Something that makes me a little uneasy is seeing a four month old being spoon fed baby rice.
How much do you know about the virgin gut?
I didn’t know about the virgin gut until many months into motherhood. I haven’t been a mum for that long, I pretty much learn on the go, in fact I was still totally clueless about parenthood until I had the guy in my arms. Like a lot of things that I am passionate about today, my knowledge of the virgin gut grew from a seed of information which I became totally obsessive over.
I have been desperate to share my understanding of it ever since, but I have been too chicken to spout to all but one close friend. So now I am ready to dazzle my captive audience…because if you have got this far, I know you are interested.
What is it about?
The virgin gut is all about gut flora, immature, open guts and and what can pass into the blood stream from that gut. And before you reach for that bowl of baby rice (see more reasons here), or that bottle of formula, just small quantities of anything other than breast milk can quickly upset the gut flora of baby’s tiny digestive system, before it has had a chance to fully mature.
The consequences of introducing foreign substances can have lifelong effects, asthma, eczema and allergies…which is why the WHO recommends six months exclusive breast milk…here is the reasoning…
At the heart of the theory is the gastrointestinal tract – the digestive system – the alimentary canal – or simply, as I will refer to it – the gut – from food in, to food out and most importantly for this article the stomach and intestines.
An adult gut contains thousands of species of bacteria, how they get there is a process that starts on that journey out into the world. (There is current research that suggests the process of colonizing the gut with bacteria starts in the womb, with the swallowing of the amniotic fluid, but lets assume as is more widely accepted that the process of colonizing the gut starts as the baby is being born.)
During a natural birth, through labour and delivery, baby starts swallowing all those bacteria hanging around the birth canal and rectum. The bacteria travel through the stomach and the small and large intestines and multiply over the first few weeks of life to establish a pretty diverse microbiota (a community of micro-organisms, bacteria, viruses, and fungi that normally live in or on a given organ in the body.)
Interestingly, the type of bacteria of the gut of an emergency c-section baby is different to a vaginally born baby, and a planned c-section baby has a different gut flora altogether, this is due to different environmental factors being introduced to the baby, and less chance of swallowing mums personal bacterias!
Why is this gut flora so important?
The colonization of the gut flora at the beginning of life is massively important because it impacts the development of the immune system and has a major role in immune system functioning. It has been suggested that 80-85% of the immune system is in the gut. So from birth, right from the outset, the gut is building to protect from autoimmune and metabolic diseases.
What is happening inside baby?
Back to baby…In newborns the gut is not fully matured, it is referred to as an open gut, full of tiny holes or spaces through which things can pass into the blood stream.
From breast milk it will be antibodies, friendly bacteria, vitamins, minerals, hormones, enzymes, growth factors and many other special substances that will pass through. From formula and other foods, allergy triggering milk proteins, less desirable bacteria and other nasties will pass through.
So lets take a newborns gut and colonize it with mothers helpful bacteria. Then fill it with the good stuff, exclusive breast milk, and throw in a few helpful bacteria picked up from mums boob as well…it is only this combination of milk and breasts which can results in the development of biofilms. Biofilms are groups of micro-organisms which in the gut, create a protective lining against harmful pathogens. This is how breast milk reduces incidences of diarrhoea, influenza and respiratory infections during infancy, and begins to protect against the development of allergies, type 1 diabetes and other illnesses, because the beneficial bacteria are present and correct and doing their job!
Now…introduce anything else to your little ones gut before it has had a chance to mature and the resulting effect strips the gut of all of its original flora, the gut opens up, the tiny microscopic spaces are left wide open. Even adding probiotics (live bacteria) and prebiotics (oligosaccharides) to make the microbiota of formula milk similar to that of breast milk is futile because milk proteins strip away the biofilms lining the gut, and leave it literally wide open.
It is these milk proteins, themselves allergens, which pass into the blood stream and stimulate or trigger protective processe. The immune system sees the proteins as the enemy and tries to fight it off. For the unluckiest of babies it can lead to a life blighted with sensitivities, asthma, eczema, and many different food allergies.
I am a breast feeding mum, I am not against your personal choice to formula feed or combine feed, but personally I would do my utmost to avoid my feeding my baby a drop of artificial milk. In rare cases, I understand that there can be complications with mum and formula may become a necessity.
However, I do believe that if more people understood exactly what formula is doing inside that tiny gut, then society may become less convinced that formula is a fantastic alternative and more people may battle through the frequent feeding, night waking, pain, and hungry demands of baby really make breast feeding work.
WHO | Exclusive breastfeeding. 2013. WHO | Exclusive breastfeeding. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.who.int/nutrition/topics/exclusive_breastfeeding/en/. [Accessed 31 March 2013].
Maternal Factors Pre- and During Delivery Contribute to Gut Microbiota Shaping in Newborns. 2013. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3417649/. [Accessed 31 March 2013].
Breast Milk Promotes a Different Gut Flora Growth Than Infant Formulas – DukeHealth.org. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.dukehealth.org/health_library/news/breast-milk-promotes-a-different-gut-flora-growth-than-infant-formulas. [Accessed 31 March 2013].
Intestinal microflora in early infancy: composition and development. 2013. . [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.medicinabiointegrata.com/doc/probiotici/Microflora%20intestinale%20nel%20bambino.pdf. [Accessed 31 March 2013].
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