Discussion of the microbiome in health is relatively new to medicine. Your microbiome is, essentially, the ecosystem that is your body. Your body is the environment for over 100 trillion microorganisms.
We call this ecosystem of bacteria, viruses, parasites, fungi, all working synergistically with our bodies to maintain health, our microbiome. “We” are 90% microbiome and only 10% “body cells”. A healthy microbiome is one that is in balance and diverse.
Our human microbiome, as it turns out, plays a role in a wide range of chronic health conditions, including food, environmental and seasonal allergies; eczema, asthma, ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s disease, obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
Each of these conditions may be linked to disruption of a healthy balance of “good and “bad” bacteria, and may respond to “rebalancing” of this environment using probiotics. The challenge in “rebalancing” bacterial imbalance is that with so many different species present, it is a tricky proposition. Most effective is developing a healthy microbiome, and maintaining it.
How to develop a healthy microbiome from birth
- Vaginal birth is the first inoculation of healthy microbiome. Vaginal birth has been shown to have positive long-term health benefits and support healthy epigenetic changes (i.e., turning “on” of healthy genes and turning “off” of unhealthy genes).
- Skin-to-skin contact between mothers and newborns is the second route of exposure by which newborns gain a healthy microbiome. Skin-to-skin contact has been shown to be beneficial for the first six weeks of life.
- Breastfeeding: Breast milk contains oligosaccharides which feed the bacteria Bifidobacterium infantis and primes the newborn’s digestive tract to support a balanced microbiome.
- A plant-based diet nourishes and maintains diversity of the microbiome.
What negatively affects our microbiome health?
Antibiotic use. Since the introduction of antibiotics, we have lost approximately 30% of microbiome diversity. It is not a secret that antibiotics are over-used: For example, 2/3 of respiratory tract infections are ultimately treated using antibiotics even though 80% of these infections do not meet the Centers of Disease Control (CDC) requirements for antibiotics use.
Reserve use of antibiotics for serious infections – not as a means of avoiding the “inconvenience” of taking a few days away from work.
How can we maintain a healthy microbiome?
- Birth vaginally, spent time in skin-to-skin contact with your newborn and breastfeed for a minimum of six months.
- Avoid using antibiotics unless necessary. Use a healthy lifestyle to prevent illness, and natural medicines as a first-line in treating illness.
- Eat a variety of whole foods, focusing on plant-based foods.
- Embrace the motto “Live dirty, eat clean”. Avoid antibacterial products and let your children play in the dirt. Exposure to dirt supports microbiome diversity.
- Use probiotics to replenish healthy bacteria, especially if your immune system is weak, and after using antibiotics.
Taking steps to support your own body’s environment is an important way to support your own health, preventing a range of chronic illnesses, optimizing day-to-day wellness and fostering parent-child attachment through feeding and social behaviours; but also support our macro-environment, by eating closer to the vine focusing on a whole-foods, plant-based diet and reducing antibiotics excreted into our environment. It’s win-win!