By Dr. Mercola
Beneficial bacteria such as those found in fermented foods and probiotics thrive in your intestines to perform a magnificent symbiotic relationship with you, improving not only your overall health but even your skin.
Signals from these gut microorganisms are known to interact with organisms on your skin and research suggests these interactions, or another unknown probiotic-skin connection, can help with skin conditions, including eczema.
Beneficial Bacteria Halve Infants' Eczema Risk
Eczema, also known as atopic dermatitis, is very common in infants and young children. According to the American Academy of Dermatologists, it affects between 10 percent and 20 percent of all infants, resulting in red, itchy patches or rash on the skin (eczema is often known as "the itch that rashes," meaning there's really no rash until you start scratching the itchy area).
Eczema is more than just a skin problem, however, as it is an indication that there is a problem with your immune system. In fact, eczema is said to be one of the first signs of allergy during the first days of life, and about three out of four children with eczema later go on to develop asthma or hay fever.
What does this have to do with the beneficial bacteria in your gut?
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 in your efforts to achieve optimal health. In fact, the root of many health problems is related to an imbalance of intestinal bacteria.
You may be surprised to learn that the bacteria in your gut outnumber the cells in your body by a factor of ten to one — you have approximately 100 trillion bacteria living in your GI tract, comprised of as many as 500 different species and 7,000 different strains. Collectively, each of us carries around several pounds of bacteria inside us!
The beneficial bacteria in your gut has actually been found to help prevent allergies by training your immune system to distinguish between pathogens and non-harmful antigens and respond appropriately – and this may be one reason why they also appear so beneficial for eczema.
According to the latest research, a review of 21 studies that included 11,000 participants, in children at risk for developing eczema, supplementing with a type of beneficial bacterial called Lactobacillus rhapsodic GG or Lactobacillus rhamnosus strain HN001 cut kids' risk of developing eczema in half compared to those taking a placebo.1 Children that took other various mixtures of probiotics also had their risk of eczema at least halved.
Please note that this does not mean that this strain of beneficial bacteria is the only one that provides the benefit. It happens to be the one that was studied. These studies are not free and someone has to pay for them. But it is likely that most beneficial bacteria, especially lactobacillus strains, provide similar benefits.
A Simple Way to Lower Your Child's Risk of Eczema
That probiotics are beneficial for preventing eczema in infants is not a new finding, but rather one that I've been reporting on since at least 2001, when researchers also found infants receiving probiotics supplements were half as likely to develop the skin condition.2
In 2008, another found that children with only a limited variety of bacteria in their intestines one week after birth were more likely to developed eczema by the age of 18 months.3 Still more research published in 2009 also found that daily supplements of probiotic foods may reduce the risk of eczema in children by 58 percent.4
It's thought that one reason giving an infant probiotics helps to stave off eczema and other allergic diseases is by beneficially altering the early colonization of bacteria in their gut, which may help the child's immune system to develop and mature. At birth the human gastrointestinal tract is sterile, but in the first days, months and years of life a rapid colonization of bacteria occurs until a stable indigenous gut microflora is established.
Babies that are given the best start nutritionally by being breastfed (the major source of your immune-building good bacteria following their initial implantation through the birth canal) also tend to have intestinal microflora in which beneficial bacteria predominate over potentially harmful bacteria. So, the best way you can encourage your newborn's gut health to flourish is by breastfeeding.
The most benefit from probiotics, at least in terms of eczema, may happen very early in life. After three months of life, the 2009 study above found no difference in the incidence or severity of eczema between groups given probiotics or a placebo, noting that the preventive effect appeared to be established within the first 3 months of life, although it appeared to be sustained during the firs two years.
What this means is it is essential that your baby to receive plenty of beneficial bacteria in the first few months of life and continuing through childhood and adulthood.
Tips for Starting Your Baby's Gut Flora Off Right
Total Video Length: 1:13:21
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Your baby gets his or her first "inoculation" of gut flora from your birth canal during childbirth. If your flora is abnormal, your baby's flora will also be abnormal; whatever organisms live in your vagina end up coating your baby's body and lining his or her intestinal tract.
