Compared to our generation, the children of today face many substantial differences in upbringing, with the most obvious one being fewer chances to play outdoors in natural environments.
Fears of disease-causing microorganisms have led to parents striving to maintain a sterile environment that is as germ-free as possible. While there is no denying that cleanliness and hygiene are important for staying healthy, there are some who have taken things too far in their quest to be hygienic.
This will limit or inhibit a child’s chances of early exposure to a diverse range of “friendly” microbes, which is necessary to train his immune system to react appropriately to stimuli.
Unfortunately, the term microorganism is often associated with disease-causing germs and viruses, leading many to fear all microorganisms.
Scientists have suggested that the reduction in the diversity of the human microbiome (i.e. microorganisms living in the human body) has led to a rise of allergic diseases and this came to be known as the “hygiene hypothesis”.
Beneficial little helpers
Not all microorganisms cause disease – our gut is home to a large collection of microorganisms called gut microbiota.
The gut accounts for approximately 80% of the entire immune system, and is the first line of defence against infections.
To build a more resilient immune system, the key is to retain a healthy balance of good versus bad bacteria (85% versus 15% respectively).
Good bacteria form a barrier on the intestinal wall, thus denying harmful microorganisms the chance to breed.
They also help modulate the immune system’s responses in how it responds to external threats, which is useful in minimising the risk of developing allergic diseases.
A stronger, more resilient immune system also allows your child to better enjoy the outdoors. You would have better peace of mind knowing that his immune system is strong enough to keep him safe and is continuously improving itself with every exposure.
Building a stronger gut
Opt for natural childbirth (as opposed to C-section) as the vaginal passage contains bacteria that helps kickstart your child’s gut microbiota, which is not colonised by any bacteria by default.
Don’t worry if you miss this, as there are still other things you can do to help improve your child’s gut health, such as:
Back to nature – bring him outdoors to spend more time in natural environments (e.g. recreational parks, farm environments and the forest).
This allows increased exposure to more varieties of microorganisms, which helps prime his immune system, thus leading to a stronger body.
Play with pets – let him keep pets. If this is not an option, bring him to petting zoos instead.
Avoid antibiotics – use only if absolutely necessary (i.e. his paediatrician prescribes it). Do not request for antibiotics each time he is ill as antibiotics do not work against viral illnesses.
Balanced and healthy diet – provide him with plenty of dietary fibres and include legumes, whole grains, fruits and vegetables. These are needed to keep the gut healthy.
Eat foods rich in pre- and probiotics – certain dietary fibres act as prebiotics, i.e. food for the good bacteria in the gut. Maintaining a healthy gut microbiota balance requires a regular intake of both pre- and probiotics.
Other things you should do on a daily basis include ensuring he is physically active, gets enough sleep, and drinks enough water.
Don’t neglect hygiene
Lastly, make it a point to maintain cleanliness and hygiene without going overboard. The danger is when the idea behind the hygiene hypothesis is oversimplified and taken to extremes. Too much, or too little, hygiene is not recommended.
Outdoor exploration should be encouraged, provided the necessary precautions are taken.
Dr Nazrul Neezam is a consultant paediatrician and paediatric gastroenterologist and hepatologist. This article is courtesy of the Malaysian Paediatric Association’s Positive Parenting programme in collaboration with expert partners. For further information, please email firstname.lastname@example.org. The information provided is for educational and communication purposes only and it should not be construed as personal medical advice. Information published in this article is not intended to replace, supplant or augment a consultation with a health professional regarding the reader’s own medical care. The Star does not give any warranty on accuracy, completeness, functionality, usefulness or other assurances as to the content appearing in this column. The Star disclaims all responsibility for any losses, damage to property or personal injury suffered directly or indirectly from reliance on such information.
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