By Dr. Mercola
Worldwide, malnutrition is the leading cause of death before the age of 5, and three new studies suggest optimizing children's microbiome — the colonies of bacteria residing in the gut — may be key to combating this tragedy.
As noted by Science News:1
"Food matters, too, but not as much as people once thought, says biologist Brett Finlay, Ph.D. of the University of British Columbia, who was not involved in the new work.
'People used to think if you just fed the kids they'd be fine,' Finlay says. 'But that didn't work.' Instead, certain gut microbes might be needed to protect children suffering from poor diets."
Indeed, research suggests that many people are deficient in healthy gut bacteria, making this an important consideration if you're not feeling in optimal shape, physically or psychologically.
The bacteria in your gut have wide-ranging and cascading health effects. Not only have gut bacteria been found to influence the processing and utilization of nutrients2,3 and even help protect against food borne disease,4 it's also well-known that an unbalanced microbiome can weaken your immune system.
Optimizing Gut Microbes May Ward Against Malnutrition
As reported by The Washington Post:5
"In previous studies,6 Gordon and his colleagues found a connection between childhood gut microbiota ... and developmental success.
Children who were malnourished tended to have gut microbes similar to children younger than themselves, as if the microbial 'organ' itself had been as stunted as the rest of their body ..."
To investigate which came first — the malnutrition or the stunted growth of microbes — the researchers implanted fecal microbes from healthy and malnourished children into germ-free mice. All of the mice were then given the same diet, approximating the typical diet of a child in Malawi.
Despite the lack of adequate nutrition in the diet, the mice that received microbes from healthy youngsters grew bigger across the board, suggesting healthy gut bacteria may in fact counteract a nutrient-poor diet.
Gut Bacteria Influence Growth Factor Hormone
Another recent study7 discovered a similar connection between the microbiome and nutrition. As in the study above, with all things being equal in terms of diet, mice with healthy bacteria in their guts grew better than germ-free mice.
Interestingly, as reported in the featured article, here they found that gut microbes had a hormonal influence:8
"The experimental mice all produced the same amount of growth factor hormone, but those without gut bacteria didn't have as much of the secondary growth hormone that first one usually produces.
Giving the mice this secondary hormone as a supplement boosted their growth back up, even when they didn't have gut microbes. And they found at least one strain of the bacteria Lactobacillus that gave the microbe-less mice an instant hormone boost."
The Link Between Breast Milk and Gut Bacteria
A third study,9 published in the journal Cell, investigated the link between a child's microbiome and his or her ability to benefit from breast milk. First, they looked at the nutritional composition of breast milk from Malawian mothers of healthy and malnourished babies.
The breast milk of mothers of healthy babies had greater amounts of sugars containing sialic acid, believed to be important for brain development.
Again, germ-free mice received microbes from malnourished children, and were then fed a diet similar to that of a typical Malawian toddler. Another group of mice was given sialic acid in addition to the standard diet, while a third group was given a formula similar to commercial infant formula.
All three groups had the same gut microbes, and all received the same amount of calories, yet those that received sialic acid in amounts comparable to what a child would get from healthy breast milk grew larger than the others.
The researchers hypothesize that "the growth benefits may hinge on products created by bacteria as they consume sialic acid," but there are still many questions to be answered. As explained by Dr. Jeffrey Gordon, who led the study:
"There are food webs in the microbial community, and these bacteria living on sialic acid are just the primary consumers. They transform it into products used by other microbes in the community. We need to be sure that none of those secondary consumers are dangerous."
The secondary consumers he's referring to are potentially dangerous pathogens, which are quite prominent in the guts of children living in areas lacking clean water and basic sanitation.
As noted in the featured article:
"Researchers can't recommend giving these children a boost of sialic acid — or any microbe-related food additive — without doing more research, as it could empower a pathogen to conquer their guts."
Leafy Greens Promote Healthy Gut Bacteria
In related news, researchers have found that leafy green vegetables contain a certain kind of sugar that feeds healthy gut bacteria, which in turn help crowd out more harmful microbes.10 The sugar, called sulfoquinovose (SQ), is produced in plants by photosynthesis.
Gut bacteria extract sulfur and carbon from SQ for nourishment using an enzyme called YihQ, which is actually produced by E. coli bacteria. While E. coli is typically associated with foodborne disease, there are many different strains of E. coli, and only certain ones are harmful.11
E. coli-derived YihQ breaks down the sugar, allowing the bacteria to metabolize its various components. As reported by Medical News Today:12
"Bacteria use SQ as a source of carbon and sulfur. Sulfur is important for building proteins — the essential building blocks of all living organisms — explain the authors, who point out that SQ is the only sugar molecule that contains sulfur.
Senior author Dr. Ethan Goddard-Borger...says: "Every time we eat leafy green vegetables we consume significant amounts of SQ sugars, which are used as an energy source by good gut bacteria …".
Crucial and protective strains of Escherichia coli and other beneficial bacteria in the gut ... use SQ as a source of energy.
These bacteria provide a protective barrier that 'prevents growth and colonization by bad bacteria, because the good bugs are taking up all the habitable real estate,' Dr. Goddard-Borger adds."
According to Goddard-Borger, this research may offer "vital clues" for developing new types of antibiotics. The researchers suggest enzymes like YihQ could be used as a delivery system for antibiotics that selectively target harmful bacteria without disrupting beneficial bacteria.
Considering the risks associated with conventional antibiotics that indiscriminately kill off all bacteria, this could be a significant improvement.
