut bacteria, increasing the number and variety of probiotics in the gut can potentially influence and expand the types of foods that the picky eater craves (by means of the brain-gut connection). At the same time, this also helps to ward off the bad microbes.
Extremely picky eaters often have weak appetites. Many experts in the medical and nutritional fields are starting to believe that giving probiotics to certain children can stimulate their hunger. This makes sense as probiotics help to digest food.
Our paediatrician advised us to give our son a high quality probiotic with higher numbers (billions) of Colony Forming Units (CFUs) of a variety of bacteria strains. Within 2 weeks, our son’s eating pattern showed improvement.
I realised that it could just be a coincidence or the placebo effect because we told him that the pills were to improve his eating. However, his range of edible foods has increased widely – and I believe that the probiotics had something to do with it, given how dramatically things started to change soon after starting them.
It began with him eating larger quantities of the same foods he’d always liked. Then he started sniffing foods that he’d refused to eat in the past and saying, “Mmm… that smells good.”
Next, when we ask him to try new foods, he would do it. For the first time, he actually liked some of the new tastes that he tried.
Although he still rejected many of them, he has dramatically expanded his dietary range. He started eating all kinds of meat, certain fruits and certain vegetables. Our family anxiety level (including his) has dramatically reduced.
We believe that our son’s extreme eating was caused by an unhealthy mix of gut bacteria. At 2 weeks old, he had a strong dose of antibiotics to fight off a nasty bronchial infection, which might have wiped out the healthy bacteria that were just starting to colonise his digestive tract. I don’t regret giving the antibiotics that may have saved our very sick little boy, but I do wish that I had known to give him a probiotic along with them!
Our experience was so powerful that I’ve become extremely interested in this emerging area of science, and written extensively about these topics on www.healthygutbugs.com, if you care to learn more.
Article written by Jennifer Porteus (https://www.healthygutbugs.com/)
(Images licensed from Shutterstock by www.healthygutbugs.com)