Episode 7: A Simple Way To Improve Your Kid’s Gut & Immune Health
In today’s episode, we’re going to be talking about some research that has come out of Finland being called ‘the forest floor study’. It’s a very interesting and fascinating research about how building forest floors in daycare centres can change children’s immune systems. The promising results on this short term study warrant more research and work that needs to be done in this area.
In this podcast episode, we delve deeper into the details of this study, as we discuss how green spaces can play a vital role in kids’ overall health and discuss a related article linking the composition of the gut microbiome to predicting COVID-19 severity, and more. I also talk about some action points that you can do to incorporate outdoor activities and expose your kids to natural green spaces more frequently, despite having a busy lifestyle.
My hope is that you will feel motivated to get outdoors with your kids more often after this episode, it is a simple and enjoyable thing we can do that has so many benefits on our kids wellbeing.
Hello, everybody! Welcome back to the podcast.
Hopefully everyone’s kids have settled back into school – kindy, preschool or childcare. May the routine of their new year go really well. We’re going to be talking today a little bit about some research that has come out. This is building on what we talked about last week in the podcast. The hygiene hypothesis and how it can affect our kids’ immune systems. This topic today is similar but I just think it drives home this importance of a healthy microbiome. How easily we can achieve it in our kids, or some of the easy ways that we can achieve it with our kids.
The research that has come out, it’s being called the forest floor research. It was some research done in Finland. Very interesting and fascinating research and there’s been a lot of articles that have been circulating about it. You may have seen it somewhere. There was a an article in Science Alert that said daycares in Finland build a forest floor, and it changed children’s immune systems. So that gives you a bit of an idea about what this research is telling us or is all about.
Let me tell you a little bit more about this research…
As I said it was done in Finland. It was a fairly small group of children. There’s definitely more research and work that needs to be done in this area. So 75 kids were involved in the study, and they attended seven different daycare centres in Finland. All of the kids had similar number of siblings, pets, time spent outdoors, fruit and vegetable intake to minimise the variables. Throughout the study that only went for a month, they were given the same meals. The 75 children, again to minimise any variables that could affect the results.
So what happened was researchers went in overnight and transformed the outdoor areas of four of the seven daycare centres. Four of the seven daycare centres received greening transformations. They put down lawn, they planted forest undergrowth, they put crops into planter boxes. Basically created a green space for the kids to be able to play. These spaces were before this transformation, they were typical urban environments. There was pavement, gravel, very little greenery. And so three of those daycare centres remained the same for a control.
The study went for four weeks and over this period of four weeks, these 75 kids played outside for 90 minutes a day. Some of them were in the transformed green spaces and they were just let to play. You know, they play in the dirt. They did what preschool kids do when let loose in a green environment like that. But some of the kids were in the three daycare centres that didn’t get these green transformation. They were still playing outside, but they were playing in these more urban type environments with pavement, gravel and very little greenery.
At the end of the four weeks, there was a whole variety of studies that were done. To simplify the results for you, the kids that were playing in the new forested spaces had an increase in the diversity of their microbiome, on both their skin and within their gut and this diversity had significantly improved in the kids that were playing in these green outdoor spaces. And also, these kids that had the transformed green outdoor spaces had improvements in their immune and inflammatory markers. I will definitely pop a link to more details about this research for anyone who’s interested in digging more into the science. Exactly the changes that were seen in these kids.
To put really simply – their microbiome was healthier. Their skin microbiome was healthier, their immune system was healthier. Their inflammatory markers were reduced. Inflammation, of course, is an overall marker of ill health and lots of childhood conditions that we see so prominently today, have increased inflammatory markers. So that’s pretty exciting in that short period of just four weeks. 90 minutes a day, these kids’ health has improved really overall. This really does support the theory that the simple act of playing outside in natural spaces is beneficial for our kids in so many different ways.