Vegetable Fiber — Another Important Dietary Component for a Healthy Gut
The microbes in your body consume the same foods you do, and as a general rule, the beneficial ones tend to feed on foods that are known to benefit health, and vice versa. Sugar, for example, is a preferred food source for fungi that produce yeast infections and sinusitis, whereas healthy probiotic-rich foods like fermented vegetables boost populations of health-promoting bacteria, thereby disallowing potentially pathogenic colonies from taking over.
Besides the SQ found in leafy greens, other vegetables are an excellent source of fiber, which is another important food source for healthy gut bacteria. Some of the microbes in your gut actually specialize in fermenting soluble fiber found in legumes, fruits, and vegetables, and the byproducts of this fermenting activity help nourish the cells lining your colon, thereby preventing health problems associated with leaky gut syndrome.
The most important fermentation byproducts are short-chain fatty acids, like butyrate, propionate, and acetate. These short chain fats help nourish and recalibrate your immune system, thereby helping to prevent inflammatory disorders such as asthma and Crohn's disease.13,14 These fats also increase specialized immune cells called T regulatory cells, which help prevent autoimmune responses.
Via a process called hematopoiesis, short-chain fatty acids are also involved in the formation of other types of blood cells in your body. These fats also serve as easy substrates for your liver to produce ketones, which efficiently fuel your mitochondria and serve as important and powerful metabolic signals.
The Danger of Low-Fiber Diets
Unfortunately, few Americans get the recommended 30 to 32 grams of fiber per day, and when fiber is lacking, it starves these beneficial bacteria. Recent research15,16,17 shows that low-fiber diets cause "waves of extinction" in the gut of mice, and that this altered gut flora is passed on to offspring. As much as 60 percent of the microbe species suffered severe decline in the low-fiber group.
In some cases, their numbers remained low even after the mice were again given high-fiber meals, suggesting it can be quite difficult to repopulate certain gut bacteria once they've been severely diminished. Moreover, each successive generation of offspring in the low-fiber group ended up with less diversity than their parents, suggesting the problem compounds over generations. According to the authors:
"Over several generations, a low-MAC diet [microbiota-accessible carbohydrate diet] results in a progressive loss of diversity, which is not recoverable after the reintroduction of dietary MACs. To restore the microbiota to its original state requires the administration of missing taxa [editors note: i.e. fecal transplant] in combination with dietary MAC consumption."
Previous studies18 have already confirmed that the human microbiome has undergone significant changes over the course of history, along with changes in diet. Distinct differences in the gut microbiome have also been found between Western city-dwellers and rural villagers and indigenous hunter-gatherers.
As a general rule, people who eat a more plant-based diet tend to have a more diverse gut microbiome than those who skimp on fresh veggies and fruits and eat more processed foods.
Natural Birth and Breastfeeding Help Optimize Your Child's Health
It's important to realize that a child's microbial makeup is influenced directly from birth, with much of it being transferred to the baby as it travels through the birth canal.19 Aside from a flawed diet, the dwindling popularity of vaginal birth plays a significant role in the dwindling microbe species found in people born and raised in developed nations.
While C-sections have a number of acknowledged risks, its negative effect on the infant's gut due to lack of bacterial exposure is typically overlooked. This is tragic, as your baby's gut microbiome has the potential to impact his or her health for life. Babies born by C-section have an increased risk for asthma, obesity and Type 1 diabetes, for example.
Lack of breastfeeding compounds the problem. Human breast milk contains oligosaccharides (unique complex chains of sugars), the primary function of which is to nourish your baby's healthy gut flora, and these are completely absent in commercial infant formulas. Breastfeeding has been shown to be protective against the very same health problems associated with caesarean delivery.
When both vaginal birth and breastfeeding are lacking, your child can end up with severely compromised gut flora. This, as you can see, has the potential to affect your child's health in a number of ways, including potentially impacting his or her ability to utilize nutrients.
Optimize Your Microbiome With Probiotics and Fiber
One of the easiest ways to improve your gut health is by eating REAL food, including plenty of fresh, preferably locally grown organic vegetables, along with traditionally fermented foods. This kind of diet will provide plenty of that which you need — prebiotics, probiotics, and fiber — and very little of that which you don't; sugar, pesticides, and artificial ingredients topping the list of ingredients that harm gut flora.
Fermented cabbage made with a starter culture would be great solution, as it's very inexpensive to make, and stores well.
The evidence overwhelmingly points to the fact that unless you have a healthy gut, your health will suffer to some degree, and recovery from illness can be severely hampered. Studies have shown that a high-fiber (especially soluble fiber) diet can help reduce your risk of premature death from any cause, and this is likely because it helps to reduce your risk of so many chronic diseases, including type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and cancer.
As evidenced by the three studies discussed above, a child's microbiome may also play a crucial role in malnutrition. If your baby's gut is severely unbalanced, his or her health may be adversely impacted even if eating a reasonably nutritious diet. Clearly, the issue of malnutrition is most pressing in developing nations, but even Westerners can struggle with this issue, courtesy of eating too much processed food.
Besides diet, other lifestyle factors such as exercise and drug use can have an impact, for better or worse. Pregnancy decisions such as whether or not to have an elective C-section and breastfeeding can also have long-term health effects for your child — all because of how these decisions affect your child's microbiome. When it comes to fiber, I believe 25 to 50 grams per 1,000 calories consumed is a healthy goal. Good sources of soluble and insoluble fiber include:
Psyllium seed husk, flax hemp, and chia seeds Berries Vegetables such as broccoli and Brussels sprouts Root vegetables and tubers, including onions, sweet potatoes, and jicama Pecans and Macadamia nuts Peas Green beans Cauliflower Cacao nibs