Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by this author are their own and do not represent the official position of the Barbados Today.
by Dr Natalie N Noumeh
There has been much discussion and debate around the gut microbiome; but do we understand the significant role it plays in all our lives – from infancy to the aged? Let’s take a closer look.
Our gut hosts trillions of bacteria, fungus, yeast and viruses in our digestive tract and this collection of bugs makes up our ‘microbiome’; also known as our ‘gut flora’. This microbiome is like a garden and is responsible for many processes that occur in our bodies; not only in regulating bowel movements, as previously thought. It affects the entire body, including the brain!
The microbes in our gut help us digest our food, produce vitamins, regulate hormones, excrete toxins, and produce healing compounds that keep our gut healthy. But there must be balance – too many of the wrong ones like parasites, yeasts, bad bacteria, or not enough of the good ones like lactobacilli or bifidobacteria can lead to serious damage to our health. It is therefore no surprise that a ‘sick gut’ has been linked to vitamin deficiencies, hormonal imbalances, obesity, autoimmune conditions, allergies and many other diseases.
We begin to build our gut microbiome the moment we are born! How and where we are born play a big role in the types of microbes we acquire. Previous research has suggested that babies born by caesarean section and exposed to antibiotics are more likely to collect hospital-acquired bacteria when they are born, while those born vaginally collect microbes from their mother. Since the gut microbiome is thought to be intricately linked to health, these differences have been suggested to make caesarean section babies more likely to develop conditions like obesity, asthma and eczema.
Many of us know the benefits of breastfeeding in terms of nourishment and growth for an infant. Do we, however, know the impact breastfeeding can have on the development of the infant and their susceptibility to disease later on in life?
The demands and pressure of breastfeeding an infant on a mother, a mother who needs to return to work, an exhausted mother, a single mother, or a mother whose breast milk supply is not enough, are great. With the advent of formula and the increase in demands on mothers, we have ‘evolved’ to adapt to a modern way of life to ease the physical and emotional demands of breastfeeding on our nursing moms. This begs the question though: is breastfeeding really that important in this day and age?
Breast milk itself has its own microbiota and breastfeeding plays an instrumental role in acquisition of the gastrointestinal microbiome. 2 Seeding the newborn’s gut with the mother’s bacteria promotes a healthy response to inflammation, to commensal bacteria, and initiates the development of the immune system. 3 Studies show that mothers’ breast milk is a unique formulation that contains a breakdown of sugars unique to her infant; this individuality is not available in formula feed. Breast milk is also known to contain vitamin C, vitamin E, and B-carotene and has more antioxidant activity than formula.1 It’s also packed with immune-boosting proteins including secretory IgA, lactoferrin, lysozyme, oligosaccharides, cytokines, and antioxidant enzymes.
In summary, the gut microbiome is built from the moment we are born and can influence our disease risk later on in life. If there are too many bad bacteria or too few good bacteria in the microbiome, serious health problems can arise.
So how do we optimise the gut microbiome and reduce risk of disease for newborns?
Optimize maternal nutrition and overall health prior to and during pregnancy to reduce the risk of surgical intervention on delivery.
Sensitize mothers on the importance of breastfeeding prior to delivery and adequately prepare them for potential challenges and scenarios which may arise when breastfeeding.
The good news is the microbiome is not fixed, it develops overtime and changes in response to the environment.4 Therefore, if you or your child were born via caesarean section or not breastfed, here are some tips to optimize your gut microbiome:
Stay hydrated. Drink half your body weight in ounces of water and other non-caffeinated beverages free of added sugars, dyes and flavourings.
Include both prebiotic and probiotic foods in your diet. (Foods that help support your good bugs). Check out our article ‘Probiotic & Prebiotic Foods’ on www.hummingbirdhmp.com/articles. Incorporate high-fiber vegetables, which help maintain a healthy digestive system.
Limit or avoid processed foods, foods high in added sugar, artificial sweeteners, and trans fats! Limit or avoid any foods to which you are sensitive, intolerant, or allergic. Some common examples are corn, dairy, eggs, fish and shellfish, peanuts, soy, tree nuts, and wheat (gluten).
Take antibiotics or pharmaceuticals ONLY when medically necessary. During and after completing a course of antibiotics, eat probiotic foods and take a probiotic supplement.
These tips can help rebuild the population of healthy bacteria in your gut!
If you have any concerns about breastfeeding or meet any road-blocks that are affecting your ability to breastfeed, don’t throw in the bib just yet! Reach out to The Breastfeeding & Child Nutrition Foundation for their support services!
Dr Natalie N Noumeh B.A. BSC. MBBS is a General & Functional Medicine Practitioner. Contact information for BCNF: Email: [email protected]: 246-828-8934 Facebook: facebook.com/BCNF. Intagram: @thebcnf
References: Zhou J, Shukla VV, John D, Chen C. Human Milk Feeding as a Protective Factor for Retinopathy of Prematurity: A Meta-analysis. Pediatrics. 2015;136(6):e1576-1586 Gregory KE, Samuel BS, Houghteling P, et al. Influence of maternal breast milk ingestion on acquisition of the intestinal microbiome in preterm infants. Microbiome. 2016;4(1):68
Nakamura N, et al. Molecular ecological analysis of fecal bacterial populations from term infants fed formula supplemented with selected blends of prebiotics. Appl Environ Microbiol. 2009;75:1121–1128.
Garud NR, Good BH, Hallatschek O, Pollard KS. Evolutionary dynamics of bacteria in the gut microbiome within and across hosts. PLoS Biol. 2019;17:e3000102.