Many infants are challenged because their mother previously took birth control pills, was on antibiotics or was a typical American and ate 150 pounds or more of sugar a year. Any mother with any or all of these risk factors is likely to start her infant's life out on shaky ground, as she is unable to provide them with optimal gut flora that will nourish their health. So any mother in this group needs to be especially conscious of this information and recommendations.
Studies show that a growing number of women have unknown vaginal infections at childbirth, which can result in the passage of abnormal microflora to their babies. This introduction of unfriendly flora, combined with antibiotic use, can predispose a baby to Gut and Psychology Syndrome (GAPS). GAPS can have very damaging long-term effects on a child's health, including such conditions as autism, ADHD, learning disabilities and a number of other psychological, neurological, digestive and immunological problems.
Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride is a neurologist and neurosurgeon who has devoted years of her career to studying this phenomenon, and how to treat and prevent it. Pathogenic microbes in your baby's digestive tract damage the integrity of his or her gut wall, allowing all sorts of toxins, microbes and macromolecules from undigested food to flood his or her bloodstream, and then enter the brain and disrupt its development.
Breastfeeding protects 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.
Any time your baby is given a broad-spectrum antibiotic, his or her beneficial flora are wiped out, giving pathogenic flora (including antibiotic-resistant bacteria) a window of opportunity to overgrow and wreak havoc. It takes the "friendly flora" two weeks to two months to recover, but by then, some not-so-friendly ones have found a niche. The first symptoms you typically see are colic, loose stools, constipation, eczema or respiratory infections.
Adding a vaccine that further stresses your baby's immature immune system is like adding fuel to a fire — conditions that raise your child's risk for a major adverse vaccine reaction. In other words, a vaccine could be the proverbial "final straw" if your baby has GAPS. But all of this may be corrected, or even averted, by the addition of some natural probiotics.
Fermented Foods are Important for Babies, Infants and Children Too
Before you give your child fermented foods or probiotics it is especially important to recognize that they are not magic bullets and cure-all ills. They need to be integrated with a healthy diet. If your child is consuming loads of sugar, grains and fruit juices, those sugars will rapidly break down in the intestine and feed the pathogenic bacteria, which effectively competitively inhibit the beneficial bacteria you are supplementing with making them useless and virtually ineffective.
Once you have the diet optimized, providing abundant probiotics in the form of fermented foods is one of the most powerful ways to restore your baby's beneficial gut flora. Oftentimes, a commercial probiotic supplement won't even be needed.
Apart from breastfeeding, the first fermented food Dr. Campbell-McBride recommends for your infant is raw organic grass-fed yogurt (not commercial yogurt from the grocery store), because it's 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 by your baby, then start introducing kefir. If you have any problems with cow's milk dairy, you can try goat's milk dairy as an alternative or substitute vegetables fermented with yogurt culture or kefir culture.
If your baby has a severe condition, such as necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC), then the addition of a high-quality probiotic supplement may be needed.
You can ferment virtually any food, and every traditional culture has fermented their foods to prevent spoilage. There are also many fermented beverages and yoghurts. Quite a large percent of all the foods that people consumed on a daily basis were fermented, and each mouthful provides trillions of beneficial bacteria — far more than you can get from a probiotics supplement.
Here's a case in point: It's unusual to find a probiotic supplement containing more than 10 billion colony-forming units. But when my team actually tested fermented vegetables produced by probiotic starter cultures, they had 10 trillion colony-forming units of bacteria. Literally, one serving of vegetables was equal to an entire bottle of a high potency probiotic! Fermented foods also give you a wider variety of beneficial bacteria, so all in all, it's your most cost effective alternative.
Fermenting your own foods is a fairly straightforward and simple process, which is described in detail here. Remember, in addition to protecting your child from developing eczema, research shows giving pregnant women and newborns doses of good bacteria can:
- Help prevent childhood allergies by training infants' immune systems to resist allergic reactions5
- Help optimize your baby's weight later in life6
- Improve the symptoms of colic, decreasing average crying times by about 75 percent7
- Reduce your risk of premature labor
Consuming fermented foods is, again, the best way to optimize your, and your children's, beneficial gut flora. To learn more, please listen to my interview with Caroline Barringer, a Nutritional Therapy Practitioner (NTP) who has been involved with nutrition for about 20 years. She's now one of Dr. Campbell-McBride's chief training partners, helping people understand the food preparation process.