What Happened to Our Microbiomes?

07/18/2017 10:16 pm ET Updated Jul 19, 2017

The microbiome is “in”. It’s even gotten its own NIH study, the sci-fi named “Human Microbiome Project”. Those 100 trillion little bacteria cells in your body, that make up 3 times as many bacteria cells as you have human cells and that have existed in humans for eons, are finally having their “moment”. I know I’ve been intrigued. I took a probiotic during my second pregnancy last fall, in hopes of setting up my second child with his own healthy microbiome. But, when he was born via an unexpected C-section, I wondered if there was anything else I should do. (I also wondered if I should keep taking them, myself).

As you may know, these little 100 trillion bacterial tag-alongs are more than just free-riders. In fact, the health of our microbiome can have implications for our overall health: everything from our weight to our digestive health to our immune system. The bad news for our microbiomes today? Antibiotics, industrialized life, and poor diets – among many other things – have altered most of our microbiomes. Our ancestors (and even people in non-industrialized nations today) had what’s considered to be a “healthy” microbiome: one with a broad array of beneficial bacteria, such as Lactobacillus, Bacteroides, and Bifidobacterium. Tests show a very different makeup today – even as early as infancy -- and this may be contributing to the rise of chronic conditions such as diabetes, obesity, asthma, allergies, and even depression.

While the science is still early, the findings are impressive. One study showed that transplanting stool (Gross. I know. But because, Science.) of obese mice into lean mice caused the lean mice to become obese themselves. Research in asthma found that people with healthier microbiomes have lower rates of asthma, allergies and autoimmune conditions. The list goes on (some research notes that our microbiome may even influence our emotional state, stress response, and mental health)– but the bottom line is, the vitality of our microbiome impacts our overall health.

When it comes to children, scientists are learning how the microbiome in our early years may impact our health for life. As early as infancy, our microbiomes are affected by the modern world, due to C-sections, antibiotics, and the fact that many mothers themselves lack a heathy microbiome. Consequently, as researchers out of the University of California, Davis, found, many infants today are missing a key microbiome strain, B. infantis. Without B. infantis, babies lose around 15% of breastmilk as they cannot digest specific oligosaccharides (also meaning that babies miss out on necessary fatty acids created when the B. infantis metabolizes the breastmilk). As we age, the microbiome has an even broader impact: one study found that children who had a more healthy microbiome as infants were less likely to be overweight by age 7, and another that a healthy microbiome as an infant was associated with a significantly lower rate of asthma and allergies.

So, what can we do to encourage the health of these little bug(ger)s?

(1) Eat the right stuff. Diet is a crucial factor in the health of our microbiome. The greater the amount of highly processed foods, the lower diversity of our microbiome– directly tied to high risks of the chronic conditions named above. Eating foods high in probiotics (yogurt, kefir, some cheeses, and fermented foods such as kimchi or some sauerkraut) can help repopulate your gut with the good guys. In addition, prebiotic foods can provide the microbiome the nutrients that it needs to thrive.

(2) Breastfeed: If you have a young infant, breastfeed if you can. Babies’ microbiomes rely on specific oligosaccharides specifically in breast milk to thrive.

(3) Use antibiotics cautiously. Take them only when necessary, and complete the entire course. Greater antibiotic use not only stands to potentially kill off some of the good bacteria, but to also increase the growth of resistant bacteria (which can further harm the microbiome), leading to antibiotic-associated diarrhea, antibiotic-associated yeast infections, and a generally less healthy microbiome.

(4) Don’t over-clean. The hygiene hypothesis suggests that part of why we have so many more allergies and autoimmune conditions in today’s society is that we clean out all of the good bacteria with disinfected environments, hand sanitizers, and not enough of just good ‘ole dirt. Use hand sanitizers sparingly (only when you cannot access soap and water), avoid antibacterial soaps in the home, and let your children out to play. In fact, children who grow up in the same house as a dog have a significantly lower risk of asthma.

(5) Consider a probiotic. We know that a healthy microbiome is associated with good overall health, and that an unhealthy microbiome does the opposite; scientists are now studying whether supplemental probiotics can restore that healthy microbiome (and its good effects). While research is still underway, evidence suggests that they can help, specifically in conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome, peptic ulcer disease, preventing antibiotic-associated diarrhea and vaginal yeast infections, and in children, preventing eczema and possibly even helping with colic.

If you’re suffering from any of the above conditions (or need to take a course of antibiotics), you may benefit from probiotics. Plus, research is ongoing to determine if probiotics are helpful for adults with a variety of other symptoms. Of course, as with any supplement or medication, speak with your physician first to see if probiotics may be right for you.

When it comes to the microbiome in infancy, the science is definitely exciting. Much like probiotics for adults, different strains of probiotics are helpful for different conditions, including possibly colic, eczema, and B. infantis for infant nutrition. A new product has just been released called Evivo, which isolates the B. infantis strains missing from most infant microbiomes today. Evivo is designed to be mixed with breast milk daily to allow infants to take full advantage of breastmilk’s nutrients, and to restore the infant gut to its “natural” (pre-modern overly-sanitized world) state. Just as with any supplement or medication you consider giving to your baby, talk to your pediatrician first about the best options for your baby, and avoid probiotics in an infant who is already very ill.

While there’s much more research to be done, the findings are very exciting regarding all our microbiome does for us – and what we can do for it. In the meantime, in addition to following the other steps above for health, I’ve read enough to be convinced to continue taking my probiotics, and after talking with my pediatrician, started my baby on them, too. Just doing our part, to make sure our microbiomes stay “in”.

This piece was supported in part by Evivo. All writing, research findings, citations, and opinions are my own.

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