Particularly as this research suggests, really beneficial for their microbiome and their immune system. This is supporting the biodiversity hypothesis. Remember last week, we talked about the hygiene hypothesis. If you missed that, you can definitely go back and have a listen to that. But the biodiversity hypothesis says that contact with natural environments, enriches the microbiome. Promotes immune balance, protects from allergy and inflammatory disorders. So really, exposure to microbes in a natural environment is good for our kids’ immune systems. It helps to protect them against immune disorders like allergy and inflammatory disorders.
The head researcher in charge of this study stated, “I was quite surprised to see such highly significant changes to occur in such a short amount of time.”
He said, “It implies that the immune system is still extremely pliable at that young age. Over time, it becomes more stubbornly set in its ways. I think that every child should have access to this kind of environment. They have more to win, and more to lose.”
And I really wanted to repeat that because I think it’s so powerful that it’s so important that we are supporting our kids’ immune systems. As early an age as possible. Of course, it’s never too late. If we can get them exposed to these outdoor healthy environments from a really young age, then it is going to be beneficial for their overall health. Both in the current moment, and also in the years to come. The way that our immune system functions, affects our health well beyond what is happening right now. There is that theory that these sorts of things can really help to prevent autoimmune conditions and allergies from developing.
Allergies, as we talked about last week are on the rise. There’s a real problem with allergies in the Western world. And it’s not just kids that are developing new allergies, it’s adults as well. So, we definitely want to take this on board as adults, for our own health and for our kids. As this researcher says, the kids have more to win and more to lose. I think you’ll agree that it’s a really simple thing that we can do. Not always easy, because I know we lead really busy lives. And so we want to set this up so that it happens without us having to put in lots of effort every day to get our kids outside.
Playing outside, in natural environments, just being in natural environments for our kids is not just good for their immune systems and microbiome. It’s also really important for their mental health as research suggests that the more time we spend outside and the more time we spend in nature, the less the prevalence of things like depression and anxiety for both adults and children. We know that outside natural environments are good for our kids eyesight, and their brain development.
It’s good for our kids sensory integration and it’s definitely one of the things that I recommend for any kids that have any sensory issues or sensory processing disorder. That we want to get them playing outside. It’s a very different experience than an indoor environment. You know, being on a screen which is what our kids are doing more when they’re indoors. So being outside is really good for our kids in so many different ways.
I also did want to really bring up another article that I was reading a couple of days ago. This article was in the conversation, and I will link that in the show notes as well. It’s along the lines of what we’re talking about. The title of the article was, a healthy microbiome builds a strong immune system that could help defeat COVID-19. That’s a very catchy headline, of course, I had to read that article. It was written by a researcher and he was stating that the composition of the gut microbiome is the strongest predictor of COVID severity.
Again, there’s more research that needs to be done in this area. But human, a team of researchers are looking into specifically. Specific microbes and specific strains of microbes that are present within the microbiome of people who are affected by COVID in a really severe way. And they’re finding that there is definitely a difference. If you’re interested in reading more about that, I’ll link that article in the show notes. But overall, I think both of these points really do bring out, I guess, it’s just another way to illustrate how important the microbiome is to an overall healthy, functioning immune system.
When we’re talking about immunity, I like to really simplify it because a lot of people can get confused about immunity. What’s immunity got to do with allergies, is isn’t the immunity that we’re talking about with allergies. Different to the immunity that we’re talking about in terms of protecting us from COVID, for example. To put simply, there are two arms to the immune system.
One is the defensive of the immune system, which entails a lot of different cells and organs and different chemicals in the blood as well. The defensive side of the immune system is the side that protects us against viruses, bacteria, microbes. It’s the part of our immune system we’re thinking about when we want to strengthen our immune, our kids’ immune systems. To stop them getting the colds and flus and all the germs that they pick up at school or at daycare, which are mostly prevalent in the winter.
