Mom’s greatest gift for her child is not sentimental. It arrives with birth. Babies come alive through a rich vaginal wash of microbes that guide digestive health for a lifetime. All animals evolved methods arming their offspring with microbiomes aimed at lifetimes spent in good health. The astonishing variety would stun and, sometimes, disgust you, but we are sticking with people. The human way is unique and, as increasing lifetimes show, extremely successful.
By David Stone
Beginnings of a Healthy Gut Microbiome
We have a baby’s first hours and days to seed the gut. The first bacteria come from a vaginal birth, then breastfeeding immediately after birth, and what’s in mom’s milk is as important as the vaginal source of those early microbes. The Human Microbiome Project has been scouring NIH institutes for years, searching for evidence that “mother knows best.”
She does, and if you’re wondering if dad contributes to the gut microbiome, the answer is simple. He doesn’t. But don’t write the traditional seed donor off. There are plenty of other microbiomes working in and on your body. The skin microbiome, for example, accepts contributions from the whole family, and the mouth microbiome is a Wild West Show of useful, inherited bacteria and viruses. Most are great aides while a small minority cause illnesses.
What is a microbiome?
A microbiome is the community of microorganisms that live on or in an organism. Our bodies are host to trillions of bacteria, viruses and fungi that form complex communities known as microbiomes.
Certain gut microbes can help us extract more nutrients from food and maintain healthy body weight, among other things. The gut microbiome plays a critical role in building immune defenses. Without active bacteria, full health isn’t possible, and lacking viruses known as phages, an extreme risk of sepsis means you probably wouldn’t live long or well.
But let’s not leave out the genes – from both mom and dad – that shape you. Your human genetic profile is constantly in a cooperative dance with those of microbes busy at work, keeping you energized and healthy. The strangest thing, probably the hardest to accept, is that we don’t know which is leading most or all of the time.
What about antibiotics and mom’s greatest gift?
They kill off bacteria – both good and bad. That could lead to problems of antibiotic resistance down the road. But that’s far from certain as follow-up studies show gut microbiomes bouncing back, although not completely, after the antibiotics massacre.
Benefits of breastfeeding…
Needed bacteria and viruses are in the milk of every mother sampled. Breastfed babies are healthier, their gut microbiome richer and more diverse than formula-fed babies. The samples come from all over the world, collected by compassionate researchers capturing each baby’s microbial portrait.
That “portrait” becomes a lifetime platform. With rare exceptions, like accidents or severe illness, gut microbiomes are stable, if evolving. But it’s important knowing that microbiomes change all the time, adjusting to circumstances, like what food you eat and how much stress you’re battling.
Your daytime microbiome differs from your sleeping microbiome because mom’s greatest gift includes an ability to adapt and stabilize, as needed. Part of it is just normal cycles, with microbes you arrived awash in or suckled later on.
American babies are born with fewer bacteria than their European counterparts, sometimes living the first two months without essential microbes that digest breast milk. That’s not because Americans are slathered in antibiotics or sterilized by Cesarean section. It is more likely due to our love of antiseptics, cleanliness and water sanitation.
As Is So Often the Case, We Were Wrong About Mom’s Greatest Gift
Most of what we once thought true about the gut microbiome proved wrong. We don’t acquire bacteria steadily from birth to death but in bursts. They aren’t mostly inherited or passed on from other people, though that does occur.
Babies get different microbes from their siblings and even parents, depending on how they are delivered and what’s used in cleaning them after birth. Breastfeeding is key, and whether a baby is born vaginally or by Cesarean section, it alters the balance of bacteria as well.
The microbiome can best be viewed as an organ with multiple components that take years to develop and mature. It’s not just about the next generation: it’s also about what you were exposed to, what you were born with and how healthy you are.
A longer view sees your gut microbiome, not as an isolated universe, but as a vital cog in a greater ecosystem known as… you. Bacterial as well as viral genes play roles as routine and important as human genes.
Bacteria, for example, produce enzymes that digest food, converting it into energy and other elements nourishing your body. Phages, a virus and the most plentiful microbe in your body, destroy harmful bacteria and sit in huge quantities in the lining of your gut, killing off any bacteria attempting to penetrate outside organs and life-threatening cases of sepsis.
Conclusion for Mom’s Greatest Gift
Mom’s greatest gift is not sentimental. It’s as practical and necessary as it is priceless.
We all know by now that mom’s milk is the best, most natural food for babies. But it also contributes heavily the gut microbiome that will serve them for life. The rich vaginal wash of microbes that arrives with birth is a guide to digestive health. Moms have an important job during pregnancy and after delivery — maintaining healthy gut bacteria levels so her baby can reap lifelong benefits. Because it is so critical, experts recommend avoiding antibiotics while pregnant or breastfeeding, following a smart diet, including plenty of fiber from plant-based sources like fruits and vegetables, whole grains and beans. Mom’s greatest gift may be given once, but its benefits last a lifetime.