In preparation for childbirth, excited parents-to-be envision life with their new child, choosing outfits, imagining conversations, and planning outings. It’s safe to say that few parents daydream about their baby’s gut flora (unless that parent is an ND perhaps …)!
The human microbiome is a vast community of more than 10,000 distinct species of bacteria, harmoniously colonizing our skin and mucous membranes. Far from simply being along for the ride, our flora influences our digestive function; directs our immune system; and may predispose us to allergic, mental, and cardiovascular illnesses.
Did you know?
Beneficial bacteria outnumber our body’s cells by a factor of 10 to 1 and may weigh up to 5 lbs (2.25 kg) in the average person.
Sowing the seeds
But where do all of these bugs come from? In years past, childbirth was seen as the great initiator, colonizing the otherwise sterile environment of a baby’s gut. Bacterial fragments detected in both the placenta and amniotic fluid now suggest that this transfer begins during pregnancy.
Dr. Zeynep Uraz, a naturopathic doctor at Hannam Fertility Centre in Toronto, stresses the importance of pregnant parents eating a diverse, nutrient-rich diet for a fetus’s microbial community. High-fibre, low-saturated fat diets are thought to be most beneficial and are associated with lower rates of allergic disease. Diet is an especially important focus in cases where antibiotic use or even mental emotional influences risk affecting the fetal flora.
Food preferences may be set in utero by the flavour of the amniotic fluid as it fluctuates according to parental diet. Eating a wide range of flavours in pregnancy may predispose a child to a more diverse palate in childhood. Perhaps this is the best way to avoid future fights over vegetables?
Birth provides an important opportunity for contact between a newborn and its parent’s bacterial cornucopia. Children born vaginally have more diverse gut flora than those born by Caesarean section, and research continues to investigate whether these differences affect children’s health in the long term.
Like amniotic fluid, human milk is delicately seasoned by the lactating parent’s menu choices, potentially influencing tiny taste buds. Friendly bacteria and immune factors in milk continue the colonization of the gut and get the immune system ready for action. When possible, breastfeeding/chestfeeding provides the ideal food for a baby’s flora.
Factors in the newborn’s environment can also help to gird the developing microbiome:
- Farm kids have lower rates of asthma and allergic disease than their urban counterparts, and changes in flora may be responsible.
- Luckily for city dwellers, contact with a furry pet in early childhood may modify the biome while reducing incidence of wheezing.
- Having a sibling, furry or otherwise, is also associated with a more robust community of friendly flora.
- Uraz highlights the importance of outdoor play as an additional bacteria booster.
Eczema and wheezing may be further targeted through probiotic supplementation. In one study, probiotics given to parents prenatally and children through to age two resulted in lower rates of eczema and wheezing at age 11. This remarkable study identifies a profound connection between immune-mediated illness and our microbial population.
Childhood and beyond
Once solid food has been introduced, kids enter a whole new world of microbiome support. A diverse diet has been shown to protect against allergic disease, likely through an impact on gut flora.
Microbes thrive on fibre found in whole grains, fresh fruits, and vegetables. Overdoing it on animal protein, simple carbohydrates, and saturated fats will have the opposite effect. Fermented foods, such as yogurt, provide additional organisms to the existing colony.
Encourage healthy lifestyle habits early on. Stress has an impact on the microbiome, signalling a need to teach kids to manage fears about everything from peers to pandemics. Finally, given that exercise is a naturopathic doctor’s answer to just about any health concern, it should come as no surprise that our bacteria respond positively to exercise as well.
Pregnancy and early childhood represent key periods when a child’s microbiome is forming. A thriving, diverse microbiome may be the most important bequest a parent can make.
Back-to-school immune support
Take your immune system back to school. Discuss these immune-supporting strategies with your health care practitioner.
Deficiency of this important vitamin is associated with increased rates of respiratory infections.
Taking a probiotic may reduce the incidence of the common cold.
While vitamin C is available in many fruits and vegetables, taking a supplement may decrease the duration of the common cold in children.
This nutrient plays a role in the prevention of pneumonia and may decrease the duration of a cold by one-third.