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How the Method of Birth Can Influence Lifelong Health

Analysis by Dr. Joseph Mercola Fact Checked

Story at-a-glance -

  • Microorganisms in your gastrointestinal tract play an integral part in your health, affecting everything from body weight and nutrition, to chronic diseases of all kinds
  • The groundwork for your individual microbiome is laid from birth. A baby inherits the microbiome of its mother during vaginal delivery. Skin-to-skin contact and breastfeeding also provide valuable microbes
  • Thorough and appropriate “seeding” of the baby at birth primes their immune system with beneficial bacteria so that it can learn to function optimally
  • Decades of inappropriate medical interventions and diet — such as overuse of antibiotics and antibacterial products, routine cesarean births, pesticides and processed food — have led to a steep loss of diversity in the human microbiome
  • Bacteria play an essential role in your metabolism and immune function. With a loss of microbial diversity, the homeostasis (balance) of your body is disrupted, rendering it more vulnerable to disease

Microorganisms in your gastrointestinal tract form a highly intricate, living "fabric" that plays an integral part in your health, affecting everything from body weight and nutrition to chronic diseases of all kinds. And, as detailed in the featured documentary, “Microbirth,” written, produced and directed by Alex Wakeford and Toni Harman, the groundwork for your gut microbiome laid at the time of birth.

The film highlights how events during childbirth have lifelong consequences, and reviews the current scientific views on how to best seed your baby’s microbiome in order to build a robust immune system.

Importantly, a baby basically “inherits” the microbiome from its mother, which is why it’s so important to address your gut health before, during and after pregnancy.

If you've taken antibiotics or birth control pills, if you eat a lot of processed or sugary foods — even being bottle-fed as a baby — can impact the makeup of bacteria and microbes in your gut, which in turn will influence your child’s microbiome and health after birth. Your microbiome may even have a generational impact, affecting DNA that is then passed on to future generations.

Loss of Microbial Diversity Extols a Steep Price

The film begins by asking questions about what is it that sets humans apart from the millions of other species on Earth. Our intellect has allowed us to develop a technological society that would appear “magical” to those in centuries past. Yet for all our accomplishments and scientific miracles, we find ourselves sicker than ever before.

In 2008, the World Health Organization announced noncommunicable chronic diseases had taken over as the chief causes of death globally.1 “The shifting health trends indicate that leading infectious diseases — diarrhea, HIV, tuberculosis, neonatal infections and malaria — will become less important causes of death globally over the next 20 years,” WHO wrote.

By 2018, noncommunicable diseases were responsible for 71% of global deaths,2 with cardiovascular diseases, cancer, respiratory diseases and diabetes topping the list of lethal conditions.

The film cites research suggesting that by 2030, about half the net worth of all nations in the world will go toward treating chronic illnesses. To say we’re on an unsustainable trajectory would be an understatement.

Considering we are basically a walking ecosystem — a symbiotic superorganism — with microbes outnumbering our cells 10-to-1, could this changing health trend have something to do with changes occurring in our microbiomes?

As noted in the film, the human body is 90% microbial and only 10% mammalian, and research suggests decades of inappropriate medical interventions and diet — such as overuse of antibiotics and antibacterial products, routine cesarean births, pesticides and processed food — have led to a steep loss of diversity in the human microbiome.

With this loss of microbial diversity, the homeostasis (balance) of your body is disrupted, rendering it more vulnerable to disease. Bacteria play an essential role in your metabolism and immune function, but in order for them to do their job, there must be enough of them to go around. They also need to be in the proper ratio with other microbes.

Experts featured in the film believe the degradation of our microbiome is one, if not the primary, underlying cause of most of our current disease epidemics. Comparisons between indigenous peoples living in the jungles of South America and people living in modern societies suggest we’ve lost one-third of our natural microbiome.

