Boost Kids’ Digestion – Naturally!

June 4, 2012

Constipation is one of the most common intestinal problems in children, and is the number one cause of kids’ belly pain.  Occasional mild constipation might be bothersome, but usually is nothing serious.  But when it becomes chronic or extreme, constipation can negatively impact kids’ lives.  Kids with chronic constipation suffer from bloating and discomfort which can cause them to miss school and activities, it even accounts for 3% of outpatient visits to general pediatric clinics and up to 25% of visits to pediatric gastroenterology clinics.

Chronic constipation is generally a signal that something is amiss in the digestive process.  Dealing with the underlying problem is more effective than just dealing with the symptoms.  Fortunately, most constipation in infants and children is not caused by serious medical disease, and can be treated with some simple changes to their diet.

Constipation can be caused by a long list of issues including:

  • picky eating
  • highly processed diets
  • undiagnosed food sensitivities
  • lack of exercise
  • low fiber consumption
  • insufficient fluid intake, chronic dehydration
  • Other issues – such as change in routine, travel, physical considerations, mental or behavioral concerns.

Many cases of chronic constipation can stem from picky eating.  Changing a picky eater’s diet may not be very easy.  So tasteless and odorless medications like Miralax seems to offer an easy solution – just stir it into a glass of water or juice, and drink it down.   But prescribing it to kids and for a long term basis is an off-label use, as Miralax is not FDA approved for use in children. According Miralax’s label – it is for use with people age 17 and over, and not for more than 7 days (without a doctor’s orders).  Although many doctor’s prescribe it to children, the research on the long-term safety of propylene glycol (PEG) use in kids is limited at best.  According to the NY Times, “the Empire State Consumer Project, a New York consumer group, sent a citizen petition to the F.D.A. on behalf of parents concerned about the increase in so-called adverse events related to PEG that health professionals and consumers have reported to the F.D.A. over the past decade.”  And another downside to using prescription laxatives is that they only remove the symptoms, they do not identify or deal with the underlying problem causing the constipation.

The good news is there are lots of natural alternatives that are safe, effective, and offer lots of nutritional benefits.  Ideally, the best way to handle constipation is with a long term foods-based approach, and try to prevent it before it happens.  Because once constipation sets in, it can be habit-forming and hard to fix.

10 tips for preventing constipation/boosting digestion naturally:

1. Hydrate!  Many kids who suffer from constipation do not drink enough fluids throughout the day.  Without proper hydration, the stools will be hard and difficult to pass.

  • Drink plenty of water and fluids throughout the day.  But try to not drink too much water with meals, it can dilute the digestive enzymes and work against digestion.  Avoid sugary beverages, as those do not promote better digestion and can quickly lead to weight gain and cavities.
  • Diets rich in plant-based foods are also very hydrating.  Foods like melons, cucumbers, romaine lettuce, celery, and tomatoes (they are 94% water), all contain a lot of water, which boosts hydration.

2. Increase Fiber

Most Americans do not get nearly the amount of fiber they need each day.  There are 2 types of fiber – soluble and insoluble.  Soluble dissolves in water, creating a gel.  Insoluble fiber passes through undigested, so it adds bulk.  How much fiber should my child get each day?  For kids ages 3-18, you should add the number 5 to your child’s age, and in general, that is the number of grams of fiber they need daily – so an average 11 year old, should have about 16 grams of fiber per day. A 6 year old needs about 11 grams.  Adults need about 25 grams each day.  Add fiber gradually and slowly over time, as it can cause discomfort if you add it too quickly. It is important to drink extra liquids as well when increasing dietary fiber, especially soluble fiber because it need to soak up water in order to work.

