Malnourished children have immature gut bug systems, scientists find.
Children suffering from maladies associated with malnutrition in Bangladesh, where the author of a new study researched children’s digestive tracts. PHOTOGRAPH BY RON HAVIV, VII
By Karen Weintraub for National Geographic.
Originally published on June 4, 2014 on NatGeoFood.com.
Doctors have learned how to stop malnutrition from killing small children, but they’ve been unable to figure out why these children remain at a disadvantage even after they’re well fed. A new study suggests the answer may lie in gut bugs.
Infants and toddlers who are malnourished have an immature ecosystem of microbial organisms in their digestive tracts, according to new research published in this week’s Nature. The current treatment for malnourishment doesn’t help the child’s system catch up to normal maturity, which may explain why formerly malnourished children still suffer from short height, immune problems, and intellectual delays, said Jeffrey I. Gordon, who studies the gut microbiome at Washington University in St. Louis and who led the research.
“There’s something lacking in our current approach to treatment,” said Gordon, who suspects the children may need to eat therapeutic foods for longer and/or get supplements of probiotics, or beneficial microorganisms, to catch up. “We need to think of food as interacting with this microbial organ.” (See our Future of Food series.)
The study also outlined a method for determining the maturity of a child’s gut bugs, which could be used in other health-related contexts.
Gordon said he is currently comparing the ecosystems from the healthy Bangladeshi children cited in this study with the gut bug populations of healthy infants and toddlers in Malawi, South Africa, India, Peru, and the United States. Early indications suggest there are common patterns of development around the world, he said.
A child’s gut bugs, immune system, and brain appear to develop simultaneously, Gordon said. Once researchers know what normal, healthy gut bug populations are supposed to look like as a child develops, they can better understand—and treat—what goes wrong in conditions like malnutrition, and maybe even autism, he said.