What your child’s gut health says about their behavior

By Danielle Masterson

- Last updated on GMT

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Getty Images

Related tags Gut bacteria microbiome Mental health Children

If your child misbehaves, you may only have yourself to blame, a new study suggests. Recent research indicates the gut microbiome could be a potential determinant of how a child’s environment ultimately impacts their neurobiological function and mental health outcomes.

School-aged children exhibiting poor behavior may have different bacteria in their guts than their well-behaved peers. 

Thomas Sharpton, PhD, of Oregon State University, led a new study which found that parents’ moods and what they serve for dinner may play a key role bacteria development in their child's gut microbiome. 

Listen to your gut 

"We were interested in determining if there were aspects of the gut microbiome that explained the variation of behavior in children,"​ said Sharpton.

To test the theory out, researchers enlisted 40 children between the ages of 5 and 7 years old. The team analyzed stool samples from each to identify the types of bacteria in their guts. They also asked the parents to keep a week-long diet journal and fill out questionnaires regarding behavior, backgrounds and lifestyle.

The researchers used shotgun metagenomics to study the stool of the participants. This whole-genome sequencing technique shows the microbiome environment, composition, and species inside the gut.

Varying microbiome status

Significant variations in bacteria, fungi and viruses were found to be associated with behavioral problems and social disadvantages. The parents’ levels of stress and the quality of their relationship with the child also appeared to be strongly linked to the changes in the gut.

“We discovered that not only are there significant associations between metrics of socioeconomic risk and behavioral dysregulation with the microbiome, but that the quality of the parent-child relationship (here parentally reported) and parental stress statistically moderated these relationships. Furthermore, we uncovered associations between individual taxa (e.g., B. fragilis) and functional groups (e.g., monoamine metabolism) within the microbiome and metrics of socioeconomic risk and behavioral dysregulation. These taxa and functional groups represent potential mechanisms through which the microbiome interacts with the psychosocial environment and, if replicated, potentially influence the development of behavior.”

Indeed, development trajectories are impacted by the children's own genes and environmental factors, but also by the microbes inside their bodies.

"We are not saying that the microbiome is causing the behavior. It may be that the behavior is causing microbiome changes. It's difficult to disentangle the confounding factors.”

The authors added that future human and animal studies are needed to “tease apart specific behavioral links with the microbiome and extend this design to a wider range of behavioral symptomatology and socioeconomic risk.”

The gut-brain axis

This is just one of the growing number of studies that suggest the microbiome plays a role beyond digestive system. The gut also secretes mood-regulating chemicals. In fact, it is estimated that 90% of the body's serotonin​ is made in the digestive tract. 

"The role of the gut microbiome in mental health is a rapidly emerging field of research, however more research is needed into the role of 'psychobiotics' in mental health treatment,”​ said Dr. Joseph Firth, Senior Research Fellow at NICM Health Research Institute, Western Sydney University. 

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Source​: mBio

Jan 2020, 11 (1) e02780-19; DOI: 10.1128/mBio.02780-19

“Gut Feelings Begin in Childhood: the Gut Metagenome Correlates with Early Environment, Caregiving, and Behavior”

Authors: J.Flannery, et al.

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