There are ten times more microbial cells in the human body than human cells, which signifies the importance of a healthy gut microbiome and its connection with overall well being.
Our relationship with the bacteria living in our gut is arguably one of the most important in our lives and it begins well before you are even conceived!
The beginning of your relationship with your microbiome
Parents’ health before the sperm and the egg meet has a direct impact on the health of the child. Current research on fertility shows the microbiome in the vagina and semen has an important role to play in the fertilisation of the egg.
A healthy microbiome within the uterus helps to ensure the fertilised egg is implanted in the uterine wall so the foetus can start to develop. An unhealthy womb microbiome may result in the woman’s body launching an immune response preventing implantation. Once implantation has taken place, the microbiome supports the growth of the foetus. A correlation has been found to exist between immune reactivity and miscarriage.
It was once thought the embryo sac was sterile, and the foetus separated from the mother by the placenta. New research indicates there is a cross transfer of probiotic species across the placenta. This means if the mother has eczema, for example, the type of probiotic species the mother takes or has in her system can influence the incidence of eczema in her child.
The importance of the microbiome for newborns
It is important to support women whether they choose to give birth naturally or via caesarean section. Some women need to have a c-section to ensure their own safety as well as that of their baby.
However, it cannot be argued, a vaginal delivery is ideal and an optimal scenario for many reasons, particularly in reference to the health of the gut microbiome.
How a newborn’s microbiome is influenced:
- Exposure to the mother’s vaginal microbiome: During a vaginal birth the baby is exposed to the vaginal microbiome during the process via the skin and via their mouth. Babies are born with a sterile digestive system. Swallowing some of the bacteria found in the secretions of the mother’s vagina sets up the blueprint for the baby’s microbiome, determining their ecology for the rest of their lives.
- The birthing environment: The baby’s microbiome has also been shown to be influenced by what is present in the room during birth. Their skin is extremely permeable. So, if there is a plant in the room, for example, their microbiome will contain plantarum species of probiotics. The same applies to anything else in their environment.
- The protective coating of the baby in utero: The vernix, the substance covering a baby when it is born, offers probiotic benefits to the bay through the permeability of their skin. This is why it is preferable not to wash it off the baby for about five days after birth, to avoid making them sterile.
- Seeding: This is the practice of placing gauze in the vagina of women who give birth by caesarean section. The gauze absorbs the secretions in the vagina. It is then placed over the nose and mouth of the baby after it is born to introduce the mother’s microbiome to the baby. A bifidobacterium supplement, suitable for newborns, can also be given to the newborn for up to six weeks to encourage the development of the gut microbiome after caesarean birth.
- Breastfeeding: The colostrum secreted directly after birth is often referred to as liquid gold. It is the best way to set up the baby’s immune system. The constituents of breastmilk change according to the baby’s requirements at any given time. Even when they have been infected with a bug, the breastmilk supplies extra antibodies and/or probiotics to help their immune system protect them from becoming ill.
How antibiotics challenge the gut microbiome & how to replenish it
As we grow and mature, our gut microbiome is affected by almost everything in our environment. One of the biggest challenges it has to face is the use of antibiotics to treat bacterial infections. Although they are a medical necessity in some instances, they are often overused.
Antibiotics kill all bacteria – both the good ones and the pathogens. It is therefore essential to replenish the bacteria which has been lost.
Probiotic supplements can be useful. Some have been shown to be antibiotic resistant so they can be taken concurrently with antibiotics. The best practice is to take your probiotic supplement an hour or two after your dose of antibiotics to give it the best chance. It is also recommended to continue taking the supplement for four to six weeks after the end of your antibiotic treatment.
Even more important than probiotics are prebiotics. They have a more long-lasting effect on promoting the growth of healthy bacteria in the gut. Prebiotics help to restore the natural balance of good bacteria in the digestive system more than simply adding a probiotic strain. The bacteria need fuel to grow otherwise they won’t hang around for very long.
From a dietary point of view, you can boost the health of your gut microbiome by including fermented foods in your diet. Foods such as sauerkraut, yoghurt, kimchi and kombucha provide the body with probiotic strains. Fibre-rich foods such as oats, fruit, vegetables and whole grains provide the fuel the bacteria need to grow and flourish.
Replenish your gut with:
- Probiotic foods or supplements
- Fermented foods
- Fibre-rich foods
Rebuilding a healthy gut microbiome
The amount of time it takes to rebuild your gut microbiome from a state of dysbiosis (imbalance of the gut bacteria) depends on how long the imbalance has been a problem. If someone has had a dysbiotic gut for a couple of months since they had a tummy bug, this is one thing. But if they’ve been dysbiotic for five or ten years, it’s probably going to take a lot longer.
On average, to repair the gut and to repair the flora, you’re looking at a good intense treatment of two to three months as a minimum. Most people will feel better within the first one to two weeks. But if you’re really wanting to repair the gut, you must wait until all the gut lining has been repaired, and the liver has been regenerated.
Changes to the gut microbiome as we age
Our gut microbiome faces many challenges throughout our lifetime. Not only that but it undergoes some natural changes too.
In our bid to be clean we expose our skin to a combination of personal hygiene products. Thinking of the typical woman, her vagina is exposed to sanitary products, soaps, creams, synthetic underwear, as well as synthetic washing detergents. They all have an impact on the microbiome over time.
The good bugs living on the skin are disrupted by our desire to be clean and sanitised. We stop our children from playing in the dirt and wash ourselves with harsh soaps and sanitisers everyday. The naturally occurring bugs that should be present on our skin are vanishing. This is having an internal impact as well.
Nurturing your relationship with your gut microbiome
The discovery of the gut microbiome has revealed how important it is for our immune system and general wellbeing. It is a relationship beginning before you are conceived by your parents. Their lifestyle affects their microbiome which in turn affects your microbiome. Your mother supports your bacterial colony through birth and breastfeeding.
Throughout the rest of your life your microbiome faces numerous challenges it must overcome. What you eat, antibiotics and other lifestyle factors all have an impact on the balance of good and bad bacteria in your body. When your microbiome is unhealthy, you are unhealthy. When the balance is disrupted, it pays to put in the effort to nurse it back to health.
3 top tips to support your gut microbiome:
- Be conscious of everything you are exposed to and everything you put into your body
- Eat well to support gut health
- Remove unnecessary chemicals from your environment
If you would like to learn more about making eating well to support gut health – You can take a deep dive into the Unstress Nourish Deep Dive Program.
Article based on the Unstress Health Podcast Episode with Leah Hechtman – Our Gut Microbiome Through Our Lifecycle