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Mode of Birth Influences Your Baby’s Microbial Profile 

The film goes on to discuss the importance of natural childbirth, skin-to-skin contact after birth, and breastfeeding. These are all critical times for seeding and nurturing your baby’s microbiome. During vaginal birth, your baby is “seeded” with microbes as it goes through the birth canal.

According to a 2014 study,3 the microbiome of a healthy woman’s vagina is dominated by Lactobacillus genus, which confer a variety of health benefits, including protection against more hostile and disease-causing microbes.

Research4 shows the microbes found in a woman’s vagina change during pregnancy in preparation for birth. Specifically, Lactobacillus species are enriched, while there’s a decrease in overall diversity, the hypothesis being that this helps ensure the transfer of beneficial microbes to the baby as it passes through the birth canal. As noted in the 2017 paper, “The Maternal Infant Microbiome: Considerations for Labor and Birth:”5

“This ‘seeding’ or transfer of microbes from the mother to newborn may serve as an early inoculation process with implications for the long-term health outcomes of newborns.

Studies have shown that there are distinct differences in the microbiome profiles of newborns born vaginally compared to those born by cesarean. Antibiotic exposure has been shown to alter the microbial profiles of women and may influence the gut microbial profiles of their newborns.

Considering that the first major microbial colonization occurs at birth, it is essential that labor and birth nurses be aware of factors that may alter the composition of the microbiome during the labor and birth process.”

Gut flora is not the only factor influenced by the method of birth, however. According to animal research published in PLOS ONE,6 vaginal birth triggers the expression of mitochondrial uncoupling protein 2, which is important for improving brain development and function in adulthood. The expression of this protein was impaired in mice born via C-section.

Your Gut Microbiome Also Changes During Pregnancy

The composition of a woman's gut microbes also changes during each trimester of pregnancy, in ways that support fetal growth. These changes are largely influenced by the hormonal shifts that occur during pregnancy.

Interestingly, research published in the journal Cell7 in 2012 found that, as pregnancy progressed, there was an increase in Proteobacteria and Actinobacteria.

When the microbiota taken from women in their third trimester were transferred to germ-free mice, it induced greater weight gain and insulin resistance compared to the microbiota taken during the first trimester.

As noted by the authors, “Many of the immune and metabolic changes occurring during normal pregnancy also describe metabolic syndrome,” and “Gut microbiota can cause symptoms of metabolic syndrome in nonpregnant hosts.” In a pregnant female, on the other hand, the promotion of energy storage in fat tissue is part of what allows the fetus to grow normally.

The Drawbacks of C-Section

While a C-section can be necessary and lifesaving in some instances, they’ve become overused in many parts of the world. The most significant drawback to C-section is that the baby will not be inoculated with bacteria from the mother, as the baby is not passing through the birth canal. 

As noted in the film, this leaves the baby open to acquiring bacteria from some other source instead, and in most cases, this will be the hospital environment. This could spell trouble, as hospitals are hotbeds for pathogenic bacteria.

Experts interviewed in the film say a hypothesis currently being looked at is whether this might be what’s happening to so many of our children. Their immune systems have been primed by the wrong bacteria right from the start, thus making them more prone to illness. 

The Importance of Skin-to-Skin Contact

Even if you do end up needing a cesarean though, you can still nurture your baby’s microbiome through close skin-to-skin contact and breastfeeding for at least six months. In a “Microbirth” film review, naturopath Louise Loula writes:8

“Not only is skin to skin necessary to further seed them with bacteria from your skin but it can also regulate and stimulate their hormone production which allows them to calm down, to regulate their blood sugar levels and their instinct of hunger to then seek out the mother’s nipple to being the third phase in seeding, breastfeeding ...

A baby with a C-section, especially those who are then fed formula are potentially at risk for some very serious long term complications. They may be picking up bacteria from an imbalanced environment, especially in a hospital.

Their immune training if incorrect right at the beginning may or may not be possible to correct. It is seen to then go on to affect all tissue from brain development to muscle and mucosal lining development.”

