By Dr. Mercola
Most people, including many physicians, do not realize that 80 percent of your immune system is located in your digestive tract, making a healthy gut a major focal point if you want to achieve optimal health.
The root of many health problems is related to an imbalance of intestinal bacteria, and this foundation of good health is laid even while in utero.
Without a well-functioning gastrointestinal (GI) tract, a newborn baby will be more vulnerable to pathogens, allergens, and a number of immune-related diseases, so getting an infant's gut up and running efficiently is crucial. Women who are pregnant or planning to become pregnant would be wise to address their own gut health as early as possible to give their child the best start possible in this regard.
That said, it’s never too late to address your or your child’s gut, and most people would likely benefit from doing so.
The bacteria located in your GI tract play a crucial role in the development and operation of the mucosal immune system in your digestive tract. They also aid in the production of antibodies to pathogens.
Friendly bacteria even train your immune system to distinguish between pathogens and non-harmful antigens, and to respond appropriately. This important function prevents your immune system from overreacting to non-harmful antigens, which is the genesis of allergies.
But probiotics perform such a wide variety of functions, they’re really critical regardless of what ails you. And because adding probiotics to your diet is so easy, by way of cultured foods and/or supplements, it’s a step I highly encourage you to take.
How To Reduce Your Child’s Risk of Allergies
Babies gets their first “inoculation” of gut flora from mother's birth canal during childbirth. If the flora is abnormal, the baby’s flora will also be abnormal; whatever organisms live in the mother's vagina end up coating the baby’s body and lining his or her intestinal tract.
According to a recent analysis of previous clinical trials1, women who take probiotics—i.e. healthy bacteria—during pregnancy reduce their child’s risk of developing allergies. Unfriendly flora can also predispose babies to Gut and Psychology Syndrome (GAPS), of which allergies are just one potential outcome.
Other health problems associated with GAPS include autism, learning disabilities, and a number of other psychological, neurological, digestive, and immunological, problems. As reported in the featured Reuters article2:
“Since allergies and asthma both spring from hypersensitive immune responses, several trials have set out to assess the effect of probiotic supplements on those conditions...
[The] team analyzed the results of 25 trials of supplements given during pregnancy or within the first year of a child's life. All of the studies compared mothers and babies randomly assigned to take probiotics with those given placebo supplements.
Participants were given probiotic doses daily, and in some cases more than daily, for a few months to a year. The trials tracked whether kids went on to test positive for common allergies - such as peanut or pollen allergies...
Babies who were exposed to probiotics in the womb and received supplements after birth had a 12 percent lower risk of allergies in the following months and years than kids in the comparison groups. But allergy risk was not reduced when babies were started on probiotics after birth only.”
How Allergies Are Related to Poor Gut Health
A condition known as “leaky gut” occurs when gaps develop between the cells (enterocytes) that make up the membrane lining your intestinal wall. These tiny gaps allow substances, such as undigested food, bacteria and metabolic wastes, that should be confined to your digestive tract to escape into your bloodstream -- hence the term leaky gut syndrome.
Leaky gut syndrome can be a contributing factor to allergies, which can help explain why children with healthier gut flora have a reduced risk of developing allergies. Even more significantly, pathogenic microbes in the baby’s digestive tract can damage the integrity of his or her gut wall. This can allow all sorts of toxins and microbes to flood his or her bloodstream, which can then enter his or her brain and disrupt its development.
Breastfeeding helps protect your baby from this abnormal gut flora, which is why breastfeeding is so crucial to your child’s health. No infant formulas can do this.
Leaky gut is also associated with inflammatory bowel diseases like Crohn's and ulcerative colitis, as well as celiac disease. The condition Once the integrity of your intestinal lining is compromised, and there is a flow of toxic substances "leaking out" into your bloodstream, your body experiences significant increases in inflammation.
“Healing and sealing” your gut has been shown to help alleviate allergy symptoms. The key lies in altering your diet to eliminate offending foods, such as grains and processed foods, and introduce healthier ones that will support a proper balance of bacteria in your gut. To restore gut health, and prevent leaky gut from occurring, eating traditionally fermented foods is essential.
Fermented Foods Can Help a Baby Avoid MAJOR Health Problems
Providing abundant probiotics in the form of fermented foods is one of the most powerful ways to restore a baby’s beneficial gut flora. Oftentimes, a commercial probiotic supplement won’t even be needed.