  • Chia seeds – can be a miracle food for constipation.  Chia seeds work very much like Miralax does – by drawing in water.  Yet unlike Miralax, Chia is a superfood, and highly nutritious.  Not only is chia a gentle and very effective fiber – it is also an excellent source of omega 3s and protein, minerals, and antioxidants. One of the most hydrophillic foods, chia seeds soak up about 15 times it’s own weight in water, which boosts hydration and provides lasting energy. Always make sure to take chia seeds with plenty of water or fluids, or they can draw water from within the body, which can be dehydrating.
  • Beans – contain some of the highest fiber content – between 7 an 9 grams per 1/2 cup.
  • Oatmeal – a good source of soluble fiber, which in addition to helping prevent constipation, helps lower cholesterol.
  • Fruits & veggies – So many common diseases and health problems could be helped simply by increasing our plant-based foods. Eating more whole fresh fruits and veggies will provide both fiber and enzymes – which boost digestion.  More plant-based foods also lower your risk of most diseases, including heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.  Although fruit is a nice alternative to a sweet dessert, preferably you want to eat fruit a half hour before, or two hours after a meal.  The reason is that fruit is digested more quickly than proteins, complex carbs and fats, and so if you eat fruit right after a meal, it will want to pass through the system faster than the other foods, and ferment on top of them – creating reflux and other issues. Many people who think they can’t tolerate fruit, just need to eat it at the right time.

3. Identify Food Sensitivities

When constipation is chronic, going on an allergy elimination diet might be prudent.  Undiagnosed food allergies or sensitivities can cause inflammation, digestive troubles, problems absorbing nutrients, and constipation.  It is also important to discover a food sensitivity because they can lead to damage in the small intestine, and many other very serious health issues.

  • Dairy – only about 40% of the population has the ability to properly digest dairy, that means for the majority of the population (60%), dairy will interfere with digestion.  Cheese is especially constipating.  Removing dairy from the diet for a couple weeks can help to determine if that is the root of the problem.  Substitute a non-dairy milk, and non-dairy cheese and see if the condition improves.
  • Gluten – Most people think that people with celiac disease or gluten intolerance will suffer from diarrhea, which many do.  But celiac disease or a gluten sensitivity can also lead to constipation.  Some patients with celiac disease are mistakenly diagnosed initially with irritable bowel syndrome, which has similar symptoms.

4. Pitch out Processed & Sweetened Foods

– Processed or “enriched” foods lack enzymes, fiber and nutrients.  Diets that are highly processed not only lead to constipation, but also malnourishment and hypoglycemia. Super sugary foods and drinks also work against digestion.  Also – the more sweet foods a child eats, the less they will enjoy unsweetened foods like vegetables, so getting rid of the sugar for a little while helps to reset the taste buds and metabolism.  High sugar consumption also raises our triglycerides, blood sugar, and increases our risk of many diseases.

5. Balance minerals

Too much calcium and not enough magnesium can lead to constipation (it also has been linked to increased risk of heart attack, due to calcifications of the arteries).  As many as 70% of Americans are deficient in magnesium.  This can result in constipation, headaches, sore muscles, nerve troubles, restless legs, nervousness, and even increased fractures.  Taking magnesium before bedtime is helpful with constipation.  For some kids, taking magnesium before school is helpful – as it can help them to be calm in school.  If you are craving chocolate, it could be your body telling you that you need magnesium, cacao is one of the highest known food sources for magnesium.  You can take magnesium supplements, such as Natural Calm, or you can eat foods rich in magnesium – cacao the main ingredient in chocolate is one of the richest known sources of magnesium.  You can also take magnesium salt baths – which is a wonderful way to relax before bedtime too. I like the brand Dead Sea Warehouse, they have high quality sea salt products for a reasonable price – including bath salts, soaps, and lotions. I also recommend that people toss out the table salt, and get high quality sea or pink Himalayan salt, which has many natural minerals that the body needs.

6. Boost Good Bacteria. 

We need to balance out the bacteria in our gut – probiotics boosts the good bacteria, which is very important for healthy digestion, a balanced weight, and a strong immune system.  Fermented and cultured foods and drinks such as kefir can provide natural probiotics, or you can add a probiotic supplement to the daily routine.   Read The Importance of Good Bacteria to learn more.

7. Boost Enzymes! 

The body naturally produces hydrochloric acid (HCL) and enzymes to digest foods. If we are low on HCL or enzymes, food may not get properly digested, so it will be harder to pass through the digestive tract, and also the body will absorb less of the nutrients.  If you suffer from acid reflux, you might think that you need to reduce the acid in your stomach.  But usually, it means you do not have enough acid or enzymes.

  • Raw fruits & vegetables contain natural enzymes, especially foods like papaya, pineapple.  Adding lemon to water can help to boost digestion.
  • Digestive Enzymes – are also available in supplement forms, and can help kids with digestive troubles, especially reflux.

