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October 21, 2016

Research shows an important link between gut health and our mental and physical wellbeing. Casey McPike asks the experts how to ensure we can do the best for our insides and our family’s

It’s estimated that roughly 80 per cent of our immune system is located in our gut”, says naturopath Rosanne Sullivan, “and a significant amount of serotonin (our ‘happiness hormone’) along with other brain chemicals are made in the gut.” It’s safe to say that gut health is therefore an important topic. But how much do we really know about it? “The gut is a big, long tube,” explains Rosanne, “existing to extract goodness from food while providing a barrier to unfriendly organisms and toxins entering the blood stream. Good gut flora (the ‘good’ bacteria) keep the cells of the gut healthy. When they’re out of balance with interlopers, such as bad bacteria or certain yeasts, the gut may become permeable, meaning toxins or even food particles could make their way into the bloodstream”.

A hostile takeover

It’s the usual suspects that we know we should avoid that can trigger or exacerbate a gut imbalance. Certain foods, stress and antibiotics all have the potential to upset our insides. Rosanne suggests minimising the family’s intake of processed cane sugar, refined white flour, sugary soft drinks and fruit juice.“It can be hard to avoid antibiotics, as they are necessary to treat certain illnesses,” she says. “But antibiotics kill off some of the good bacteria in the process of killing off the bad bacteria, so multiple courses of antibiotics without re-balancing the gut may cause issues. Good flora numbers may also decrease for adults and children during periods of stress.” What if the good guys getoutnumbered?

Reflux, colic, excessive spilling, eczema, oral thrush and nappy rash are on Rosanne’s list of symptoms that could signal your baby’s immune system isn’t working as it should, and she suggests a nappy check for unusually sloppy or hard stools, or for undigested food (for babies on solids). “Sometimes a temporary food intolerance can occur when good gut flora is at a sub-optimal level,” explains Rosanne. “For example, a child may have tolerated dairy all their life, but a compromised gut barrier following a bout of sickness or course of antibiotics has allowed dairy proteins into their blood stream. This could trigger an immune response to dairy. Temporarily avoiding dairy while taking measures to boost gut flora can help bring things back to status quo”.

Aside from tummy troubles and skin woes, Rosanne points out that with so many brain chemicals being manufactured in the gut, it’s worth giving your child’s gut flora a bit of attention if you notice a change in behaviour. No promises though – it might just be the terrible twos kicking in! And, of course, do contact your GP if you have serious concerns about your baby or child’s behaviour. 

Building up your family’s flora


Rosanne says taking probiotics is a great way to help good bacteria repopulate the gut when numbers have been depleted (for example, after a course of antibiotics). Available from pharmacies, health food stores and directly from naturopaths, probiotics are available as loose powders or in capsule form for babies through to adults, and generally need to be kept refrigerated. “Following a course of antibiotics, 3-6 weeks of probiotics is beneficial in regenerating good gut flora,” says Rosanne.

For children and babies on solids: Add probiotic powder to drinks or cold food (e.g. mix into yoghurt).For babies: Mix probiotic powder with a little cooled, boiled water and feed it to them from a soft spoon. If you’re having trouble getting probiotics into a breastfed baby you can even sprinkle some of the powder onto your nipple during feeding. 

Everyday diet

There are also foods you can introduce to the whole family’s diet that will help promote good gut flora numbers from day-to-day. Rosanne’s top picks are:

  •   Fermented foods such as sauerkraut, kimchi and miso soup 
  •   Coconut kefir (a fermented drink you can find this in the fridge in health food stores)
  •   Milk kefir, and plain yogurt
  •   Sourdough bread might be an alternative to standard bread.

(Note: Sauerkraut and kimchi need to be unpasteurised as the pasteurisation process may kill the good bacteria. Most New Zealand-made versions fit the bill and can be found in the chiller of specialty food stores, or make your own at home.)

For babies, Rosanne suggests using an eye dropper to drop a few drops of sauerkraut juice, straight on to their tongue: “Some babies make a funny expression the first few times they try sauerkraut, but they soon develop a taste for it.” 


Prior to birth, a baby’s gut is completely sterile. Gut flora is passed from mother to baby at birth from the birth canal, and/or from the mother’s skin following delivery. With that in mind, building up healthy maternal gut flora during pregnancy is a good way to help your baby on the path to a healthy gut and immune system.  Along with the balanced diet always recommended during pregnancy, you could try boosting your good gut bacteria with kefir, plain yoghurt or fermented foods such as sauerkraut.


Many a breastfeeding mother has suffered through a bout (or five) of mastitis. Sometimes home remedies such as massage and a warm shower may stave off mild mastitis, but antibiotics are often needed to combat the flu-ish, painful condition if it becomes serious.

Antibiotics passing through to the baby via breast milk can be a cause of concern for parents. “Taking probiotics may be of benefit to your baby during and after a course of antibiotics,” says Rosanne. “You can take them yourself and give them directly to your baby as well – there are special formulations for babies and children. Probiotics can help to repopulate good gut flora, and if thrush/nappy rash occurs in the case of a yeast imbalance, then a Candida cream with zinc might be helpful as well.”

If you suspect you or your child has an ongoing gut flora imbalance, it may be helpful to see a naturopath. In the case of severe or sudden illness, always seek immediate attention from your doctor, or call 111 in an emergency situation.

Probiotic pointers 

Dr Nicola Mohan from Mt Eden Village Doctors on the probiotic movement:

“Our gut contains a multitude of beneficial bacteria, and when this balance is disrupted (for example by antibiotics) problems such as antibiotic-induced diarrhoea can result. A probiotic is a preparation containing live bacteria that aims to replenish or add to the number of helpful bacteria in the body. 

Research supports the use of probiotics in some settings – for example, probiotics are routinely given to very premature babies in neonatal units to protect them from serious gut inflammation. There is promising evidence to suggest that probiotics may also be useful in shortening the duration of an infectious diarrhoeal illness and preventing bowel upset following antibiotics, helping to clear gastric infections, and reducing the frequency of upper respiratory tract infections (the common cold).

 Probiotics might provide benefit in a number of other situations, and many studies continue to investigate this, as well as the optimal type, dose and duration of use
of probiotics.

While probiotics are generally thought to be safe to take, with few to no side effects, people with serious problems of the immune system or severe gut disease should seek medical advice first.”


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