Bacterial Swabbing Can Inoculate Baby Born Via C-Section 

In the film, Rodney Dietert, professor of immunotoxicology at Cornell University, also discusses the use of a bacterial swab when doing a C-section. Quite simply, the baby is inoculated with bacteria from a swab taken from the mother’s vagina, thus receiving the same bacteria he or she would have received if birthed vaginally.

To do this, an 8-by-10-inch piece of sterile gauze is folded in a fan pattern and inserted much like a tampon into the mother’s vaginal canal one hour before the C-section.

The gauze is extracted and placed in a sterile container right before the procedure, and once the baby is out, the gauze is unfolded and used to “wash” the baby’s whole body, starting with the mouth and face.

According to a researcher studying this technique, the health parameters of babies born by C-section who get swabbed with their mother’s bacteria are closer to those born vaginally than those born by C-section who do not get swabbed.

The Importance of Breastfeeding

Breastfeeding is the third crucial component that primes your baby’s microbiome. Breast milk is uniquely designed to nourish beneficial bacteria. As explained by Dietert, it also contains important immune hormone-like substances, some of which have anti-inflammatory activity.

Breast milk also provides your baby with antibodies against diseases to which you have a natural immunity (meaning you got sick, recovered from your illness and now are immune against it), and unique sugars called oligosaccharides.

These sugars are indigestible, so for a long time, their presence in breast milk puzzled scientists. As it turns out, oligosaccharides feed beneficial bacteria in the baby’s gut.

The refined sugar found in most infant formulas cannot replicate this function. In fact, processed sugar tends to feed harmful bacteria instead, and promote excess weight gain. To prime and educate your baby’s immune system and give him or her a healthy start in life, breastfeeding for six months to two years is recommended.

Unbalanced Microbiome Linked to Neurobehavioral Disorders

Researchers are also starting to understand how a child’s microbiome can play a role in neurobehavioral disorders, including autism. A 2014 article in Scientific American pointed out:9

“Scientists have long wondered whether the composition of bacteria in the intestines, known as the gut microbiome, might be abnormal in people with autism and drive some of these symptoms. 

Now a spate of new studies10,11 supports this notion and suggests that restoring proper microbial balance could alleviate some of the disorder's behavioral symptoms.”

The film addresses this issue as well, pointing out that an infant’s gut microbes influence not just the maturation of their immune system, but also the development of their brain and nervous tissue. According to Dietert, when the initial seeding of bacteria is inadequate, the byproducts produced from normal nutrients can have adverse effects on their brain.

Indeed, this is precisely what Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride surmised when she created the Gut and Psychology Syndrome (GAPS) Nutritional Program, which is designed to heal leaky gut by restoring the integrity of your gut lining. According to Campbell-McBride, in children with GAPS, toxicity flows from their gut throughout their bodies and into their brains.

This continually challenges their nervous system, preventing it from performing its normal functions and process sensory information. Virtually any toxic exposure, including a vaccine, can be the “straw that broke the camel’s back” in a situation like this. The end result can be symptoms of autism, and/or any number of other neurological problems.

The answer is to optimize the microbiome transfer during and after delivery through vaginal delivery, skin-to-skin contact and breastfeeding. Once your baby is ready for soft foods, you can provide probiotics in the form of fermented foods.

The first fermented food Campbell-McBride recommends for infants is raw organic grass fed yogurt (not commercial yogurt from the grocery store), because it's well tolerated by most. Once yogurt is well tolerated by your baby, you can introduce kefir. Another alternative is to use vegetables fermented with yogurt culture or kefir culture.

