Early colonization of an infant’s gut by “good bacteria” is crucial for the healthy development of the intestinal tract and the immune system. A new study published in Genome Biology suggests that breastfeeding can help with this positive gut colonization in a way that formula feeding cannot.
The study looked at the gut bacteria of three month-old babies and found that breast-fed babies had a wider range of microbes present than the formula-fed infants, but that their immune systems had developed to cope.
Lead researcher, Robert Chapkin from the Texas A&M University, explained, “While we found that the microbiome of breast-fed infants is significantly enriched in genes associated with ‘virulence’, including resistance to antibiotics and toxic compounds, we also found a correlation between bacterial pathogenicity and the expression of host genes associated with immune and defense mechanisms.” In other words, breastfed babies have some whacky bacteria in their guts that helps boost the immune system.
“Our findings suggest that human milk promotes the beneficial crosstalk between the immune system and microbe population in the gut, and maintains intestinal stability,” he added.
A while back I wrote about how babies born vaginally are exposed to microbes in the birth canal that can help with healthy gut colonization. This study showed that babies delivered via c-section miss out on this good bacteria and are, instead, being exposed to less favorable bacteria–the kind found on the mother’s skin and within the hospital (including Staphylococcus and Acinetobacter). This may explain why babies born surgically are at higher risk of infection than those born vaginally. Speaking to Science News on this topic, pediatrician Josef Neu describes a baby’s first encounter with bacteria: “It’s like a garden where few, if any, seeds have been planted. If you push in one direction you might get a lot of weeds, a lack of diversity. That can be associated with immune system problems.”
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