Improving Children's Digestive Health
When stomach upset occurs in small children it can be very unpleasant for both children and parents alike. Sometimes a sore tummy can be symptomatic of a cold or allergies, and you either have to wait it out or, in the case of allergies, consult your health care practitioner. There are times, however, when pain, bloating, belching or flatulence are the results of poor digestion brought on by poor eating habits.
Proper digestion is important not only to prevent stomach upset but also to create an environment for optimal absorption of vitamins and minerals. Absorption is an important factor in the digestive process. The digestive system performs three critical functions that maintain overall health in the body: digestion, absorption and excretion of waste. When one function is compromised, it adversely affects the other. If the body cannot digest, it cannot absorb; if it cannot absorb, it cannot excrete. Since childhood is a time of rapid growth, it is essential that the digestive system be able to do everything in which Nature intended.
The best way to prevent stomach upsets in small children is to teach good eating habits from a very young age. These easy to implement eating tips will set the stage for a life-time of good eating habits and help avert uncomfortable tummy aches and pains.
Encourage Children to Chew, Chew, Chew
The digestive process begins in the mouth with the act of chewing. How long a child chews his food can determine how easily the food is digested in the stomach. Throughout the digestive system, different sections secrete different enzymes, which help with the proper breakdown of food. The enzyme amylase is released through the salivary glands in the mouth when we chew. Amylase is an essential enzyme in the breakdown of starchy foods into smaller, more absorbable units. Unfortunately, busy little children often gulp down their food, missing this important step of the digestive process, which will result in large food particles entering the stomach. When this occurs, a child is more susceptible to indigestion symptoms. Encourage your children to chew their food well, ideally until each mouthful reaches a paste-like consistency before it is swallowed. With very young children, make a game of it: parents, sing a line of your little one's favorite song as he chews a biteful, when you reach the end, tell the child to swallow.
Foods high in salt, sugar and saturated fat are harder to digest than whole, natural foods. Well balanced meals with plenty of fiber-rich foods such as fresh fruit, vegetables and whole grains, will move easily through the digestive system because the body is equipped to break down these foods into digestible units. Refined foods, however, upset the natural balance of digestion, often by requiring more enzymes, more hydrochloric acid, more bile, more insulin and more energy to digest, absorb and excrete. This not only exhausts the body and can contribute to future health problems; it also puts incredible strain on the digestive system, resulting in possible pain and discomfort.
Eat first, Play later
Children should be taught to eat sitting down at a table without toys or distractions, including television and electronic gadgets. This way a child will pay closer attention to his body signals and stop eating before he feels overly full. Overeating will often produce symptoms of indigestion because the digestive system is now required to work harder to breakdown more food. This puts undue stress on the digestive process and creates uncomfortable feelings of fullness, bloating, gas and even pain. Teaching children to pay attention to their food and their bodies will discourage mindless eating and overeating. Engage in pleasant conversation during mealtimes to keep your children stay interested enough to keep still at the table, but conscience enough to be wary of their own body signals.
Drink Less With Meals
The stomach produces two components necessary for the digestive process: hydrochloric acid (HCI) and the enzyme pepsin. Hydrochloric acid stimulates the churning process that will turn food particles in the stomach into a liquid called chyme before it enters the small intestines and becomes absorbed into the bloodstream. Pepsin is an enzyme necessary for the breakdown of proteins. Drinking large quantities of water or other liquids while we eat can dilute both of these stomach juices and compromise the digestive process. Low levels of hydrochloric acid can cause stomachaches in small children as the stomach struggles to churn. Large particles of protein also struggle to become absorbed into the bloodstream causing discomfort to a small child. Encourage children to take small sips of liquids with their meals for optimal digestion.
Healthy Minds, Healthy Stomachs
Often referred to the body's second brain, the enteric nervous system manages every aspect of digestion, from the esophagus to the stomach, intestines and colon. Like the central nervous system, the enteric nervous system also contains a complex network of neural circuitry, neurotransmitters and proteins, governed by our emotions. It is no surprise that there is a direct relationship between emotional stress and physical distress. When we are feeling sad, anxious or excited, our digestion system is unable to effectively digest, absorb and excrete, which can lead to abdominal discomfort. Children, like adults, can also feel stress, thereby compromising their digestive system. When we help children deal with their emotions in a positive manner, we not only help their psychological state of mind, we create an environment for optimal digestion.
Exercise Does a Tummy Good
Food, exercise and digestion are closely related. Accelerating our breathing and heart rate, helps our intestinal muscles contract which assists in quick, fluid and efficient bowel movements. Infrequent bowel movements, can lead to stomach upset in young children. Besides the many other physiological and emotional benefits of exercise, children need to participate in active play every day to aid the digestive process. Run, skip, jump or dance, do whatever it takes to get the kids off the couch for at least a few minutes, several times a day.
Good Habits Start Young
We carry many of our childhood habits into adulthood. Teaching children good eating habits will not only help impede upset tummies, it will also set them on the path to a healthier lifestyle. Any prolonged abdominal pain or discomfort in your children, however, should be brought to the attention of your health care practitioner. What may appear to be a bad case of indigestion could be the symptom of a more serious health concern. Trust your instinct and do what is best for your individual child.
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