Editor’s Note: This post is not intended as medical advice. Always consult a medical professional or physician before treatment of any kind.
A few years ago, when my first son was a baby, I had no idea what the term “gut health” meant. After nursing him for over two years and successfully introducing solids at 6 months old, I thought I had the whole ‘baby feeding’ thing down pat by the time my second son was born. But boy, was I unprepared for the tummy issues he had.
After weeks of eczema and extreme fussiness, I began altering my diet, since everything I consumed was getting passed to him through breastfeeding. Through much trial and error, research, specialist visits, and tears, I finally figured out that he had a “leaky gut” and food protein intolerances — that may or may not develop into allergies.
As a result, I’ve been dairy-free and gluten-free ever since. Not only do I now know all about gut health and the balance of bacteria needed in our digestive tracts to help us digest food and protect us from disease, but I think about it every single day.
When I recently saw an article detailing new research on how baby poop can hold more information than we thought about infants’ gut health, I knew I had to read it. The report, published this week in the journal mSphere, suggests that pH levels in human bodies are rising — and have been doing so since the 1920s — with the most rapid progression occurring after 1980. This matters because pH is a measure of acidity, which can provide important information about a baby’s microbiome — the community of bacteria centralized in our gut that impacts multiple bodily functions, including food absorption and immune response.
Researchers now believe that the increase in allergies and asthma in our young people could be attributed to this rise in pH.
“This steady increase in the fecal pH of infants over the past several generations has largely gone unnoticed by the medical community, but [it] looks to be an indication of a major disruption of the infant gut,” says David Kyle, chief scientific officer at Evolve BioSystems, Inc.
According to this new report, researchers first began zeroing in on the bacteria in infant stools in 1926. Researcher Bethany Henrick of the University of Nebraska and Evolve BioSystems, Inc. has scoured such medical studies. She and her colleagues explain, “A review of 14 clinical studies published between 1926 and 2017, representing more than 312 healthy breastfed infants, demonstrated a change in fecal pH from 5.0 to 6.5.”
According to Today.com, “A low pH indicates a fluid is more acidic, while anything with a pH of 7 or higher is considered more alkaline.”
Studies show that measuring pH can be a fast means to determine whether an infant’s digestive system contains enough of a beneficial type of bacteria called Bifidobacterium. When this kind of bacteria breaks down milk, it creates acid that turns up in the baby’s stool.
One species of Bifidobacteria in particular, called B.infantis, is thought to be indicative of a healthy gut. The authors of the study say that babies with adequate amounts of B.infantis produce feces with higher acidity (lower pH) than those lacking in the bacteria.
“There is clear evidence that the infant gut microbiome has important long-term health implications, and perturbations of the microbiome composition may lead to chronic inflammation and immune-mediated diseases,” the study team explains.
So, figuring out the components of an optimal microbiome is key. Experts say that newborns acquire the bacteria they will live with from three main sources: their mothers, their first food, and their environment. The first bacteria that shows up in their digestive tracts may very well impact how it develops.
“Thus, the loss of Bifidobacterium and the profound change in the gut environment, as measured by fecal pH, present a compelling explanation for the increased incidence of allergic and autoimmune diseases observed in resource-rich nations,” says Henrick and her team.
The authors say the top three factors killing off beneficial bacteria appear to be antibiotics (often passed through mom at birth), infant formula, and C-section births.
A lot remains unknown about the growth of allergic and autoimmune disorders, but experts say that studies like this one can help guide the medical community towards more information and hopefully, answers.
As for how to promote better gut health in babies who are already struggling with pH imbalance/insufficient good bacteria, the Internet is full of resources. (Just be sure to get the OK from your baby’s pediatrician before introducing anything new.) As for me, I’m off to check my simmering Crock Pot full of homemade bone broth – a natural way to heal the gut lining and reduce intestinal inflammation, which I swear is already working. Plus, my baby loves it!