The other part of our immune system is more the regulatory part of our immune system. That’s the part of our immune system that decides what it’s going to react to and it helps to regulate the immune function. So that when we are eating things, or breathing things in, a healthy and a well balanced immune system will say, “Okay, this is okay, it’s just a food”. Or “This is okay, it’s just some dust.”
You know, this is not something I need to elicit an immune response against. But when the immune system is confused, as it is in allergies and atopic conditions, such as eczema, asthma and hay fever, then the decisions that the regulatory side of the immune system makes are often wrong. It’s telling the body, “Hang on, there’s a threat here. This food is causing a threat.” That’s kind of how allergies work. The immune system is eliciting a response when it really doesn’t need to. That can obviously cause a lot of problematic and even life threatening symptoms and conditions.
So we want to be developing our kids’ immune system in a healthy way from as early as possible. Ideally, we want this to start in utero. Even before in utero, even before we fall pregnant. We can be taking on board a lot of these strategies for the microbiome. For the immune system, so that our microbiome as moms is as healthy as possible while we’re pregnant. When we give birth, when we’re breastfeeding, that all has an effect on our kids’ microbiomes. And what we’re seeing is that really slow depletion of the diversity of the microbiome through the generations. That is only going to get worse unless we take action and change our habits. Change our dietary habits, our lifestyle habits.
Over the last couple of weeks, this week and last week, we’ve talked about these theories. This week, the biodiversity, biodiversity theory or hypothesis. Last week, the hygiene hypothesis. These are really more lifestyle changes that we can make to improve our kids’ immune system. To improve our kids microbiome. And yes, they’re not solid science yet. We do definitely need more work in these areas. But I think you’ll agree that we know that outdoor time and time connected to nature is good for us. It’s good for our kids. So why not implement some more of that within our family habits, our routines and rituals as families? Because you know, it’s only going to be beneficial. There’s no negatives that are going to come from that.
I just love this because it illustrates the fact that improving our kids’ health doesn’t have to be complicated We don’t have to give them a whole heap of supplements to make them healthy. Or we don’t have to completely transform our family’s diet, if that feels really big for you. This simple act of getting our kids outside into natural spaces, and doing the same for ourselves, can be so beneficial for their microbiome. Their gut health, their immune system for reducing and preventing things like allergies. And so, this is really important.
To end this, I have a couple of action points. I think you can think about in terms of how to implement these into your lifestyle. I know everyone’s busy. It’s hard to choose, to change our routine and our habits as families. But I hope that this does inspire you to think about a few changes you can make. As always, I really recommend a step by step approach. You don’t have to do at all. Any little change that you can make to get your kids outside in natural spaces a bit more often is going to be beneficial for them.
- First of all, I think this highlights the need to choose your kids’ school. Their childcare centre, their kindy or their preschool wisely. Now, I know not everyone has a lot of choice but there are a lot of us that do. Particularly if we’re living in cities, we might have a few different options for a childcare centre. One of them could have a beautiful green outdoor space and another may just have the asphalt and the concrete. So we want to be thinking about these things when we’re choosing where our kids are going to be spending significant amounts of time. And I think this is also important when we are getting our kids involved in sports and activities.
So many of these are done indoors or in urban environments, I should say. Thinking about getting kids involved in sports and activities, where there is some exposure to natural environments. Even if it is just a green lawn, manicured lawn, it’s still better than something that’s played in the gym, for example. So just thinking about this when we’re choosing the care for our kids. The school for our kids, the activities for our kids. Of course, we’re not always going to be able to completely change our kids’ interests into something that is more outdoorsy. If that’s not them, but I think considering that is important.
- The second action point is to think about what you do, how you spend your time on weekends. Your time off as a family and trying to plan some more days, hours or some more whole weekends even in natural spaces. That could look like visiting a local National Park to you and going there for an explore or picnic, going camping. We love camping. If you’ve been following me for any length of time, you’ll know that I’m a big camping fan. The kids just love it even though now my kids are a bit older. I have a teenager 13 year old, he is quite outdoorsy. When away from his screen, he can get bored easily. But when they’re in that outdoor environment, they find things to do.
