Compared to wealthy children, those born of lower socioeconomic status are 65% less likely to suffer from childhood inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). According to a recent study, children are also at higher risk of developing IBD after they receive antibiotics before they turn five years old or adhere to a Western diet.
Lead author and gastrointestinal dietitian Nisha Thacker presented these findings at a conference called Digestive Disease Week 2023. Inflammatory bowel diseases include Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis. Symptoms include stomach pain, weight loss, bloody diarrhea, anemia and poor growth.
“Many of these factors can influence our gut microbiota and can have a particularly strong effect in a child,” Thacker said in her official statement. “A Western diet, high in sugars and ultra-processed foods and low in vegetables, is a good example.”
To understand the contributing risk factors of inflammatory bowel disease during childhood and adolescence, Thacker analyzed data from 36 studies that delved into the consequences of gastrointestinal inflammation. The data from the studies included 6.4 million children. She found that using antibiotics before age five tripled a child’s risk of developing IBD. But consuming more vegetables, having pets, and/or having more than two siblings protected young children from IBD. Interestingly, Thacker also stressed that children growing up in households with only one toilet also provide some protection against inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).
In a press release, Thacker explained that her findings indicate that excessive hygiene can be counterproductive. Especially since reducing the diversity of microbes a child is exposed to prevents them from developing a resilient gut microbiome that is less prone to inflammation. For an efficient and strong immune system, parents should encourage their children to play outside and interact with pets to increase their chances of exposure to beneficial or good bacteria.
“Most humans live in harmony every day with the 10 trillion bacteria and fungi that make up our gut microbiome, a relationship that’s quite remarkable when you consider that only a single layer of gut epithelial cells separates these organisms from patrolling mucosal immune cells,” Shehzad A. Saeed, a gastroenterologist at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center and colleagues wrote in a 2015 JAMA Pediatrics study.
Currently, there is no cure for inflammatory bowel disease. Once diagnosed, doctors can only treat it symptomatically in an effort to reduce the severity and frequency of treatments. IBD can significantly impact a child’s and adolescent’s quality of life and social life. Studies estimates that about 25% of IBD cases are present before the age of 20. In the United States and Canada, the incidence of IBD in children is about 10 per 100,000 children. But the prevalence is much higher. In the US, between 100 and 200 children and adolescents have been diagnosed with inflammatory bowel disease.
To date, the exact causes of inflammatory bowel disease in children and adults are still unknown. But researchers around the world are exploring how the human gut microbiome might contribute to IBD.