Another Overlooked Yet Critical Factor — Vitamin D

Optimizing your vitamin D levels prior to, or at the very least during, pregnancy is another important factor to safeguard your and your baby’s health. Research shows pregnant women with a vitamin D level between 40 ng/mL and 60 ng/mL have 46% lower preterm birth rate than the general population.12

Those with a vitamin D level at or above 40 ng/mL by their third trimester have a 59% lower risk for premature birth compared to those with levels below 20 ng/mL.13 Among African-American and Hispanic populations, as much as 70% to 75% of all preterm births might be prevented.14,15

A mother’s vitamin D status during pregnancy can also have lifelong ramifications for her child. Vitamin D deficiency in pregnancy has been linked to higher rates of childhood allergies, asthma,16,17 colds and flu, dental cavities, diabetes, and even strokes and cardiovascular disease later in life.18,19

Suggestions for a Healthy Pregnancy and a Healthy Baby

Besides the issues of seeding your baby’s microbiome and optimizing your vitamin D level, entire books could also be written about the hazards of chemical exposures during pregnancy. Research clearly shows that prenatal chemical exposures, particularly to endocrine disruptors like BPA and phthalates, can have wide-ranging and long-term health effects.

While you may not be able to avoid all toxic exposures, it’s important to take whatever proactive measures you can to reduce your toxic burden, especially before and during pregnancy. For example, avoiding any and all unnecessary drugs and vaccinations is one aspect you have a large degree of control over. Below are several more.

Rather than compile an endless list of what you should avoid, it's far easier to focus on what you should do to lead a healthy lifestyle, free of as many toxic exposures as possible. This includes:

As much as you’re able, eat organic and grass fed foods to reduce your exposure to agricultural chemicals like glyphosate. Steer clear of processed, prepackaged foods of all kinds. This way you automatically avoid pesticides, artificial food additives, dangerous artificial sweeteners, food coloring, MSG and unlabeled genetically engineered ingredients.

Rather than eating conventional or farm-raised fish, which are often heavily contaminated with PCBs and mercury, supplement with a high-quality purified krill oil, or opt for small fatty fish such as sardines, anchovies, mackerel and wild caught Alaskan salmon.

Maintain optimal gut flora by eating raw food grown in healthy, organic soil and reseeding your gut with fermented foods. If you aren't eating fermented foods, you most likely need to supplement with a probiotic on a regular basis, especially if you're eating processed foods.

Optimize your vitamin D level, ideally through sensible sun exposure.

Exercise regularly throughout your pregnancy. Previous studies have shown that, in general, women who exercise throughout their pregnancies have larger placentas than their more sedentary peers. The volume of your placenta is a general marker of its ability to transport oxygen and nutrients to your fetus, so it stands to reason that having a large, healthy placenta will lead to a healthier baby.

Once your baby is born, seek to breastfeed for as long as you’re able, ideally at least six months. Breastfeeding helps ensure that your child's gut flora develops properly right from the start, as breast milk is loaded both with beneficial bacteria and nutrient growth factors that will support their continued growth. It also has powerful components that will inhibit the growth of pathogenic bacteria and yeast. 

Store your food and beverages in glass rather than plastic, and avoid using plastic wrap and canned foods (which are often lined with BPA-containing liners).

Have your tap water tested and, if contaminants are found, install an appropriate water filter on all your faucets (including your shower or bath).

Only use nontoxic natural cleaning products in your home.

Switch over to natural brands of toiletries such as shampoo, toothpaste, antiperspirants and cosmetics.

Avoid using artificial air fresheners, dryer sheets, fabric softeners or other synthetic fragrances, as they often contain phthalates, which have been linked to reductions in IQ and other chronic health problems. High-quality essential oils can be substituted for most of these if you desire a scent.

Replace your nonstick pots and pans with ceramic or glass cookware.

When redoing your home, look for "green," toxin-free alternatives in lieu of regular paint and vinyl floor coverings.

Replace your vinyl shower curtain with one made of fabric, or install a glass shower door. Most all flexible plastics, like shower curtains, contain dangerous plasticizers like phthalates.

Avoid spraying pesticides around your home or insect repellants that contain DEET on your body. There are safe, effective and natural alternatives out there.