The Microbiome, Leaky Gut and Your Premature Baby

microbiome and premature babies

It’s becoming well-known we possess a population of bacteria living within us called our microbiome.

Previously thought only to influence the health of our digestive system, it’s now apparent your microbiome influences the health of every cell in your body.

In this blog we’ll look at how your baby’s microbiome can be affected by the term of your pregnancy, and its impact on digestive and overall health.

More About the Microbiome

As many as 2000 different species of bacteria, fungi and even viruses make up our microbiome, and it’s believed the amount of organisms outnumber our body cells by ten to one.

These organisms inhabit tissues all over the body, including the gut, the surface of the skin, the mouth and the vagina. One of the fascinating aspects of the microbiome is every single person on earth has a slightly different ratio and amount of species living within them.

Our relationship with our microbiome is symbiotic. We provide them with a home while they produce messenger chemicals for us.

Many bacterial species are beneficial to health, producing substances which reduce inflammation and support the immune system. These are known as friendly bacteria. Others are not so beneficial and can increase inflammation. Ideally the majority of our bacteria will be comprised of friendly bacteria, and we know a wide variety of bacterial species is also important for health.

The microbiome is shaped throughout life as we interact with our environment – by the food we eat, our relationship with stress and our use of medicines such as antibiotics.

Your Baby’s Microbiome

A healthy microbiome is essential for your baby’s development because it produces a balanced immune system. The microbiome in early life has a significant effect on both physical and mental health when we are older.

Have you ever wondered about the origin of your microbiome? Although it was previously believed the developing foetus had no exposure to any bacteria until birth, it’s recently been discovered amniotic fluid may contain bacteria which are determined by the mother’s microbiome. The foetus swallows this fluid, giving the bacteria an opportunity to colonise the infant’s body. This means foetal life could be a vital period for the development of a healthy immune system.

During birth, the baby will pick up further bacteria from the mother from the birth canal.

In early life, skin contact with the mother as well as breastfeeding will further shape the infant’s microbiome by passing on bacteria from the mother.

Premature Babies and the Microbiome

The microbiome of babies born early in pregnancy differs from that of full-term babies, and the variety of bacterial species is typically less. This seems to especially hold true for infants born before 32 weeks.

Preterm infants will often spend a period of time in a hospital neonatal unit, where they may be given antibiotics to fight infections. Unfortunately these medicines will wipe out the infant’s microbiome and opportunistic pathogenic bacteria frequently take over, affecting immune function and predisposing towards inflammation.

Premature babies in hospital may be exposed to stressful procedures, and we know stress can affect the microbiome. Such babies also tend to have less contact with their mothers, so fewer opportunities for bacteria to be transferred from the mother’s skin. Preterm babies may be formula fed at times and this reduces bacterial transmission from the mother’s breast milk.

Preterm infants are at higher risk of inflammatory problems, especially of the lungs and the gut.

One recent review of studies found giving premature babies a probiotic supplement, designed to introduce beneficial bacteria, significantly reduced the incidence of colitis. On the other hand, breastfed premature infants were found to have microbiomes which are more similar to those of full-term babies. This predisposes the infants towards less intestinal inflammation.

Gut Permeability and Premature Infants

Not only does the gut microbiota differ between preterm and full-term infants, but the intestinal lining of premature babies tends to be more permeable than that of full-term infants because it’s not yet fully developed when they are born. This more readily allows bacteria into the bloodstream, leading to inflammation or even the development of sepsis.

The health of the gut lining determines the ability of certain species of bacteria to thrive or otherwise. So a permeable gut lining, often called leaky gut, can influence the microbiome and impact on health throughout life and is strongly connected with allergies and auto-immune disease

Supporting your Baby’s Microbiome with Functional Medicine

Functional Medicine believes a healthy microbiome and good gut heath are essential for overall health at any age. If you would like to support the microbiome and intestinal function of your premature baby or child, a consultation with a Functional Medicine practitioner can support you in your journey towards your own and your child’s optimum health. Contact me for more information.

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