Moms to Be: Don’t Forget Your Probiotics!
by Dr. Marika Geis
Breast milk is widely acknowledged as being the most complete form of nutrition for infants. Beyond the perfect combination of proteins, fats, carbohydrates, and nutrition that change continuously according to the needs of a growing baby, it is responsible for several significant outcomes regarding immune function:
- A threefold decreased risk of respiratory infection
- A fourfold decreased risk of diarrheal disease
- A decrease in the incidence of atopic conditions (eczema, asthma, and allergies)
- In developing countries, breastfeeding is a critical factor in a baby’s survival. Infants in Brazil are 14 times more likely to die if not breastfed.
Benefits of breastfeeding for six months or more are associated with:
- Decreased incidence of food allergy
- Decreased incidence of ear infections
- Decreased incidence of obesity
- Decreased risk of autoimmune disease
- An eightfold decreased risk of developing cancer prior to the age of 15
While conventional wisdom attributed these effects to immunoglobulins (maternal antibodies), lactoferrin (inhibits bacterial growth) and lysozymes (kill microorganisms), little thought was given as to whether or not symbiotic or beneficial bacteria could be a factor, since breast milk was thought of as sterile. In 2003, a Spanish study published in the Journal of Pediatrics revealed breast milk to be a major source of lactic acid bacteria. Beyond the vital exposure to bacteria that babies receive as a result of a vaginal birth (vagina/rectum/skin), it appears that babies consume as much as 100,000 to 10 million bacteria daily!
Taking a look at the available research on probiotics, you would find a similarity between their supplementation and the effects observed above among many others. Yet while the research shows that breastfeeding and probiotics reduce the likelihood of the conditions listed above, research linking the two variables is sparse. This is due to the fact that researchers had yet to explain how something residing on the external environments of our body (gut, lungs, genitals, oral, skin), made their way into breast milk.
The research suggests a pathway existing between the maternal gut and mammary glands via the immune system. White blood cells that normally serve a “Pac-Man”-like function (engulf and destroy foreign material) alter their activity and instead “sip” the environment of the maternal gut, take samples of the resident bacteria, travel through the bloodstream, and deposit their contents in the mammary glands. Indeed, small numbers of bacteria can reside inside these cells for several days prior to reaching their destination. Changes to maternal physiology, specifically weakness in the gut wall, increased permeability of the gut wall, and decreased motility, allow for this incredible process that starts in the third trimester and continues up until the point of weaning.
So what’s the bottom line? The first month of breastfeeding is a critical period for establishing the bacterial profile of the infant gut. Samples taken from eight- and nine-year-olds show that the bacterial profiles established within the first month of life remain intact. This lends new insight to the damage that antibiotic use, modern diets, and stress have on the maternal microbiome and the potential for chronic disease in children. Given that breastfeeding is a principle source of beneficial bacteria for the newborn, the utmost care must be taken to protect this sensitive and diverse ecosystem. As naturopaths, we often talk about the healing power of nature. While conception, pregnancy, and birth aren’t necessarily conditions that require healing, this is just one more example of how the wisdom of Mother Nature ensures that we survive the environment into which we’re born.
Dr. Marika Geis is a Naturopathic Doctor practicing in Regina since 2010, currently at the Cathedral Centre for Wellness. Her ultimate goal is to bring each patient to a state of independence in their health, to restore their flexibility and resilience, and most importantly to educate and empower them. To contact her, call 306-757-4325, email firstname.lastname@example.org, and/or visit www.cathedralwellness.ca. Also see the display ad on page 23 of the 25.1 May/June issue of the WHOLifE Journal.