We’re Only as Healthy as the Bacteria in Us and on Us.
Our bodies are teeming with microbes – inside and out. In fact, we walk around with 100 trillion single celled organisms (4 pounds of bacteria!) that we rely on to keep us healthy. The number of bacteria that live in and on us is so vast that they (those not originated in the body) outnumber our own body cells 10 to 1!
Our guts house the highest density and diversity of our bacteria — this is our intestinal microbial community known as the “microbiota,” and it is responsible for educating and regulating our immune systems.
Each critter comes with its own DNA and since there are so many of them, their “microbial DNA” outnumbers ours 300 to 1. This means that not only does a mother pass along her DNA to her baby, she also passes on the DNA of the bacteria living inside of her. This is why we are passionate about helping pregnant moms have healthy guts (see our Greening the Womb articles) as well as ensuring babies build and maintain healthy gut bacteria from the start. This is fundamental to our primary care pediatrics approach in San Francisco.
In this post we’ll give you the inside scoop on the origins and inner workings of the bacteria we carry and how to make sure your baby is reaping all the benefits of beneficial bacteria.
Where do our bacteria come from?
It’s hard to fathom, but the bacteria we carry around today existed on the planet long before humans arrived on the scene. These bugs are everywhere: they exist 30,000 feet into the atmosphere causing changes in weather patterns and they live in the darkest, hottest depths of the oceans where tectonic plates shift and magma oozes out of the earth’s crust.
We and they have co-evolved, and without them we would be in trouble. These bacteria have become so integral to our makeup that we are dependent on them for health — our lives and theirs are very much intertwined. In fact, some are beginning to refer to the collective microbiota in us as an organ unto itself, calling it the “microbial interaction system.”
What does our “microbial interaction system” do?
Our beneficial bacteria play a powerful role in our health, which includes:
- making vitamins we can’t get anywhere else, such as vitamin K in newborns
- talking to and educating our immune systems, primarily in the first 3 years of life, likely setting the stage for health — for a lifetime
- creating metabolic set-points so that if certain bacteria are passed on, it’s more likely that a child will be a healthy weight versus not
- helping us detoxify environmental contaminants like certain heavy metals and pesticides
- keeping bad bugs out by crowding and producing acidic pH in parts of the digestive tract
- producing nutrients like short chain fatty acids – primary food for our colon cells
- influencing our hormone systems, our neurotransmitter levels and our brains
- adapting to climate change
How are mother’s bacteria passed on to her baby?
By the time labor begins, a mother’s body has prepared for her infant’s descent down the birth canal by adjusting the balance of microbes there. During baby’s birth, he/she gets coated with the “bugs of life” that will literally begin to educate the immature immune system, priming it for what’s to come. Nature intends these microbes to help the child develop immune tolerance, the ability of the immune system to distinguish what is friendly (foods that will nourish, for example) from what is foe (pathogenic bacteria and viruses like salmonella, Clostridium difficile, or rotavirus).
At GetzWell, we recommend waiting to bathe the newborn after vaginal delivery in order to help good bacteria get established.
The rise of immune intolerance.
Unfortunately, we’re seeing a widespread loss of immune tolerance that is likely due to the disruption of these ancient microbial communities. There are many common practices at fault: the over-use of antibiotics and NSAIDS, consumption of sugar-rich and processed foods, exposure to pesticides on our food and heavy metals in our water, the stresses of modern life, and an explosion of births by C-section, among others.
If a baby is born by C-section or mom is treated with antibiotics during the birth process, the integrity of the bacteria that are meant to build and fortify the baby’s immune system is compromised and may make the child more vulnerable to chronic illnesses later in life. Obesity, Type 2 diabetes, asthma, life-threatening allergies, Celiac disease, autism, ADHD, etc. are more common in kids exposed to antibiotics early in life and those born by C-section.
Dr. Martin Blaser, Director of the NYU Human Microbiome Program, believes that even the universal use of erythromycin ointment in the eyes of newborns regardless of the mother’s prenatal gonorrhea/chlamydia status is negatively impacting our children’s health.
What’s breast milk got to do with it?
Breast milk plays a critical role in making sure babies are colonized with healthy bacteria which has been worked out through this intimate co-evolution between us and them.
How so? Mom’s milk contains important sugars called “human milk oligosaccharides (HMOs)” and these feed the bugs (aka Bifidobacterium) that are necessary to begin the immune system education process. These HMOs are not digestible by baby yet are fundamental to her milk! That, in and of itself, drives home this interdependence between humans and microbes.
At GetzWell, we make every effort to offer support for breastfeeding mothers. Because there may be an inextricable link between breast milk and a child’s long-term health, we’ve even facilitated informal breast milk donation among GetzWell moms — those who have an excess of stored milk share it with others who are struggling to produce adequate amounts.
But what about babies who require formula?
We are very are sympathetic to the challenges of breastfeeding and understand that sometimes it’s not possible for a variety of reasons. In the case that babies need formula, we’re fortunate that high quality options are readily available.
We always endorse using an organic formula because pound-for-pound babies consume a lot more than adults, and we’re asking our children to deal with a lot of toxins they’re not necessarily equipped to off-load. Some of the organic brands we recommend are Holle, HiPP, and Baby’s Only. Additionally, we typically suggest supplementing with an infant-specific probiotic which we discuss in our first visits with new families.
What can you do to fortify your child’s gut bacteria?
It’s important to preserve the integrity of the microbiome in the first 3 years of your child’s life as this sets the stage for long-term health. Here are some simple tips for doing just that:
- Avoid antibiotics, which end up killing friendly microbes that facilitate digestion, combat harmful bacteria, and absorb calories, among other things.
- Consider taking a probiotic, an excellent source of beneficial bacteria. Probiotics are especially important for babies who require formula or have been exposed to antibiotics. We recommend a high quality, multi-species option in powder form. We carry Klaire Labs brand and others in both of our San Francisco
- Eat pro- and prebiotic foods (yogurt, fermented vegetables, kimchi, garlic, Jerusalem artichokes, chia and flax seeds, etc.). Think of feeding not just your child but the trillion or so bugs on and in them!
- Consider having a pet (or live on a farm!) to help train and strengthen young immune systems.
We love talking about belly bugs!
To learn more about this amazing link between bacteria and your child’s long-term health, please give us a call time at our primary care pediatrics offices in San Francisco – 415.826.1701. We’d love to hear from you.