Bad habits in childhood may lead to an ‘unhealthy’ balance of gut bacteria and increase health risks in later life

Preliminary data suggests that a child’s sleeping, eating and fitness habits can influence the balance of bacteria found in their gut as teenagers, according to research presented today at the 57th Annual European Society for Paediatric Endocrinology Meeting. These findings indicate that maintaining healthy lifestyle habits during childhood may promote a healthy balance of gut bacteria later in life, which in turn may contribute to lowering the risks of developing serious long-term conditions such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

The gut is home to a highly complex microbial community consisting of trillions of diverse tiny microorganisms, collectively called the microbiota. In a healthy state, these microorganisms work in harmony with the body to help digest food, generate and use energy and promote normal organ and immune function. However, changes in the balance of the gut microbiota have been linked to an increased risk of insulin resistance and type-2 diabetes, high cholesterol levels and cardiovascular disease. Emerging research also suggests a link to obesity, with differences in microbiota diversity and composition noted between lean and obese people. Diet has been shown to influence gut microbiota diversity in adults but little is known about the impact of other lifestyle factors, as well as diet, on the microbiota during childhood.

In this study by Dr Melanie Henderson and colleagues at CHU Sainte-Justine in Montreal, lifestyle factors of 22 healthy children, with at least one obese parent, were monitored over 8 years. When the children reached 15-17 years, the composition and diversity of their gut microbiota was measured from stool samples. The study findings suggested that certain lifestyle factors during childhood may influence the composition and diversity of gut microbiota in late adolescence. Teenagers, who had higher fitness levels, ate less fat and more carbohydrate, and had adequate sleep during their childhood, had a healthier and more diverse composition of gut microbiota.

These preliminary findings reveal that not just diet, but other lifestyle factors including low fitness levels and poor sleep behavior are likely involved in the development of an ‘unhealthier’ gut microbiome, which may increase the risk of children developing more serious conditions in later life,” commented Dr Henderson.

Whilst the findings are preliminary, with only a small number of children studied, they suggest that mechanisms related to lifestyle habits may affect the growth of gut microbiota, which Dr Henderson intends to examine in the next phase of her study.

Dr Henderson states, “The results of this study certainly suggest that lifestyle changes during childhood may help to favour a healthy intestinal microbiota, which may in turn lower the risk of developing cardiometabolic diseases such as diabetes, however further research is needed to confirm these findings in a larger number of children.”

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Notes for Editors

The study “More than a gut feeling: preliminary evidence supporting a role for lifestyle habits in shaping the intestinal microbiota in childhood and adolescence” (abstract P1-P108), was presented at the 57th Annual European Society for Paediatric Endocrinology Meeting in Athens, Greece.

The 57th Annual Meeting of the European Society for Paediatric Endocrinology (ESPE 2018 Meeting) was held 27-29 September 2018 in Athens, Greece. The ESPE annual meeting is recognised worldwide as being of high scientific and educational quality. www.eurospe.org