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Gut Flora: The Hidden Key to Health and Wellness
The 100 Trillion Bugs Residing Inside You
Did you know that your body houses 100 trillion bugs? These “bugs” or bacteria comprise your gut flora, also called intestinal microbiota. Nearly 1,000 unique species of bacteria colonize the gastrointestinal (GI) tract (mouth, esophagus, stomach, duodenum, small intestine, large intestine, and anus), specifically parts of the stomach and small intestine and the large intestine. In fact, your body contains more than 10 times as many bacteria as human cells. The gut flora's activity ultimately resembles that of an organ. It includes “training” and strengthening the immune system, barring the proliferation of pathogenic microbes, synthesizing vitamins (such as biotin and vitamin K), breaking down complex carbohydrates, producing short chain fatty acids, facilitating nutrient absorption, maintaining intestinal homeostasis, preventing GI tract infections, and more. Needless to say, a robust intestinal microbiota sustains health and well-being. Hippocrates, the father of western medicine, knew the importance of intestinal integrity. He stated, in 400 B.C., that “death sits in the bowels” and “bad digestion is the root of all evil.” Such insight and enlightenment existed numerous centuries ago and still holds true today. Dr. Mark Hyman, a family physician, Director of the Cleveland Clinic for Functional Medicine, and founder of The UltraWellness Center, asserts that intestinal health affects the entire body. From autism to autoimmune diseases to obesity, all are linked to gut flora.
Given that the intestinal microbiota influences the aforesaid vast anatomical functions and overall wellness, establishing and maintaining a balanced and healthy gut flora is crucial. It may surprise you to learn that your mother’s decision regarding childbirth options and breast feeding determines initial microbiota composition.
Mom’s Decisions are Critical to Developing Gut Flora that Encourages Health and Vitality
An unborn baby’s intestines are sterile in utero. A newborn acquires the bacteria that will become the baby's intestinal microbiota from the baby's mother. During a vaginal delivery, these bacteria primarily come from the mother’s birth canal and rectum. On the other hand, if a cesarean section is performed, the newborn swallows bacteria from the mother’s skin and the hospital environment. After the newborn ingests the bacteria, they travel through the stomach and begin to colonize the small and large intestines. As their origins are dissimilar, the bacteria that a baby receives from each mode of delivery vastly differ. With a vaginal delivery, the bacterial baptism the newborn undergoes acts like the baby's first immunization. Conversely, according to Dr. Mark Sloan, a Fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics and noted author, a cesarean section does not provide this baptism but rather exposes the newborn to unfamiliar and hostile bacterial strains. Consequently, the baby does not encounter the health-promoting bacteria that vaginal deliveries furnish until much later and in lower quantities. This negatively affects the baby’s gut microbiota, which plays a vital role in developing the newborn’s immune system. The Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ) asserts that cesarean delivered babies show a higher risk of asthma, diabetes, and obesity. The journal notes that breast feeding provides protection against these disorders and others.
This study reinforces scientifically established truths regarding intestinal flora. Initially, a newborn’s gut microbiota serves to stimulate the baby to produce white blood cells and antibodies to fight infections and to “train” the immune system to differentiate between friendly and pathogenic microorganisms. A newborn’s first bacterial contact lays the foundation for its gut microbiota and immune system operation and vigor. As a cesarean section does not expose a newborn to optimal bacterial strains, the CMAJ’s findings do not leave you slack-jawed.
While a baby’s core gut flora is largely established within a few weeks following birth, changes can occur during breast feeding. Research indicates that breast milk also regulates intestinal microbiota development. In the first few weeks that a woman nurses, she secretes colostrum, which contains more than 700 different, friendly bacterial strains. Clearly, baby formula manufacturers cannot replicate such nutriment, making breast feeding (i.e. God’s solution) best.
However, even breast milk differs between a woman who delivers vaginally and one who undergoes a cesarean section. The milk of the latter comparatively comprises fewer bacteria and is less rich, suggesting that a woman’s hormonal state during delivery impacts her milk quality.
By the time a mother begins weaning her child, the gut microbiota is largely intact.
When Mom Errors . . . Diet to the Rescue!
Before you ring mom to inquire about your birth and infancy, note that diet and lifestyle can modify the intestinal flora’s composition. So, you will not need Back to the Future’s DeLorean today! Regardless of your beginnings, you can still positively alter your intestinal flora to thwart disease and achieve health and vitality.
Therefore, do not despair! Stay tuned for Part II of this series, which will delve into the connection between diet and intestinal microbiota.