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What is Gut Microbiome?

Human bodies harbour a vast array of tiny organisms. These micro-organisms include bacteria, viruses, fungi and other microbes. All of these together make the human microbiota. Microbiome refers to all the genes that the microbiota contains.

How is the gut microbiome acquired?
We acquire a lot of microbes from our surroundings. However, the gut microbiome is acquired through surroundings only partly. A theory suggests that the environment inside the mother’s womb is sterile. The first exposure to the microbes takes place at the time of birth.  The mother’s microbiome has reached an optimal mix during pregnancy for the baby. During vaginal birth, the baby comes in touch with the mother’s microbiome in the birth canal. It is like a gulp at birth and is very important in starting the whole process of microbe hand-over. However, in c-section births, this doesn’t happen. After birth, the maternal microbe transfer continues as there is skin to skin contact between the baby and the mother. Breastfeeding enhances this process significantly and delivers microbes to the baby from the areola as well as through breast milk. All of this contributes to a great extent in forming the baby’s gut microbiome.

Why is the gut microbiome important?
The millions of microbes living inside and on our body play a very important role in keeping us healthy. In recent studies, scientists have found that bacteria commonly found on the skin might help protect us against skin cancer. The microbiome is instrumental in programming our immune system, reducing risks of allergy, providing nutrients for our cells and preventing colonisation of harmful bacteria and viruses.

Similarly, the gut microbiome plays a major role in digestion and contributes to our immunity. Over recent years, the gut microbiome, in particular, has been linked to a plethora of diseases and conditions, from diabetes to autism and anxiety to obesity.

Breastfeeding and the gut microbiome:
As mentioned earlier, breastfeeding can shape the human gut microbiome. Breast milk helps in many different ways in forming, maintaining, adapting and strengthening our gut microbiome.

  • Breast milk provides maternal microbes to the baby’s gut.
  • About 30% of beneficial bacteria in the baby’s gut comes directly from breast milk.
  • Approximately 10% of good microbes are transferred to the baby from the areola and breasts of the mother.
  • In addition to the microbes which are essential for the infant’s health, breast milk also contains indigestible complex chains of sugars called oligosaccharides. These sugars are food for the gut bacteria, thus, helping them proliferate and thrive.
  • Some microbes found in the infant gut help to break down the array of sugars found in human breast milk. This, in a way, establishes an interdependent relationship between breast milk and the gut microbiome.

Human gut microbiome changes rapidly over the first two years of life, shaped by breast milk to a great extent. This is why breastfeeding is extremely important during this stage. The longer the breastfeeding continues, the more the benefits to the baby’s gut microbiome; leading to good health.

Can a breastfeeding mother influence her baby’s gut microbiome?
A breastfeeding mother can influence her baby’s gut by healing her own gut. This requires consuming a balanced diet. eliminating processed foods, including prebiotics and probiotics in her own diet can help a lot. Once the mother’s good microbes are multiplied, it then influences the baby’s gut microbiome through her breast milk.

Factors other than breastfeeding that can affect the microbiome:

  • Mother’s gut health before and during pregnancy.
  • Mother’s consumption of medicines during pregnancy (especially antibiotics). It can lead to a higher percentage of antibiotic resistance bacteria in the baby’s gut.
  • Antibiotics prescribed to the baby.
  • Formula feeding can inhibit the growth and colonisation of microbes in the baby’s gut.

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