The Importance of Little Things

June 15, 2012 in General, Health, Immune System by Mary Ireland

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I came across an article today that caught my interest: Early Gut Bacteria Regulate Happiness. The article refers to research out of University College Cork (UCC) in Ireland that indicates normal adult brain functions depend on the presence of gut microbes during early development. The research, conducted on mice, found that an absence of bacteria during early life affected serotonin concentrations in the brain during adulthood. Serotonin is an important chemical in the regulation of mood and emotion. Many of the changes on the central nervous system and serotonin production due to the lack of sufficient gut microbes were found to be permanent.

Scientists are only beginning to understand relationship of gut microbes and health, the implications seem significant. According to recent research, human breast milk contains various probiotic bacteria. The probiotic bacteria have anti-inflammatory properties and are important for the maturation of the immune system. A recent study states that breast milk contains “oligosaccharide prebiotics” that benefit gut flora, "making breastfeeding very important especially in the first month of life." The study also maintains that feeding an infant formula during the first month of life may result in failure to develop normal gut flora and colonization with potential pathogens such as staphylococci and Escherichia coli.

I got interested in the history of feeding infants formula instead of breast milk. I was surprised to learn that the practice has gone on much longer than I had imagined - it's popularity started growing in the 1800's. In the mid 1800's, medical problems and infant mortality were associated with substitutes for breast milk. For the most part, however, in the early 1900's most babies were breastfed. By the 1950's only one-half of the babies were breastfed and by the 1970's that number had dropped to 25 percent. The replacement of breastfeeding by formula is a classic case of nutritionism.

The link between health and what is being termed the “gut microbiome” is a new area of research. Research in this area has found a link between not only localized diseases of the intestine such as irritable bowel syndrome, inflammatory bowel disease and colon cancer, but also allergic diseases, diabetes, and obesity. Other research has linked a decrease in the desirable gastrointestinal bacteria will lead to deterioration in gastrointestinal, neuroendocrine or immune relationships and ultimately disease.

Another study out of UCC have also found a link between stress and anxiety and gut flora. Findings suggest that probiotic bacteria have the potential to alter brain neurochemistry and treat anxiety and depression-related disorders. In the research, mice fed with Lactobacillus rhamnosus JB-1 had significantly fewer stress, anxiety and depression-related behaviors than those fed with just broth. These mice also had significantly lower levels of the stress-induced hormone, corticosterone.

It is possible that the significant decrease in breastfed babies in the last half of the 20th century -- with the resultant decreases in seratonin levels -- coupled with the increase in processed foods and the high consumption of High Fructose Corn Syrup created the perfect storm for the obesity and diabetes epidemic that we are now experiencing. Also of significance is the increase in the use of antibiotics that destroy gut bacteria. A study from the University of British Columbia, Canada found that the antibiotic vancomycin increases the severity of allergic asthma in young mice. Research conducted by scientists at Stanford University School of Medicine have found that repeated use of ciprofloxacin -- an antibiotic that is considered generally benign because of the lack of side effects usually associated with antibiotics -- causes "cumulative and persistent changes in the composition of the beneficial microbial species" in the human gut. The research studied people with only two courses of the antibiotic, spaced six months apart.

All of this research is new and groundbreaking. To me, the important take away from this research is to choose the most natural path -- like breastfeeding -- to support the natural processes of your body the way that nature intended. This means, as you have heard a lot in Dr. Grandma's blog posts: eat vegetables, fruits, whole grains and nuts. Implement the Mediterranean style of living that focuses on exercise, leisure activities with family and friends, plant-based foods, moderate amounts of low-fat dairy products, healthy fats, less red meat and less saturated fats. It is a style of living that is healthy and enjoyable.