Learning Potential and the Gut Connection

In recent years the gut microbiome has been associated with many developmental issues and studies have documented an increased incidence of gastrointestinal symptoms in children with learning needs. For example, research shows that digestive flora plays a role in childhood behaviours such as the ability to focus, follow instructions, and even sit still (Pärtty et al., 2013).

If your child has trouble concentrating or following directions have you noticed they also have tummy troubles? Frequent bloating, reflux, constipation? Or perhaps they just don’t agree with certain foods? Are they fussy eaters?

Often however, underlying gut imbalance doesn’t manifest as digestive problems at all, instead showing up as poor immunity, anxiety, skin problems, sleep disturbance, or allergies.

So how does the child gut become adversely affected?

...and so affect neurodevelopment and their learning potential?

Research shows the following factors may have impact on the gut and subsequent cognitive outcomes (Borre, 2014):

  • Mode of delivery

  • Early hospitalisation

  • Antibiotics (particularly in the first 6 months of life and up to the first year

  • Environmental factors such as toxicity

  • Maternal stress

  • Maternal infection and disease

  • Mode of nutritional provision

Whilst these studies may seem pretty scary to parents and new mums, and I can say this personally as a mother whom has been affected by a large number of these risk factors, I can also tell you that studies and practice have shown that using nutritional interventions may prevent, mitigate and even reverse these potential adverse outcomes.

Positively modulating the gut microbiota may have benefits for cognitive and learning outcomes. For example, not only does the method of feeding via breast or supplementation of formula with prebiotics prove beneficial for cognitive development, but prebiotic use later in life may even have positive cognitive effects too.

Prebiotic studies provide evidence for the beneficial use of prebiotics to help maintain a well-balanced microbiome from infancy to early adulthood.

In summary:

  • In preclinical research, prebiotics demonstrate anti-pathogenic, anti-inflammatory and neuroprotective actions with favourable effects on several behaviours including anxiety, learning, and memory.

  • These beneficial mechanisms of action therefore have potential for the underlying dysfunction in neurodevelopment and learning disorders.

  • Human breastmilk is a natural prebiotic source which encourages the development of a healthy microbiome with known benefits to the developing preterm brain.

  • Prebiotics can also be found readily available in foods such as cereals, chicory, and bananas, which are recommended for infants during weaning.

  • In adult human studies, prebiotic supplementation had some acute effects indicating prebiotics may be beneficial for short term recall and memory.

There are now so many wonderful prebiotic products on the market. Comment or contact if you would like more advice or information.

Fish oil to boost learning: Connection between gut and brain. Since the gut may be implicated in learning issues (see previous posts this week for more information), Omega-3 oils may work to correct the dysfunction by positively influencing the microbial composition, but also by increasing the production of anti-inflammatory compounds in the gut, such as short chain fatty acids, the effects of which are known to reach the brain. Evidence suggests that a deficiency of omega-3 and or a high omega-6: omega-3 ratio may play a role in the development of childhood conditions affecting learning such as autism and ADD/ ADHD. In a 4-month pilot study using fish oil in 133 children (Krabbe) : 58% of those with memory problems improved; 69% of the children with hyperactivity problems improved; 70% of the children with learning ability problems improved; 40% of those with reading problems improved; 50% with concentration problems improved; 65% of children with eczema improved; 78% of the children with dry skin improved; 60% of the children with frequent upper airway infections improved; and 69% of children with frequent throat infections improved. I believe a good fish oil for ALL children is a must! It is important to find a high quality, purified fish oil, free from heavy metals and pollutants and with good amounts of EPA/DHA. Seek out the advice of a qualified practitioner.

Microbiome dietary support wish list: a summary of the recommendations

  • Diverse selection of vegetables & herbs: Diversity & population mass of colonic bacterial species is highly correlated with the diversity & amount of vegetables in the diet*

  • Plant antimicrobials help redress any imbalance in microbiome. Consult a herbalist such as myself.

  • Fermented foods such as sauerkraut, kimchi, kefir etc.

  • Avoid sugar, sweeteners and refined plant oils as found in junk food.

  • A good quality fish oil daily

  • Inclusion of olive oil for polyphenol content.

Non-Dietary Support for the microbiome to improve learning outcomes.

  • Spending time outdoors & open windows.

  • Avoid over cleaning - house and body. In fact get dirty!

  • Minimising EMF exposure: Exposure to 50 Hz EMF - frequency of most household appliances, acts as a stressing factor on bacteria.

  • Managing stress levels - stress leads to disruption of the mucosa, dysbiosis and an increase in inflammatory cytokines.

For more information on any of the points covered here or how you can obtain support for learning or gut dysfunction contact us through the site.


Borre, Y. E. et al. (2014) ‘Microbiota and neurodevelopmental windows : implications for brain disorders’, Trends in Molecular Medicine. Elsevier Ltd, 20(9), pp. 509–518. doi: 10.1016/j.molmed.2014.05.002.

Pärtty, A. et al. (2013) ‘Effects of early prebiotic and probiotic supplementation on development of gut microbiota and fussing and crying in preterm infants: A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial’, Journal of Pediatrics. doi: 10.1016/j.jpeds.2013.05.035.

Krabbe Logan V, Lydeking-Olsen E, Saldeen T. Eskimo Kids: Bioavailability, consumer accept and effect - a pilot study in 133 children for 4 months. Unpublished.

Lewis CA Enteroimmunology Edition 3.03 July 2015 Psy Press Florida US

Cellini L et al Bioelectromagnetics. 2008 May;29(4):302-11 2 Inhan-Garip P et al E. Int J Radiat Biol. 2011 Dec;87(12):1155-61 3. Wang B et al Dig Dis Sci 2011;56(11):3187-94

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