Socioeconomic Status May Impact Children's Gut Health, Study Finds

Young girl holding stomach

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Key Takeaways

  • A new study found that socioeconomic factors can (indirectly) impact children’s gut health.
  • The gut microbiome can be indicative of sickness now and in the future.
  • A healthy diet and exercise are beneficial in restoring gut health in kids.

Socioeconomic status (SES) is a measurement of economic resources, often represented through income, occupation, parental education levels, and so on. Research shows that lower levels of socioeconomic status are associated with higher body mass index in children. Adolescents can also experience higher rates of depression, increased emotional difficulties, and a greater likelihood of illicit drug use. A new study now adds issues with gut health to the list.

Published in Microorganisms, the study links low SES levels to the makeup of organisms in children’s digestive tracts, known as gut microbiome composition. The findings may help facilitate a better understanding of how a child’s environment can affect their health.

The Study

Led by the Translational Genomics Research Institute, the study looked at data from almost 600 youths, ages 1 month to 15 years old. Parents completed reports that provided insight into the kids’ socioeconomic characteristics. Details such as the kids’ ages, gender, parents’ education, and whether children were born via C-section or vaginally, were included.

Investigators then gathered information to get a clearer picture of each child’s gut health. They extracted the children’s DNA through saliva samples, and they also gathered nucleic acids through the children's stool samples. Researchers tested the children’s samples for several types of gut microbes, including Bacteroides, Eubacterium, Faecalibacterium, and Anaerostipes, among others. The goal was to determine the amount of bacteria present.

The familial details researchers collected and the participants’ samples allowed them to draw links between the two.

“We looked at the association between family socioeconomic status (SES), measured by the parents’ level of education, and gut microbiome composition in children," explains Candace R. Lewis, PhD, assistant professor of neurogenomics at Translational Genomics Research Institute and lead author of the study. "We found that children from higher SES families had a more relative abundance of microorganisms known to play an important role in healthy gut functioning."

This study is the first to draw these parallels in children. However, studies performed on adults support the findings.

A 2019 twin study found that socioeconomic factors had a detrimental impact on the gut health of adults. Other research shows that ethnicity, lifestyle factors, diet, and cultural practices can also influence gut health.

The Health of Gut Microbiome Matters

Microorganisms comprised of bacteria, viruses, and fungi are known as the microbiome. In the gut, microbiome can impact immune function. It can also affect human brain health, producing needed hormones and neurotransmitters, as well as stimulating neurons that will ultimately send signals to the brain.

Mark Fishbein, MD

The gut microbiome is felt to be influential in predisposing to certain types of diseases in adults and children.

— Mark Fishbein, MD

Healthy gut function also helps the body to release toxic materials and aids in food digestion. Strong gut health makes a difference in children’s bodies now and in the future.

“The gut microbiome is felt to be influential in predisposing to certain types of diseases in adults and children,” notes Mark Fishbein, MD, pediatric gastroenterologist at Northwestern Medicine Central DuPage Hospital.  

Inflammatory bowel disease, irritable bowel syndrome, and eczema are just a few conditions that can arise when there is a problem with gut health.

Keeping the Gut Healthy

When the gut has a good balance of microbes, or bacteria, in the gastrointestinal tract, it results in a healthy gut. When that balance is off, experts say there are a number of markers parents should watch for to know if problems persist. These are:

  • Digestive issues, such as constipation, diarrhea, and heartburn
  • Weight loss or weight gain that doesn’t have an explanation
  • Problems sleeping
  • Extreme sluggishness or constant fatigue
  • Developing rashes or allergies
  • Mental and emotional issues, including depression and anxiety

Parents should reach out to their child’s pediatrician for any concerning symptoms.

Sarah K. Highlander, PhD

(Eat) more vegetables, less sugar, avoid antibiotics unless necessary, (and implement) healthy sleep and exercise routines.

— Sarah K. Highlander, PhD

While environmental and parental factors have an impact on gut health, nutrition can play a major part.

“[Eat] more vegetables, less sugar, avoid antibiotics unless necessary, [and implement] healthy sleep and exercise routines,” advises Sarah K. Highlander, PhD, research professor in Translational Genomics Research Institute’s Pathogen and Microbiome Division and an author of the study.

Other helpful measures can include taking probiotics, eating foods that are high in fiber or full of prebiotics, and staying well-hydrated by drinking plenty of water.

Some socioeconomic factors may be beyond a parent’s present control. But by helping a child make wise decisions about their nutrition, exercise, and sleep patterns, they can potentially work to have stronger gut health.

What This Means For You

Gut health is an important predictor of overall physical health. As the study notes, certain environmental and socioeconomic factors can be precursors to weaker gut microbiome composition. As a parent, you can help your child to make nutritious food choices, get plenty of exercise, and sleep well. This will have the strongest impact on their gut health now and in the future.

6 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. American Psychological Association. Children, Youth, Families, and Socioeconomic Status. 2021.

  2. Lewis CR, Bonham KS, McCann SH, et al. Family SES is associated with the gut microbiome in infants and children. Microorganisms. 2021;9(8):1608. doi:10.3390/microorganisms9081608

  3. Bowyer RCE, Jackson MA, Le Roy CI, et al. Socioeconomic status and the gut microbiome: a TwinsUK cohort study. Microorganisms. 2019;7(1):17. doi:10.3390/microorganisms7010017

  4. Rinninella E, Raoul P, Cintoni M, et al. What is the healthy gut microbiota composition? A changing ecosystem across age, environment, diet, and diseases. Microorganisms. 2019;7(1):14. doi:10.3390/microorganisms7010014

  5. Galland L. The gut microbiome and the brain. J Med Food. 2014;17(12):1261-1272. doi:10.1089/jmf.2014.7000

  6. Children's Health. Pediatric microbiome imbalance (dysbiosis). 2021.

By LaKeisha Fleming
LaKeisha Fleming is a prolific writer with over 20 years of experience writing for a variety of formats, from film and television scripts, to magazines articles and digital content. She has written for CNN, Tyler Perry Studios, Motherly, Atlanta Parent Magazine, Fayette Woman Magazine, and numerous others. She is passionate about parenting and family, as well as destigmatizing mental health issues. Her book, There Is No Heartbeat: From Miscarriage to Depression to Hope, is authentic, transparent, and providing hope to many.Visit her website at