They might grizzle for the first couple of hours that there’s nothing to do. But before long, they’re building a fort, they’re climbing a tree or they’re making a cubby. They’re collecting some sort of sticks or shells or so. Getting outdoors with your family, I think on the weekends more, is a great thing that we can all do. If that feels big for you, if you’re not camping people, if you feel like your kids would never agree to go on a picnic to a national park with you think about their interests. Try and try, and engage them. You might do some orienteering or go to a nature park, nature playground nearby. Think about what your kids might enjoy and what you might enjoy as well.
- Thirdly, I think it’s important that we have an engaging outdoor space for our kids. Very close to us in our backyard, or very close to our home. So they can get outdoors without it being a big outing, or a big effort. Of course, those things are great to do as well on the weekends. But during a busy week, we want an engaging outdoor space that our kids can play in really easily. So think about how you can make your backyard or whatever outdoor space you have access to a bit more engaging for your kids. Could you plant a vegetable garden together and get your kids involved in the watering, peeking, planting and the taking care of.
It’s a great little like responsibility project to give to kids. You know, if they don’t water the plants, they’re going to die. So it’s really good for them to learn, depending on their age. What needs to be done to keep things alive. A veggie garden is just one example. Maybe if you’ve got younger kids, you could set up a bit of a mud kitchen. These can be really simple. You can see some pretty special ones on Instagram, but definitely don’t feel like you need to do all or nothing. You can go to the secondhand shop or the op shop and grab some old utensils.
A bucket of water, a bit of dirt or mud and you can have a very simple mud kitchen really easily. Thinking about either creating a bit of a mud kitchen outside or maybe doing yours up. It was a bit of a craze to get mud kitchens and then kids will play on them for a while and then stop playing on them. You could add to your mud kitchen some different utensils and things that the kids could play with. Think about that and even just simple water play outside with kids.
It’s summer here in South Australia. We’ve been doing things like getting the slip and slide out and putting the sprinkler under the trampoline for the kids. They’ve just been loving that. It gets them outside and gives them something to do to cool down on those hot days. So just thinking about how you can make your outdoor space more engaging. If you are a Klub member, we’ve got quite a few resources in the Klub that can help you with this.
We have the interview with Jason Tyndall from Nature Play SA that gives you lots of different ideas for different age groups. He talks about the benefits of getting outside as well. There’s a few other resources within the Klub that can really help as well. So if you’re a Klub member, you can log in and find those in the Klub membership site. You can come over into the Facebook group and ask for ideas as well.
If you’re not a Klub member, we will be opening the Klub very soon in March for new members to join. I’ll pop a link in the show notes on how you can get on the waitlist. In the Klub, it’s all about supporting and inspiring busy moms to raise healthy and happy kids. We talk a lot about outdoor play ideas. We have recipes, meal plans, videos and cheat sheets on all of the different topics that we talk about in Natural Super Kids. Really just about helping to boost the health and nutrition of your kids so that they are healthier and happier. Not just now, but in the long term as well. So that’s just a little tip if you’re a Klub member.
And also if you’re not a Klub member, and you want it because I think Klub members will mostly have already have access to this. We do have a free Kids Gut Health e-book that you can download. Again, I’ll pop the link in the show notes. This talks about some simple ways that you can start to build your kids gut health. Outdoor play, being one of those. It also talks about foods and things we want to avoid as well in our diet and lifestyle that will kill off the good bacteria in our gut. So I would highly recommend that you download our free Gut Health for Kids e-book if you haven’t already. Link to that is in the show notes.
Thank you so much for listening today. If you enjoyed this episode, I would really appreciate it if you could leave a review on iTunes, letting me know about what you enjoyed about this episode. I’d love to know one thing that you would do to take action on what you’ve learned in this episode as well.