**This post has been entered in Monday Mania at The Healthy Home Economist!**
In recent years, gut health and probiotics have become a major topic of conversation. It’s become known that probiotics play a big role in keeping us healthy, and that the biggest part of our immune system is in our guts. That is, the friendly bacteria that lives in our guts helps to overwhelm any “intruders” to keep us from getting sick.
Since that time, there’s been a lot of debate about how to have good gut health. Probiotic products have come out all over the market — capsules, yogurts, and even probiotic chocolate! The exact benefit of these products remains dubious, but they’re an interesting and potentially beneficial idea.
Those who are a little more “in the know” talk about probiotics a lot more often, specifically ways to optimize gut health. It’s something I’ve studied indepth (since the GAPS diet is created to improve gut health and disorders related to the gut) and want to share. What is optimal gut health? How do we create it? Supposing we don’t have optimal gut health, what do we do about that? And what challenges might we run across along the way?
Gut Health Starts Before Birth
The mother’s health is critical during pregnancy because her health affects her baby’s health. This is what we (generally) know about gut development right now: the baby has a gut that is sterile in the womb. At birth, the gut is populated by gut flora during birth — either from the mother’s vagina, or whatever is in the room (during a c-section).
Population of gut flora continues during breastfeeding, as the gut develops. The gut is open and immature until at least 18 weeks, when it closes, assuming optimal conditions (exclusive breastfeeding) — this is the first stage towards maturity. The gut continues to mature over the next 2 – 6 years. Much past age 7, the gut is how it will be for the rest of the child’s life. That is, the major gut flora is there, whether it’s optimal, sub-optimal, or very bad.
At this point, the theory is that if the gut isn’t colonized optimally in the early years, people can feel much better by consuming a steady amount of probiotics (ideally, some probiotic food with each meal) which stay in the system only briefly and are excreted. They don’t re-colonize the actual gut. Of course, research into probiotics and gut colonization is very new, and we don’t really know if this is the case, or if there are ways to fix it. There is a “fecal transplant” that has shown some promise for severe issues.
What Affects Gut Development
That’s a brief synopsis above. But what really affects gut development, and how?
If a mother doesn’t have optimal gut flora herself, she can’t pass it along to her baby. If she has known issues (allergies, asthma, IBS, etc.) she should do the GAPS diet several months prior to becoming pregnant, transitioning to a nutrient-dense, low-grain diet about 6 months prior to conception. Ideally she remains on this diet throughout pregnancy and includes multiple fermented foods everyday (kombucha, yogurt, kefir, pickles, etc.). Some also recommend applying yogurt or other probiotics externally in the weeks before birth; I didn’t. It’s probably a good idea if you have a history of UTIs or GBS.
When a baby is born, it — ideally — passes through the birth canal and is colonized initially with bacteria. This is the baby’s first chance to get good gut flora and it’s very important. If a mother is not as healthy as she could be, or if a baby is born via c-section, all is not lost: but it’s important to be aware that this is not an ideal situation and mom will need to take steps towards helping her baby develop good gut flora. Holding baby as soon as possible, breastfeeding immediately after birth (or as soon as possible), offering an infant probiotic supplement can all help. Whenever possible, do not allow a c-section. They are necessary in emergencies for sure, but are used far too often! I chose to have my babies at home so we could avoid the possibility of an unnecessary c-section.
In a perfect world, babies would be exclusively breastfed for 6 to 12 months. That means no water, no foods, no supplements of any kind (medicines or formula). Breastmilk contains IgA, which coats the gut and prevents undigested proteins from “leaking” into the body, as well as helping the gut to mature properly. It also brings good bacteria from the mother to the baby, further colonizing the gut.
As soon as supplemental feedings of any kind are introduced, the gut flora shifts. The bacteria that colonizes a formula fed baby’s gut isn’t the same as a breastfed baby’s gut, and their poop reflects that. Supposing a baby can’t be breastfed for some reason, homemade formula is an ideal second choice (and what I would choose if necessary).
Breastfeeding should continue a minimum of two years, in order to allow the gut to fully develop (until the two-year molars are in). Some breastfeeding can continue until 5 – 6 years, when the gut is reaching adult levels. Most won’t continue this long (and many children self-wean before this point), but breastfeeding the first two years is very important. It also helps with proper jaw development.
Babies shouldn’t be fed any grains until they are past their second birthdays, ideally, and should only be given grains which are soaked, sprouted, or soured. Grains require a well-developed gut to be digested properly. Too much fiber can cause damage to the gut (as vegetables can contain a lot, it’s also a good idea to delay these). Fiber is a problem even in adults, contrary to popular belief — we get too much. The high carb content of grains and sugars also feed pathogenic bacteria and can cause a shift in gut flora, which is not what we want, especially in young children!
Ideal first foods include homemade stock, pastured meats, yogurt, cheese, eggs. These are high-fat, high-protein foods that help protect the gut and mimic the nutrient profile of breastmilk. Don’t replace nourishing breastmilk with low-calorie, low-fat, high-fiber foods! They don’t need to eat much when they start, but it’s important that what they do eat is nourishing. Older babies (a year or so) can have a treat of homemade gelatin. It’s also protective of the gut.
Although no mother likes to see her baby or child sick, little illnesses train the gut too. The body has to have a chance to respond to foreign invaders and triumph in order to be able to do it again later. There is some evidence that children who develop a number of common, minor childhood illnesses are less likely to suffer from cancer or autoimmune diseases later in life, because their bodies have learned to deal naturally with pathogens and can suppress them effectively. This is one of the reasons we’ve chosen not to vaccinate; we don’t believe this theory applies to vaccines (most theories they talk about regarding vaccines are true, but were noticed regarding natural infections and simply assumed to be the same for vaccines), and the chemicals contained within vaccines also damage gut flora (and can cause neurological damage).
Kids eat dirt. Not crazily — like craving it, sneaking out to get it, preferring it to actual food (that’s a disorder called pica) — but here and there. They drop their apple in the dirt, pick it up and keep eating it. They make a mud pie and take a bite. This dirt is full of microbes, which also help to train the immune system. Kids on farms get sick less often because they are exposed to microbes through dirt.
Avoiding an overly clean environment, and the use of hand sanitizers or anything “antibacterial” is important. As a nurse once explained to me, the anti-bacterial soaps and sanitizers are absorbed through the skin into the bloodstream, and they kill off beneficial bacteria, making it more likely that you will get sick!
Wash hands only with regular soap, don’t worry about a little extra dirt, and don’t clean with anything “antibacterial” either, unless it’s based on essential oils. Even then minimize it.
What if I Don’t Reach Ideal?
Almost no one is going to reach “ideal” here. Not all babies are born vaginally or to a mother with ideal gut flora. Not all babies are breastfed. Some babies start solids earlier or start with rice cereal (I started my first on cereal at 4 months, before I knew better). Some people don’t learn about the importance of a healthy gut until they are adults, or until their children are much older!
The most important thing, later, is to minimize grains and sugars, and maximize probiotic foods and stock. These will provide soothing and healing to the gut and help prevent future problems. The GAPS diet is ideal for those who have severe issues. Gut damage is related to allergies, asthma, autoimmune, IBS, Crohn’s, and a lot more. GAPS can address all these issues.
With good gut health, people feel good and avoid serious health issues. Having good health is so important, because without health, you cannot enjoy any other part of life. What fun do you have if you always have a stomachache, diarrhea, fatigue, constipation, headache, or any other symptoms that are so common today? Working towards ideal gut health can give you health and vitality so that most of the time, you feel truly good! It’s amazing, and worth it.