CHICAGO — Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) is a very prevalent gastrointestinal condition that usually results in chronic abdominal pain or discomfort. For children, a new study reveals that they are more vulnerable to this condition if they take antibiotics or consume a typical Western diet starting at a young age. While wealth often equates to better health, scientists add that even children from families with a higher socioeconomic status are more vulnerable to IBD.
“Pediatric IBD cases are rising globally, and approximately 1 in 4 of all IBD cases are now diagnosed before age 21,” says Nisha Thacker, the study’s lead author and a gastrointestinal dietitian.
Scientists are watching these numbers closely, largely due to the ongoing concern about the impact of pediatric IBD on puberty and child growth patterns. It’s imperative that parents be aware of the condition and factors that can influence its onset and progression.
Thacker conducted a meta-analysis of 36 observational studies representing around 6.4 million children. She found that antibiotic exposure before the age of five displayed an association with a three times greater risk of pediatric IBD. Exposure to four or more courses of medications increased this risk to three-and-a-half times. Interestingly, a lower socioeconomic status actually have a connection to a 65-percent lower risk, suggesting that it has a protective effect. To no surprise, eating more vegetables was also shown to be protective, as was having two or more siblings and being exposed to pets during childhood.
“Many of these factors can impact our gut microbiota and may have a particularly strong effect in a child,” says Thacker in a media release. “A Western diet, high in sugars and ultra-processed foods and low in vegetables, is a prime example.”
Regarding the relationship between early pet exposure and IBD, Thacker explains that this finding suggests that excessive hygiene may harm the gut environment by not allowing for a strong one to be built up in the first place. While maintaining basic hygiene is always recommended, researchers say letting kids play outside and interact safely with pets may help build a stronger immune system.
Results also show that exposure to secondhand smoke is harmful to gut health, doubling the risk of childhood IBD.
Based on their results, study authors advise that families with young children prioritize a diet rich in vegetables and other whole foods, use antibiotics with caution at early ages, consider getting a pet, mitigate secondhand smoke exposure, and avoid excessive hygiene practices, particularly in high income countries. For those with a family history of IBD, all of these become steps even more important, and may help combat a person’s genetic predisposition for chronic gut disorders.
Thacker’s team presented their findings at Digestive Disease Week® (DDW) 2023.
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