Just like all other living things, beneficial bacteria need to be inoculated, fed and cultivated. If you’ve ever made your own yogurt or kombucha, for example, you know that to perpetuate the recipe you use a little bit of the product from the previous batch to help “fertilize” the next one (or use a “starter culture” if it’s your first batch).
We can inoculate (or, start) and proliferate our own digestive flora through eating probiotic rich (alive) foods and taking supplements, but our initial foundation for probiotic growth was at birth, and has been passed down for generations. Yes, generations. Your great-grandmother’s gut flora played a role in the formation of yours. We'll explore this fascinating process in Part 2 of my Gut Health Series and learn how to lay a healthy foundation for future generations to come.
Conception and Birth: Our First Inoculations
As a baby moves from the “sterile” environment of mother’s womb, she squeezes through the birth canal and into a world of eating and breathing. This first passage provides many benefits, such as relieving the lungs of amniotic fluid in preparation for baby’s first breath and also one of the first exposures to probiotics. With a virtually pristine system, the role of growing healthy gut flora from birth (and in utero - as we'll see below) is paramount.
During a vaginal delivery, fluid from the birth canal is swallowed by the baby, and the quality of the mom’s flora in that fluid will populate the newborn’s digestive tract – the first flora boost for baby's delicate immune system. For this reason, the state of a mother’s digestive system (and Gut Flora, specifically) in pregnancy is key and it is important to take time in the third trimester to increase good gut/vaginal flora before birth to pass on to your baby.
Babies born by C Section who bypass this inoculation of good bacteria can receive a swab of the mother's vaginal mucosa placed in the newborn's mouth during the first few moments of life as an immediate work-around. Simply discuss this plan with your midwife or doctor prior to your birth so your wishes can be upheld, should an unforeseen C-Section occur or in the event you have one scheduled.
Crossing the Placenta and Breast Milk
Newborns may also be supplemented with oral probiotics when their pediatrician says they are ready. There are many companies who prepare special blends of infant-strain probiotic supplements, which are safe and can easily be added to bottles or sprinkled onto the nipple before nursing. A breast-feeding mom can also increase her probiotic supplementation, which will pass through the breast milk, adding more beneficial flora to the newborn’s system.
New findings are showing that a newborns digestive flora may actually begin to populate before birth. It was previously thought that the environment in-utero was sterile – free from bacteria. However, there is a new study out that suggests that the placenta is host to its own micro-biome of flora. Apparently, the study’s founders noticed a significant enough difference in the flora found in a mother’s vagina and in the newborn’s intestinal tract to lead them down a path of learning where the “new” bacteria had come from – that there was more at play than the “gulp at birth”. Turns out, the placenta is host to potentially 300 types of bacteria, making up about 10% of its mass (source here) – many of which were similar to the strains cultures from the newborn’s bacteria. This brings the importance of populating a healthy probiotic system before birth up even further – to do so for the entire duration of pregnancy and, if possible, the first 3-6 months before conception.
Why Ferment Food?
Our ancestors gave us the cells, DNA, enzymes and flora to digest our ancestral diet, so it can be helpful to take a look at the way your lineage nourished themselves before the industrialized food-era. Many of these foods were wild, foraged, homemade, freshly picked or hunted, and fermented. And what happens to fermented food – it becomes alive with probiotics!
Vegetables, grains, meats, seafood, fruits – all can be fermented. Not only does it create a longer shelf life for food, but it increases nutrition, changes the vitamin panel and adds probiotics. This concept is making a comeback. What our ancestors knew about probiotic health are now pricey health tonics on health-food store shelves (but can easily be prepared at home).
The flora in our gut is living and thriving. Bacteria are remarkably resistant creatures and proliferate quite strongly. If we can see a dilution in gut flora health through our own generation as a result of birth outcomes, diet, disease, stress or antibiotic use – then we need to take an even more active approach to nourishing our own. The good news is that we can change our genetic lineage of gut flora through food choices we make today, and pass down this vital piece of our health to future generations.
Children and Gut Health
The benefits of gut flora health during early childhood are numerous – benefiting not only the immune system but also preventing common complaints like colic, skin rashes and thrush. It lays the groundwork for a healthy functioning brain and body and can reduce the incidence of behavioral conditions such as hyperactivity or attention disorders. Gut flora is a generational dance and is of vital importance for the health of growing children. If we didn’t get it from our birth and/or from our food, then we need to supplement.
What was life like for your mom? For your grandma? For your great-grandma? Were times stressful or tough and was food scarce? Or, did they have plenty to eat and live in a calm and serene time? Did any of them suffer chronic health concerns? Were any born by Cesarean section? What was their diet like? The answers to some of these questions may help in understanding our own health – how strong or deficient your root digestion might be and what foods will create vibrant health for your unique body. This is the foundation for understanding constitutional wellness. From there, you can make educated choices about food and supplementation.
The good news is you’ve never “missed the mark” when it comes to creating digestive flora – the opportunity to re-balance and re-populate can happen at any point in life...so try not to use this another excuse to "blame your mother" - she gave you everything she had, literally. We need to understand our own history so we can optimally support our unique body. Looking back helps us move forward and may this prompt a change in the way you think about digestive support in the reproductive years for yourself, or for your daughter. Hope on over to Part 3 where we explore 10 ways to eat your probiotics!