We already know how important the gut is to the health and functioning of the body. (Find my article A Healthy Gut in 4 Steps: This Week In Paleo here)
But did you know that the gut doesn’t just determine the health of our digestion or immune system but even the health of our brains and our offspring?
In fact, evidence is mounting that the microbiome (that collection of bacteria, fungi, and other creatures who colonize the colon, skin, etc) may determine whether you suffer from anxiety, depression, and may play a role in the development of autism in young children, among other things.
If you are pregnant, thinking of becoming pregnant, or have a young child, these are important things you should know.
The Microbiome and Pregnancy
Before birth, the mother’s microbiome actually changes to produce extra lactobacillus (which helps the baby digest milk) as well as several other bacteria that give the infant an important start in the world, helping with their immune systems and digestion, as well as several other things.
These bacteria coat the vaginal wall in preparation for the infant’s trip through the birth canal.
However, some mothers are placed on antibiotics while pregnant. They are sometimes important but these broad spectrum antibiotics destroy both negative and positive bacteria, meaning fewer bacteria overall for the baby.
It is wise to seek a doctor with a well-rounded view and respect for the microbiome, one who is careful with prescriptions of antibiotics, especially during pregnancy.
The Journey of Birth
When it comes time to give birth, the journey through the birth canal is one of the most important moments for the microbiological quantity and quality of an infant.
That trip through the birth canal is vitally important for a new baby. The microbiome of the vaginal wall infiltrates the babies mouth, eyes, ears, and gets into every mucous membrane, rapidly providing the important first colonization.
However, many babies are now born via cesarean section and therefore are not colonized by the bacteria on the vaginal wall, but rather by the skin of whoever they first spend time touching. This is significant because the microbiota of the skin is different than what is present in a healthy gut.
If C-sections are necessary (and they often are, though the medical community is beginning to admit they have historically been overused for many reasons) then many women are requesting or performing vaginal swabs to the mucous membranes of infants just after birth so that the infants can be colonized by the mother’s microbiome.
It might sound weird, but this could prove to be a vitally important procedure for the health, immune system, and psychology of children.
Since pregnant women spend nine months building this special colony for their baby, it’s a shame not to be able to pass it on, and may one day be shown to be quite damaging to the infant.
The first three years of life are vitally important for development of a child, especially their microbiome but many children experience ear infections early in life, or other issues which may be prescribed antibiotics.
Studies on rats have shown that those kept sterile or “germ-free” develop social anxiety, even autistic-like features, as well as a penchant towards obesity and other diseases.
Not only that, but with animals from conventional farms being fed antibiotics to both prevent illness and promote fat storage, we are all are inadvertently consuming antibiotics through food when we eat conventional meat.
Though there are times when antibiotics are necessary and can be lifesaving, it is generally agreed upon that they have been historically overused, often with little to no benefit and, it is being discovered, more and more detriment. In many cases, the condition would go away in time and may not even be a bacterial infection.
According to many medical professionals, it is often difficult to discern whether an issue is bacterial or a virus. Because many doctors receive pressure from patients for relief or are determined to “cover their bases”, antibiotics have been overprescribed. Pair that with the overuse of germ-killing products like hand sanitizer and it’s clear why there has been such a rise in antibiotic resistant bacteria, which can be deadly.
Most of us were probably placed on antibiotics at some point which threw our microbiome out of whack.
And it’s important for us to work with the best information and knowledge we have to try to put a healthy gut back together.
As adults, early childhood issues of the microbiome promote a range of conditions including obesity, diabetes, and associated illnesses, as well as diseases of the gut like Chron’s, and autoimmune conditions, allergies, and the like.
Psychologically there is growing evidence that an affected microbiome can stimulate anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues.
In several studies, as well as my work anecdotally, probiotics do seem to help many people improve mood, digestion, and symptoms of illnesses and conditions like irritable bowl syndrome.
For those with depression and anxiety, I think it makes sense to take a probiotic and for anyone- children and adults- who have had to use rounds of antibiotics, I think it is valuable to take a probiotic.
The probiotics used in most supplements are those with heavy research backing their efficacy. It’s hard to know just how much bacteria actually gets through the stomach acid with these probiotics, but several have special coatings to hopefully help them reach the colon intact.
I particularly like this probiotic for adults (find it here). Though it has fewer colonies, it is supposed to be more effective, remaining intact through the stomach and small intestine so that it can reach the colon.
Remember that a healthy diet is vital for the health of the gut as well. As much as I’d love it, we can’t just take a supplement and be done with it.
If you’ve had success with probiotic therapy, I’d love to hear from you! Which ones have worked for you? Which haven’t? And what have you done to improve your microbiome?