Healthy Infant Gut Microbiome: Critical Foundations of Lifelong Health
There is a lot of talk going on lately about the human gut microbiome and how it holds the key to our physical and mental health. If this is true, we should be paying more attention to what goes in our bodies, shouldn’t we? It is somewhat surprising that these serious discussions have only been going a few years since the history of humankind and our all-too-human gut go way, way back.
The complex human gut microbiome
The human gut plays host to trillions of both good and bad bacteria and other microorganisms, collectivelycalled the microbiota. The gastrointestinal tract includes the mouth where food is first introduced. Food taste is not part of the function of digestion, but the aroma from cooking certainly jumpstarts your tastebuds and can contribute – it gets the saliva going as we look forward to our meals.
The digestive system contributes much tomaintaining the microbiome, but it can only work with the material it’s given. This usually consists of the food and drink we consume and our very own inherited microbiome. The inherited microbiome is one thing one does not have any control over. A person may acquire a less than desirable microbiome from their parents. The good news is that it does not have to stay that way.
The infant gut – an inherited trait
The gut microbiome plays a pivotal role in how a person is able to defend against many diseases. It all begins with the infant’s gut. A baby in the mother’s womb has no need for digestive organs. Their nutritional needs for development are directly delivered to their bloodstream through the placenta and umbilical cord. Whatevermother ingests, the fetus also gets, thus the gut microbiome of the child mimic that of the mother.
At around five weeks into their growth, the embryo develops a long tube that will turn out to be their digestive tract. This is how their digestive system starts out. It will take more time before it gets fully developed. The fetal microbiome develops at this stage as well. Their microbiome largely imitates that of their mother as they absorb everything that their mother takes. This truly makes the adage “eating for two” which compels healthy eating as more than a good choice.
Carrying another human inside the body is such a profound experience. So many things are happening and every day the developing fetus grows and two people sharing one body is an event that mothers only go through. Of carrying a smaller you, but totally different, with a different DNA but share half of it with the mother. This intermingling of DNA benefits both parties, some studies show. As the mother grows the fetus and provides sustenance and nutrients, the fetus’ unique cells circulates around the mother’s organs and fasten themselves and help or heal the organs. They appear to help repair diseased or injured organs. It is an entirely different story from a few decades back when fetal cells have been thought to cause pre-eclampsia and other diseases. This reasoning came about because the fetus is an entirely different entity, an invader which ordinarily would have been expelled or rejected by the host body.
Can this be the work of the fetal microbiome? For now, it is hard to tell. It can present a strong argument since embryonic cells are known to be pluripotent – that it rapidly replicates itself and becomes whatever it needs to be to fix and restore tissues, muscles, and organs. Imagine a thing that can multiply and shape itself exponentially. If one can only see the process and speed a fetus grows, filling out the necessary parts to the tiniest detail, one would think it is wondrously intelligent like an alien life-form or one of divinities. Strange as it may seem in our ordinary social lives, the ‘you’ right now went through this very same thing, replicating and becoming a living, breathing baby.
This supposition that all of us carry within ourselves, cells that do not originally belong to us is what is known as chimerism. Yes, from the Greek mythological chimera, a creature made of different animal body parts – but nothing as dramatic or astonishing. There are hints here and there, the mothers’ eyes, the father’s cheekbones, and other marks that make this new person a totally separate being.
The early gut microbiota
The infant gut microbiome in a future mother’s body is shaped with all she eats, drinks and is subjected to, even vaccinations. This is to keep the body healthy and to ensure that the future offspring is safe at least until the child is born. While pregnant, more things should be considered to make sure the child comes out robust and healthy. The antibodies formed in response to vaccines help protect them and their children against critical illnesses early on. This becomes part and parcel of the child’s innate immunity. The baby is born with this inherent immunity from the mother.
In the beginning, the infant’s gut microbiota resembles that of their mothers’ but changes abruptly from the birth process and the numerous procedures the infant is subjected to. This quickly modifies the infant’s microbiome and determines their future health. This colonisation of the infant’s gut happens with the birthing procedure (the medicines used, the surroundings, vaginal vs caesarean), the feeding process (breastfeeding vs formula) introduction to vaccines and contact with antibiotics. This perinatal period – this phase from pregnancy to a year after the birth is when the infant’s gut colonisation takes shape adding onto what was innate and giving it its own individual characteristics. With this in mind, conscious parents are cognisant of the fact that what is absorbed at this time, will affect the general health of the young human for a long time.
How important is a healthy infant gut microbiome?
From the delivery type of birthing the baby to its encounter with the environment, keeping the baby healthy is of prime importance. Their gut microbiome at this time is exposed and the process will determine the condition of their gut microbiome. A vaginal birth lowers the risk of the child developing allergies and childhood obesity along with certain illnesses. This demonstrates how influential the gut microbiome is to human health.
In most cases at this time, an infant or the family has little say on how to optimise their gut health from the actual birthing and whatever else is needed to safely deliver the baby. Thankfully, the gut microbiome can be altered and responds well to healthy lifestyle choices. This is true for both infants and adults. The key factor is keeping a vastly diversified microbiome that affects not only the body’s immunity but also the physical and mental growth and development of the infant.
A final note
In any undertaking in life, how one starts is as equally important as how one wishes to end. A healthy infant gut microbiome starts a baby out with a better outlook for their future longevity, which current studies are showing. Eating healthy, taking probiotics and prebiotics, and generally strengthening and making the gut microbiome as flourishing as possible, are keys to lifelong health. Aninformedparent can deliberately choose to have healthy microbiomes to give their offspring an important start in life. It may not be a surefire way to a disease-free existence, but a good start is still a good start.