Illnesses can spread quickly among young children in these colder months. And the antibiotics we use to treat them often cause an upset stomach. But should we be considering supplements and probiotics to strengthen their immune systems? Here’s our take on it.

We all want our kids to be as healthy as possible, especially going into winter, when illnesses can spread quickly among school children. No matter how hard parents try to keep their kids safe and healthy, sometimes even the most vigilant measures can’t ward off illnesses like persistent coughs and colds, sore throats, eye or ear infections and even fevers, vomiting and diarrhoea. School-going children are prone to illnesses – their immune systems are still immature, and they’re encountering all these viruses, bacteria and other antigens for the first time. And the antibiotics used to treat these illnesses kill both the good and bad bacteria in their guys, leading to upset stomachs.

Additionally, while childhood is a time when getting nutritious food is crucial, as a parent, it’s very difficult to make your child eat the right foods. Media and advertisements greatly influence young tastes and preferences, and they don’t always convey the messages we want. Junk food is just one of the many things that can harm the good organisms that are found in our digestive systems. The junk foods that children constantly see advertisements for and desire have excessive amounts of fat and sodium, while failing to provide fibre and certain vitamins and minerals that are necessary for the child’s overall growth and development. They contribute to obesity, tooth decay and a range of lifestyle diseases.

The question then is should we be boosting our children’s immunity with probiotics and multivitamin supplements? The first step is understanding how they work.

What are Probiotics and Multivitamin Supplements?

Probiotics are “live organisms that, when administered through food or as a dietary supplement in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit on the host. Probiotics can be better understood as two words: pro and biotic, meaning promoting life.”
These live microorganisms help maintain a healthy balance in our digestive system by replacing normal gut flora and controlling the growth of harmful bacteria. These are also commonly known as friendly bacteria.

The idea that bacteria are beneficial can be tough to understand. Eighty percent of a child’s immune system resides in the stomach, so the balance of gut flora plays an important role in maintaining immune function. Just like there are both, good and bad people in the world, similarly, there are both, good and bad bacteria in the gut. When talking about gut flora, it’s the good bacteria that matters.

Various vitamins and minerals are essential for the growth and development of children. Multivitamin supplements are preparations that contain all the necessary vitamins and minerals in different quantities. They are usually available as pills, capsules, syrups, liquids or powders.

How do they help?

Children are subjected to many toxins that can decrease digestive function, which affects the body’s ability to utilise nutrients and rid itself of cholesterol. This triggers chronic inflammation, which is the cause of many chronic conditions and diseases.

Safeguarding and restoring a child’s digestive health is all about balancing the good and bad gut bacteria by including probiotics in their diet.
The health benefits of consuming probiotics include:

How do we get Probiotics?

Probiotics are naturally found in many Indian foods, especially in fermented preparations. Good sources of probiotics include curd, buttermilk, lassi, dosa, wada or idli, dhokla, kadhi and fermented beverages.

In addition to its natural occurrence, probiotics are also being cultivated and consciously added into foods like yoghurt or milk (Yakult). It is also packaged and sold in a more concentrated form as a powder supplement.

It’s important to understand that probiotics are not a new idea. Throughout history, cultures have thrived on probiotics found in fermented and cultured foods, which is how foods were preserved before the invention of the refrigerator. In fact, the refrigerator is arguably one of the worst inventions for our digestive health – we no longer have to culture or ferment our foods to keep them from spoiling, and we lose out on vital probiotics.

When Should you Consider Giving a Multi-Vitamin Supplement to your Child?

Multi-vitamin supplements should only be given to children when:

  • Growth and development are delayed
  • They suffer from certain chronic diseases and allergies
  • They are on a restrictive diet, like a vegetarian diet or a vegan diet

It is important to note that multivitamins aren’t necessary for most healthy children who are growing normally. Foods remain the best source of nutrients. Healthy, balanced home-made meals and snacks can provide all the nutrients most preschoolers need.

How Safe are Probiotics and Multivitamin Supplements for my Child?

Probiotics: The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates probiotics as a food product and not as a medicine, so probiotic products are not mandated to show that they are safe or effective.

However in general, probiotics are thought to be safe for children in food form (such as yoghurt with active bacteria). In supplement form, of course, it is best to discuss with your dietician / doctor to recognise your child’s need, and to ensure that you use the right kind of supplementation if required; not all probiotic supplements are the same, nor do they have the same effects on the body.

In some cases, mild side effects might include an upset stomach, diarrhoea, gas, and bloating for the first couple of days. They may also trigger allergic reactions. In such cases, stop giving them to your child and consult your dietician/doctor.

Multivitamin supplements: While many young children are picky eaters, that doesn’t necessarily mean they have nutritional deficiencies. Many common foods – including breakfast cereal, milk and orange juice – are fortified with important nutrients, such as B vitamins, vitamin D, calcium and iron. Your child may be getting more vitamins and minerals than you think!

Furthermore, multivitamin supplements aren’t without risks. Large doses of vitamins and minerals can be toxic. Some vitamins and minerals can also negatively interact with medications your child may be taking.

Should I Boost my Child’s Immunity with Probiotics and Multivitamin Supplements?

Natural probiotics are good for your children, and should definitely be a part of your child’s food plan. However, it’s a myth that multivitamin supplements can replace a healthy meal; natural foods remain the best source of all the nutrients your child requires. There is no substitute for a balanced diet! Even if you notice symptoms of any vitamin or mineral deficiency, consult a doctor/ dietician before giving your child any supplements.

Author: Mitika Kashyap, Pediatric-Onco Nutritionist, Cuddles Foundation (AIIMS)

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