Raw organic grass-fed yogurt is well tolerated by most infants and children. It’s best to make your own yogurt at home from raw organic milk, and start with a very tiny amount. Once yogurt is well tolerated, then start introducing kefir. If you have any problems with dairy, you can substitute vegetables fermented with yogurt culture or kefir culture. Avoid commercial yogurt from the grocery store, as these are laden with sugars that feed pathogenic bacteria—the exact opposite of what you’re looking for.
To learn more about introducing fermented foods to your newborn, I recommend picking up a copy of Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride's book, Gut and Psychology Syndrome3, which has a large recipe section for fermenting your own foods at home and using them to benefit all members of your family. If you have a baby with a severe condition, then the addition of a high-quality probiotic supplement might be needed.
There have been more probiotic studies involving adults than those with children, and even fewer with infants. Unfortunately, precious little research has been devoted to the study of probiotics for neonates, especially extremely low birth weight neonates (ELBW), but scientific studies thus far are very promising. One study in particular, published in BMC Medicine4 in 2011 by the Department of Neonatal Pediatrics in Nepean Hospital along with several other Australian hospitals, brings us closer to important evidence-based guidelines for the use of probiotics with preterm neonates. For more details on this, please see my previous article on the use of probiotics for neonates.
That said, probiotics have been shown to provide a number of benefits to infants and children. For example, daily supplements of probiotic foods may reduce a child’s risk of eczema by 58 percent, according to one study. Another study found that a daily dose of Lactobacillus reuteri can help improve colic.
Probiotic Proves Beneficial for Non-Gut Inflammatory Disorders as Well
Other recent studies confirm the importance of your gut health for health problems such as psoriasis and chronic fatigue syndrome. One such study, published in the journal Gut Microbes, is interesting in that it’s the first study showing how a single probiotic strain can influence your systemic immune system. As reported by Medical News Today5:
“The mucosal immune system protects the internal mucosal surfaces of the body such as the gastrointestinal, urogenital and respiratory tracts. These internal surfaces act as a barrier to the outside world for the internal tissues of the body, which are then further protected by the systemic immune system. There is some convincing evidence that probiotics, or gut-friendly bacteria, influence the development and maintenance not only of the microbial balance inside the gut and the mucosal immune system but also the systemic immune response.”
The probiotic used in the study is called Bifidobacterium infantis 35624. Three separate randomized, double-blind placebo-controlled trials were included in the study, which assessed the effects of the probiotic on one gastrointestinal and two non-gastrointestinal inflammatory disorders. Twenty-two of the patients enrolled in the study were diagnosed with ulcerative colitis, 26 were diagnosed with psoriasis, an inflammatory skin condition, and 48 patients had chronic fatigue syndrome.
The levels of inflammation markers in 35 healthy volunteers were used as baseline references. The three biomarkers assessed were C-reactive protein (CRP) and pro-inflammatory cytokines, tumor necrosis factor alpha (TNF-a), and interleukin-6 (IL-6). At the outset of the trials, all patients, whether their disorder was related to gastrointestinal inflammation or not, had significantly elevated levels of all three of these biomarkers. During the trial period, which lasted between six and eight weeks, each patient received either the probiotic or a placebo. At the end of each of the three separate trials, the researchers found that:
- All three patient groups who received Bifidobacterium infantis 35624 had significantly lower levels of CRP compared to those who received a placebo
- Patients with ulcerative colitis psoriasis patients had lower TNF-a
- Those with ulcerative colitis and chronic fatigue syndrome had reductions in IL-6
According to the researchers, these reductions in inflammatory biomarkers typically count as remission, and are indicative of a reduced risk of relapse. A similar study published in 20096 found that Bifidobacterium infantis was the only probiotic strain out of 13 tested capable of improving symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
Probiotics Helps Improve Periodontal Disease, and More
In related news, another double-blind, placebo-controlled study7 found that the probiotic Lactobacillus reuteri Prodentis improved the efficacy of standard treatment for chronic periodontitis (scaling and root planing) by 53 percent. According to the featured article8:
“By the end of the 12 week long study 53 per cent fewer sites (surfaces on a teeth) in patients with deep dental pockets and supplemented by Lactobacillus reuteri Prodentis was in need for surgery, compared to the placebo group... After the intervention period it was also concluded that 67 percent of the patients in the placebo group fell into the high-risk category for disease progression, while the corresponding figure for patients supplemented by Lactobacillus reuteri Prodentis was only 27 percent.”
