21 Dec 2018
We know that gut diversity in infants is important for helping babies to build up immune defences against common health issues, including digestive issues, colic, allergies, eczema and poor immunity. A recent study1, however, goes past the ‘why’ and has raised the question of ‘how’ the gut microbiota is developed to contain an array of diverse gut microorganisms, to support health and reduce the risk of future health problems.
So, what factors contribute to a new-born baby’s microbiome (see the Probiotics Learning Lab for definition) development as they progress from infancy to childhood? And how long does this take to become established? Researchers at Baylor College of Medicine (Houston, USA) have discovered the answers to these questions in their latest paper. Published in Nature, the study explores the early journey towards a thriving and established gut microbiota and indicates how this foundation may help impact health in later life.
The study included 903 children in six locations across Europe and the U.S., aged from three to 46 months. The study analysed an enormous 12,005 stool samples from the infants. From this analysis, they found that there are three distinct phases in a child’s gut colonisation, starting from 3 months to 4 years of age. These include:
So what lifestyle factors contributed to these crucial years of gut development?
During the initial ‘developmental phase’, researchers found that breastfed or partially breastfed infants had significantly higher levels of Bifidobacterium, in particular Bifidobacterium breve & Bifodbacterium bifidum. As probiotic experts, we know all about this beneficial genus of bacteria and are very familiar with its benefits. There has been an increasing amount of evidence2, 3, 4, 5 highlighting the important of breastfeeding, as it contains crucial bioactive components for gut development such as prebiotics, immune factors, nutrients and beneficial microbes. To find out more about probiotics and breastfeeding, take a look at this blog in the Probiotics Learning Lab.
Birth mode also significantly impacted the microbiome. Vaginal birth resulted in a temporary increase in Bacteroides, and this bacterial genus was associated with increasing gut diversity and maturation of the microbiome. Learn more by heading over to our blog by Kerry on vaginal fluid swabbing for caesarean babies, over in the Probiotics Learning Lab.
Variants ranging from geographical location, to exposure, to pets (see Probiotics Learning Lab), also had an impact on microbial development and its symbiotic relationship with our immune system.
Moreover, these first phases of gut development are important not just during early life. Research is highlighting our microbial foundations may be associated with a range of potential diseases health issues in later life, including obesity, asthma and allergies. For more information on this, check out our Learning Lab for past studies on the importance of the gut microbiome in early life.
Also, it’s important to note that gut development doesn’t fully stop at 2.5 years of age - our microbiomes are constantly challenged throughout life from stimuli like antibiotics, stress, and diet, to name a few. We are also seeing significant changes in our microbiomes as we reach the elderly life stage, with an overall decrease in diversity and a reduction in Bifidobacteria.
Now we know why - and more recently, how - good bacteria colonise in the gut, what can we do with this information? Senior author Joseph Petrosino said:
“[In this study] We showed that the first year of life is a key phase for the development of the microbiome, with the receipt of breast milk being the main factor that influences microbiome development over this period.”
However, as a result of certain mitigating circumstances, options for mothers such as breastfeeding and vaginal birth aren’t always possible. In lieu of these natural occurrences that contribute to an infant or child’s gut diversity, the good bacteria could be supplemented in the mother and baby to help support what would otherwise be missed. Furthermore, infants who were breastfed or vaginally birthed may also benefit, by boosting and maintaining their levels of friendly bacteria. This study highlights just how important our developmental stages are, and how fascinating the human microbiome is.
You may also be interested in the following articles:
Or you might like to read this blog, over in the Probiotics Learning Lab:
1. Stewart, C. J., et al. (2018). 'Temporal development of the gut microbiome in early childhood from the TEDDY study'. Nature, 562: 583–588
2. Heikkila, M.P. and Saris, P.E., (2003). Inhibition of staphylococcus aureus by the commensal bacteria of human milk. Journal of Applied Microbiology. 95:471-478
3. Bode, L., (2012). Human milk oligosaccharides; every baby needs a sugar mama. Glycobiology. 22 (9): 1147-1162
4. Solis, G., et al., (2010). Establishment and development of lactic acid bacteria and bifidobacterial microbiota in breast milk and the infant gut. Anaerobe. 16 (3): 307-310
5. Field, C., et al., (2005). The immunological components of human milk and their effect on immune development in infants. The Journal of Nutrition. 135 (1): 1-4
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