Not long ago, I was out to dinner with my wife and some friends when the conversation turned to newborns and Cesarean birth. (Don’t ask how we got there.)
I’ve noted many times over the years the impact that Cesarean birth can have on a child’s future health (especially gut heath), but it doesn’t seem to be a message many doctors or parents are open to hearing—at least not when you look at the prevalence of the procedure. In 1965, when Cesarean section rates were first measured in this country, the surgery accounted for 4.5 percent of all births. By 2002, that number had risen to 27 percent, and in 2013 it was just under 33 percent.
As a result of this dramatic rise, nearly a third of all children now born in the United States miss out on the first, and perhaps most important, “inoculation” of their lives. And we’re beginning to see the influence of this trend in the explosion of obesity, food allergies, leaky gut, and other health concerns that can be traced back to the health of our gut bacteria.
Our Birth Lays the Groundwork for Our Gut Flora
I’m talking about the largely ignored transfer of bacteria that happens at birth.
During a normal birth, an infant’s eyes, nose, lips and mouth are exposed to its mother’s vaginal and fecal bacteria during passage through the birth canal. These bacteria quickly make their way into the child’s digestive, respiratory, and genitourinary tracts where they begin to colonize, serving as a sort of seed for the child’s developing microflora. As these beneficial bacteria establish themselves, infants gradually begin to experience all of the immune, digestive, and other health benefits that these bugs provide.
I’ve got to believe that if more people were aware of this transfer, the C-section rate would drop dramatically. We acknowledge the bacterial exposure where disease-causing bacteria are concerned, but for some reason fail to see the relationship with good bacteria. The species that causes gonorrhea, for example, also can enter an infant’s body through the eyes. For this reason, drops of a silver nitrate solution are often placed in a newborn’s eyes. The disastrous effects to children of mothers with other vaginal infections (e.g., the herpes virus, candidiasis, chlamydia, etc.) are well known. But ask a new mother or her obstetrician whether her child received an adequate exposure to Lactobacillus or Bifidobacterium, and you’ll draw blank stares.
Newborns born via C-section don’t pass through the birth canal are therefore are not exposed to the same variety and concentrations of bacteria. As a result, they tend to have less beneficial bacteria, and the flora that does take root is not only different, but also less effective. Research has shown that babies born via C-section have higher amounts of Clostridium difficile, the diarrhea-producing pathogenic form of bacteria that is commonly found in hospital environments.
Starting without a good growth of beneficial bacteria can often be difficult to overcome. It can lead to allergies to dairy products which cause excess mucus formation and problems like colds, ear infections, and asthma. As these conditions are treated with antibiotics, the problem only worsens with time, since antibiotics further compromise gut flora and can potentially deplete some bacterial species to the point where they cannot recover.
Children with autism have also been found to have a distinctive and different bacterial “fingerprint” from children without the condition. Although I don’t believe a disruption in intestinal flora is the sole cause of autism, I definitely believe it may be a strong contributing factor in many cases. Babies with compromised gut flora are often subjected to a long list of vaccinations that can then turn out to be the straw that broke the camel’s back.
Probiotic Support Can Help Prevent Compromised Gut Flora
Obviously, the ideal solution when it comes to Cesarean birth is to avoid them if possible. But a second solution—and one that should be pursued regardless of birth method—is for mothers to reinforce their own microflora with fermented foods and probiotics.
For many years, we assumed that a baby’s gut was sterile until it picked up bacteria either from the birth canal or the outside environment. But because babies born via C-section do have some bacteria (just not the right amount of the most helpful ones), there had to be another connection. Researchers at the University of Valencia in Spain have somewhat recently discovered that bacteria also begin to colonize in our guts in the womb, prior to birth.
Researchers collected and froze the meconium (a baby’s first poop…great Scrabble word you can use) from 20 newborns. Using new, more sensitive laboratory techniques, the examination of the meconium revealed various forms of bacteria that had to be present prior to birth.
Even more exciting (if analyzing a baby’s poop wasn’t exciting enough on its own) was that the type of bacteria was 1) linked to the mother’s lifestyle, and 2) was predictive of future health problems in children.
The bacteria colonies were established well enough that there appeared to be two distinct types. In roughly half the samples, the most prominent was bacteria that produced lactic acid (Lactobacilli). The other half contained enteric forms of bacteria (Escherichia coli). All of the mothers in the study who were university educated gave birth to babies with stools dominated by the lactic acid bacteria, and the majority of mothers who had not been educated beyond the age of 12 gave birth to babies with stools dominated with enteric forms of bacteria.
Additionally, smoking by mothers appeared to favor the growth of more enteric bacteria in babies, and organic diets consumed by mothers encouraged more lactic acid bacteria.
Researchers checked the health of these babies at 1 and 4 years of age and discovered that the infants with more lactic acid bacteria had significantly higher rates of asthma and those with more enteric bacteria had significantly higher rates of eczema. These problems were likely caused by an imbalance of bacteria with a strong predominance of one type instead of a more balanced microflora environment.
This latest research could have a profound influence on the health of future generations. For years, we’ve been hearing how whether or not an individual develops heart disease, asthma, allergies, skin problems, obesity, mood disorders, IBS, autism, diabetes, and dozens of other problems is in large part determined in the womb, before birth. The reason for this, however, has remained a mystery. The mother’s diet is obviously a factor, but the strains of bacteria that a mother passes on to her child, both prior to and during the birth process, may be even more important.
There may come a day when a newborn’s meconium is analyzed and true preventive measures can be taken to ward off future diseases. Probiotics can be administered immediately to correct imbalances and should be given to children as part of their formula if they’re not being breastfed. I recommend including a pinch of Natren brand Life Start probiotic powder. You can buy it at http://store.natren.com.
An even better option would be to make sure every mother is taking probiotics and consuming a wide variety of live, fermented foods that would be passed along to the child while in the womb. I cannot stress this enough—probiotic supplements and fermented foods should be a part of every expectant mother's supplement program.
Researchers still aren’t exactly certain how a mother’s bacterial flora passes to the baby, but it appears it is through the placenta. Regardless of the pathway, we now know it is happening, and to overlook the fact and the opportunity is irresponsible. It will be years before the rest of the world accepts the idea that you can dramatically change the future health of a child (one that is still in the womb) simply by improving the mother’s microflora. It’s a shame. Every day that passes without applying this knowledge puts more children at risk.
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