The journey to motherhood is so personal, so familiar… a coupling of lives, another human body made with pieces of you, virtually contiguous with your own body. The connection between mother and baby is unmatched in its intimacy.
Or is it?
It is just the two of you (unless you happen to be carrying multiples), right? Right? RIGHT?? Um, actually, no. You are not alone. In fact, very much not alone. So as not to be creepy, I’ll let you in on the dirty little secret if you haven’t guessed it already. No, it isn’t about computer chips or peeping Toms. It’s about bacteria- and it’s all over you. Stop freaking out. Put the hand sanitizer down. Actually, let’s have a moment of silence to honor all that those little critters do for us…. Because, as it turns out, we need them as much as they need us. Maybe even more.
Ok. That’s good. Now, let’s begin.
One of the fastest growing areas of medical research right now is on what is known as the “microbiome”. That’s a fancy term for all-the-stuff-that-lives-in-you-but-isn’t-you. They live on our skin, in our gut, and in our vaginas (Sorry if you don’t have one. I don’t mean to be exclusionist.). In fact, our own human cells are outnumbered by bacteria 10:1. And if you look at it from a DNA perspective (because there are a LOT of bacteria and they each have their own DNA), we are outnumbered by 100:1. While you’re sitting on your tush reading this, there are some amazing projects happening, with large numbers of really smart people combing through data, trying to sort out what it all means. There’s this one, funded by the National Institutes of Health. And then there’s The American Gut Project, my personal favorite, founded by a scientist named Jeff Leach. More on that later.
I’m not going to get into the implications of our gut microbiomes and general health. There is much to be said about that, but it is for another day. Today, what’s on my mind is what our “bacterial health” has to do with our ability to grow and give birth to healthy babies.
From the moment a woman conceives, the types of bacteria present in her gut and birth canal begin to change. They continue to shift throughout the pregnancy, transitioning to be dominated by bacterial strains associated with weight gain and inflammation. This helps the body to maximize calories to the growing baby. And, while inflammation may not seem like a positive thing, it’s actually what throws us into labor. If you want to stay pregnant forever, that’s your bag. I think I’m gonna have my baby.
Further, the general line of thought has always been that the uterus is a sterile environment… that a baby’s first exposure to bacteria is on that arduous journey through the birth canal. That, however, is being proven wrong. A study out earlier this year found bacteria present IN THE PLACENTA. That is a big deal. The really mind boggling thing was the particular mixture of bacteria present- Did it resemble that of the gut? Nope. The vagina? Guess again. It was the mouth. Imagine that. Bacteria grows in our mouths,it gets absorbed through the capillaries in our gums or we swallow it and then It ends up in our blood streams and circulates through our systems until it winds up in the placenta. But wait- It gets even better than that. The bacteria found in the placenta (and mother’s mouth) most closely resemble the stuff found in the meconium, that first dark, sticky stool… more closely than any other maternal surface, including the exit route! So much for the womb being sterile.
Generally speaking, much of the bacteria found in the placenta were the kind that produce vitamins (like B’s and K) and other cofactors. What? They do that? Yep. We feed them. They feed us. Except when we don’t feed them the right things. Like getting a Mogwai wet and ending up with bazillions of nasty gremlins, the wrong kinds of food encourage the growth of nasty bacteria all throughout the digestive tract, mouth included. When these bacteria end up in the placenta, the vagina, cervix, and eventually, the uterus- membranes rupture, babies get born- regardless of how old they are (remember that inflammation thing?). 38 weeks, 32 weeks, 26 weeks… Bacteria do not discriminate.
So, does gut flora start to be yesterday’s news as soon as the baby is born?
Though we’re not quite smart enough yet to know exactly how it happens, we do know that the proper balance of intestinal bacteria are critical for normal brain, nervous, and immune system development. That’s nothing to sneeze at. And for mom, when we have placentas that malfunction, we’re at a higher risk later in life for things like insulin resistance or even heart disease. This isn’t necessarily to say that your bum placenta is to blame… Much more likely that the same bacterial imbalances that caused your bum placenta are also causing your other ailments.
Getting down to brass tacks.
How can we make things go right? It’s really not that difficult. Our bacteria want to be good. They really do. Just follow a few basic rules and your chances of having a perfect baby at the perfect time go way, way up.
- Balance your gut flora before that baby is even a twinkle in your eye. A diet full of a wide variety of vegetable matter (starchy and nonstarchy), low in grains (they encourage growth of a bacteria associated with a multitude of disease processes), sugar, and processed foods will earn you a blue ribbon at the bacterial fair.
- Include some bacteria in your diet. This could be in the form of fermented foods, though you can get just as far by not washing your vegetables that well and eating some of the parts that we’re not really “supposed” to eat (like the woody ends of asparagus or the whites of scallions). Many of the bacteria that we’re missing are found in the soil!
- Eliminate dietary allergens. The stress, the inflammation, the tissue damage, the nutrient deficiencies associated with immune responses to dietary allergens all make for a difficult environment for a healthy little bacteria to thrive in.
- Minimize life stresses or find healthy ways to deal with them. Read a book. Do yoga. Got outside. Meditate. Laugh. Find some friends and go outside again. Stress directly impacts our gut flora in ugly ways.
- Avoid antimicrobial products, pharmaceutical drugs, and antibiotics. The best defense against pathogenic bacteria is a good offense. Period. Follow good nutrition principles to let that microbiome blossom. It’ll crowd the weeds right out.
- Have a vaginal birth. Because you’ve been on that super-diet for quite some time now, your vaginal bacteria is in tip-top shape. Drink up, little baby. Here’s to a lifetime of good health. Cesarean sections are associated with all array of allergic conditions, from eczema, to asthma, to celiac disease. That said, if a vaginal birth is just not possible, don’t beat yourself up. There are measures that can be taken to get your little guy started on the right foot… Administering early probiotics to mom and baby, for sure- like, within hours, then even continuing them for a few months. Research is currently even being done to assess the effect of wiping down the skin and mouths of babies delivered by c-section with gauze that has been saturated with the mother’s vaginal secretions.
- Breastfeed, breastfeed, breastfeed. Not only does the baby get a dose of bacteria from your skin, but your milk is chock full of lactobacillus and bifidobacterium. That’ll set your baby’s day up straight.
One last little cheerleading note… The Jeff Leach study that I mentioned earlier, The American Gut Project, is asking all the right questions where our microbiome is concerned and is crowd-sourced. They are currently collecting data so that we may inch our way closer to figuring making sense out of this stuff. You could be a part of a new wave in medicine that revolutionizes the way we view our health. Go to this site, contribute $99, and find out what is living in your guts. Not sure you qualify? Do you poop? Then, yes. You qualify. C’mon. Michael Pollan did it.
Now get out there, fix your guts up, and make a really healthy baby!
To stay connected to Meredith please visit her at nourishedtable.com