Your microbiome is a vast collection of approximately 100 trillion microbes, or microscopic organisms, that live on and in your body – to help support a healthy immune system.
Most of these microbes are found in the gut – and just as our bodies change with age, our gut constantly evolves throughout the years too.
Gut health is influenced by a variety of factors like food, medication, sleep, stress and even
exercise – but what many may not realize is that the foundation of our gut health is developing from the moment we are born.
Rachael Buck, PhD, Abbott’s lead research scientist and resident gut health expert is studying the impact the microbiome has on the developing immune system of babies. Here, she explains the ways in which the human gut develops and changes throughout every stage of life – and ways to support a healthy gut, at every age.
The First 24 Hours
From the moment you’re born, your body is colonized by trillions of microbes, the first of which are given to you by your mom – from her birth canal, gut, skin and breast milk.
The types of microbes you receive depend on where you’re born, how you were delivered, and essentially every surface you touch in the first 24 hours of life. Surprisingly, these factors can impact your health well into the future.
Babies who are born vaginally receive different types of microbes than those delivered by caesarian section. Babies born at home receive different types of microbes than those born in hospitals. And, each mother passes on a different set of microbes to her child in their first moments of life.
Healthy Gut Tip:
Make skin-to-skin contact with your child as much as possible during this time. The intimate contact between mother and baby is so critical in the first 24 hours – from the first cuddles to the first time she feeds her child, she is providing baby with important immunity-boosting microbes that will lay the foundation for a healthy future.
Building the Foundation: 0-6 Months
Newborns and young infants start out with a limited number of microbial species. However, as babies come into contact with more people and new environments, they acquire additional species, and the composition of their microbiota begins to change and become more distinct.
For example, the microbes on the skin start to look different than those in the gut. As babies use their hands to reach for toys and other objects, the microbes can even start to differ between each of their hands.
The composition of microbes within the gut can also differ depending on whether a baby is fed breast milk, infant formula, or both.
Ingredients, such as human milk oligosaccharides* (HMOs) – the most abundant component in breast milk after fat and lactose (carbohydrates) – help feed and multiply healthy gut bacteria. A healthy digestive system is important for a baby's developing immune system. The introduction of solid foods has a major impact on the composition of the gut microbiota as well.
Healthy Gut Tip:
While breastfeeding is the gold-standard in infant nutrition – if a parent is unable to breastfeed, select an infant formula that has gut-healthy nutrients, such as Similac® with HMO – which was introduced in the U.S. in 2016, and will be introduced in several international markets throughout 2017 and 2018 – as the first and only formula with 2'-FL HMO, an immune-nourishing prebiotic that was previously only found at significant levels in breast milk.
Then, as you introduce your child to solid foods – help to diversify your baby's microbiota by choosing foods that are unprocessed and gut-healthy such as vegetables, fruits and grains.
Cultivating As We Grow: Children
From infancy through pre-school years, children’s microbes continue to change and even resemble the microbes of their family members. By the age of 3, a child’s microbiome stabilizes and looks more like adults. Events such as fever, a course of antibiotics, or the introduction of new foods can all alter the microbiome.
Additionally, research has shown that children may actually benefit from exposure to germs – offering greater protection from illnesses, allergies and other autoimmune diseases later in life.
Healthy Gut Tip:
If your child is medically advised to use antibiotics, talk to your doctor about adding a probiotic to your child's diet at the same time to minimize the negative impact antibiotics can have on the gut.
Playing with a family or neighborhood pet even has its benefits to overall immunity, just as getting children outside to play does. And, the benefits of outdoor play go way beyond the gut!
Maintaining As We Age: Adults
The microbiome changes again during adulthood, especially for women, with the extreme hormonal shifts that occur during pregnancy, breastfeeding, weaning and menopause.
Among other things, your gut provides protection from infections, regulates metabolism, supports your immune system, and promotes a healthy gastrointestinal function.
It's easy to see why maintaining your gut health as you age is critical to disease-prevention and life-long health.
Healthy Gut Tip:
Just as you've done for your children to help build a strong, healthy gut – do the same for yourself. Choose prebiotic and probiotic foods that support a healthy gut flora – such as fruits, vegetables, kefir, yogurt, sauerkraut and kimchi – just to name a few.
In addition to choosing nutritious foods, make sure to include exercise as part of your daily routine. Research has shown that exercise may play a role in promoting a healthy gut microbiota as well.
To read more about the microbiome and its impact on health, check out this article.