Probiotics have also been found to influence the activity of hundreds of genes, helping them to express in a positive, disease-fighting manner. Researchers have documented beneficial probiotic effects in a wide variety of disorders, including9, 10:
|Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)
||Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
||Constipation and diarrhea
||Eradication of H. pylori infection, which is associated with ulcers
|Strengthened immune response
|Cirrhosis of the liver
||Depression, anxiety, and other mental health problems
Fermented Vegetables—An Ideal Source of Probiotics
The advent of processed foods dramatically altered the human diet, and we’re now reaping the results in the form of rapidly rising chronic health problems. I believe the shunning of traditionally fermented foods has a lot to do with this. The culturing process actually produces the beneficial microbes that we now realize are so crucial for health, and when eaten daily, they help maintain a healthy balance of intestinal microbes. Fermented foods are also some of the best chelators and detox agents available, meaning they can help rid your body of a wide variety of toxins, including heavy metals. The best way to ensure optimal gut flora is to regularly consume traditionally fermented foods. Healthy options include:
|Lassi (an Indian yogurt drink, traditionally enjoyed before dinner)
||Various pickled fermentations of cabbage sauerkraut,, turnips, eggplant, cucumbers, onions, squash, and carrots
|Traditionally fermented raw milk such as kefir or yogurt, but NOT commercial versions, which typically do not have live cultures and are loaded with sugars that feed pathogenic bacteria
||Natto (fermented soy)
When choosing fermented foods, steer clear of pasteurized versions, as pasteurization will destroy many of the naturally occurring probiotics. This includes most of the "probiotic" yogurts you find in every grocery store these days; since they're pasteurized, they will be associated with all of the problems of pasteurized milk products. They also typically contain added sugars, high fructose corn syrup, artificial coloring, or artificial sweeteners, all of which will only worsen your health.
When you first start out, you’ll want to start small, adding as little as half a tablespoon of fermented vegetables to each meal, and gradually working your way up to about a quarter to half a cup (2 to 4 oz) of fermented vegetables or other cultured food with one to three meals per day. Since cultured foods are efficient detoxifiers, you may experience detox symptoms, or a "healing crisis," if you introduce too many at once. If you do not regularly consume the traditionally fermented foods above, a high-quality probiotic supplement may provide similar benefits.
Learn to Make Your Own Fermented Vegetables
Fermented vegetables are easy to make on your own. It’s also the most cost-effective way to get high amounts of healthful probiotics in your diet. To learn how, review the following interview with Caroline Barringer, a Nutritional Therapy Practitioner (NTP) and an expert in the preparation of the foods prescribed in Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride's Gut and Psychology Syndrome (GAPS) Nutritional Program.
Although you can use the native bacteria on cabbage and other vegetables, it is typically easier to get consistent results by using a starter culture. Caroline prepares hundreds of quarts of fermented vegetables a week and has found that she gets great results by using three to four high quality probiotic capsules to jump start the fermentation process.
Download Interview Transcript
Remember: Your Gut, Brain and Primary Immune Defense Are All Connected...
You’d be wise to remember that the vast majority of your immune system is located in your digestive system, making a healthy gut a major focal point if you want to maintain optimal health. Furthermore, as discussed in a number of other recent articles, your gut is quite literally your second brain, as it originates from the same type of tissue. Your gut and your brain actually work in tandem, each influencing the other. This is why your intestinal health can have such a profound influence on your mental health, and vice versa.
This also helps explain the link between neurological disorders (including ADHD and autism) and gastrointestinal dysfunction. For example, gluten intolerance is frequently a feature of autism, and many autistic children will improve when following a strict gluten-free diet. However, even more importantly, establishing normal gut flora within the first 20 days or so of life plays a crucial role in appropriate maturation of your baby's immune system.
Babies who develop abnormal gut flora are left with compromised immune systems, and besides raising your child’s risk of allergies and other disorders discussed above, it may even be a crucial factor when it comes to vaccine-induced damage. As explained by Dr. Campbell-McBride, vaccinations were originally developed for children with healthy immune systems, and children with abnormal gut flora and therefore compromised immunity are not suitable candidates for our current vaccine schedule as they're more prone to being harmed. To learn more about this, please see this previous article.
To sum it all up, regardless of your age, three very positive changes occur when your good-to-bad intestinal bacteria ratio is brought into balance:
- Digestive problems diminish or disappear
- Your body begins to use all the good food and nutritional supplements you feed it
- Your immune system de-stresses and is better equipped to fight off disease of all kinds, contributing to a longer and healthier life