8. Exercise

– kids who spend too much time in front of a screen and not out being active can suffer from constipation.  Regular exercise is important for promoting regularity.

9. Time.

It is important to make sure your child has enough time each morning to sit and relax on the potty before going off to school.   Sometimes kids will “hold it” at school, traveling, or if they are out in public.  Some teachers might restrict bathroom breaks, to limit disruptions to the school day.  If your child suffers from urinary tract, constipation or digestive troubles; make sure to inform the teacher so he knows to not to restrict your child’s access to the bathroom.  If the teacher does not agree, bring your issue to the principal, there is a disabilities act that prevents kids who have continence issues from being restricted from using the bathroom.

10. Smoothies! 

One of my favorite ways to sneak lots of good nutrition, fiber and hydration into a glass are smoothies.  Especially good for picky eaters – smoothies are a great way to sneak in healthy ingredients!

Orange Dream Smoothie:  

Makes one 8 oz. smoothie

  • 1/2 cup of water, or non-dairy milk
  • 1/4 cup So Delicious Coconut Kefir
  • 1 small orange (peel removed), or 1/2 large orange
  • 1/4 cup frozen pineapple (rich in enzymes)
  • 1/4 cup frozen mangos, peaches, or cantaloupe flesh
  • 1 Tablespoon chia seeds
  • 3 baby carrots
  • 1 teaspoon of Barleans Omega Swirl, mango peach flavor
  • Optional – you could add a probiotic powder for additional beneficial bacteria

Put the liquid in the blender and add the chia seeds, let soak for a few minutes to soften.  Then add the rest of the ingredients, blend well, and serve this delicious smoothie that tastes like an orange creamsicle!  It contains probiotics, 8 grams of highly nutritious chia fiber, which promote healthy digestion, and 2.5 grams of omega 3s, which is brain food.  Pour any extra into popsicle molds for a healthy snack for later.  This recipe is picky eater tested and approved!

As a child, I was a picky eater and suffered from chronic constipation.  But today, following a gluten-free and a mostly dairy-free diet, along with a high fiber, high plant-based diet; I rarely suffer from constipation or digestive troubles.  The first thing to permanently change my digestion was the addition of 2 Tablespoons of chia seeds every day.  For me, chia seeds were truly a miracle.

Digestion is extremely important to our health.  Poor digestion over time can lead to problems with sleep, hormones, mood/depression, weight, and potentially serious diseases.  There is an expression: “All disease begins in the gut.”   Symptoms like constipation can be a warning sign that something is amiss and we need to take steps to improve our nutrition and health.  Rather than removing the symptom with a prescription, we should look deeper for a solution.  Promoting good digestion with a foods-based plan, is a step in the right direction towards long-lasting health.

Realize that digestion issues may take a while to resolve, and it might be a good idea to slowly ease into the changes.  If the constipation and digestion issues continue to persist, it might be prudent to schedule an appointment with a holistic or integrative practitioner to see if there is an underlying issue that needs to be addressed – such as an infection, parasites, SIBO, or another issue.

Read more: Miralax, a Popular Cure, But Never Approved for Children.

“Let food be thy medicine, and medicine be thy food.” – Hippocrates

*This content is not to be construed as providing medical advice. All information provided is general and not specific to individuals. Persons experiencing problems or with questions about their health or medications, should consult their medical professional. Persons already taking prescription medications should consult a doctor before taking the above foods, herbs, vitamins or supplements to be sure there are no interactions.

Sara Vance Article written by Nutritionist Sara Vance, author of the book
The Perfect Metabolism Plan A regular guest on Fox 5 San Diego, you can see many of Sara’s segments on her media page. She also offers corporate nutrition, school programs, consultations, and affordable online eCourses. Download her free 40+ page Metabolism Jumpstart eBook here.

*This article is for educational purposes only. The content contained in this article is not to be construed as providing medical advice. All information provided is general and not specific to individuals. Persons with questions about the above content as how it relates to them, should contact their medical professional. Persons already taking prescription medications should consult a doctor before making any changes to their supplements or medications.

©2015, all rights reserved. Sara Vance.

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