Think about this: from the moment you are conceived until you are 1000 days old, your growth is exponential, faster than in any other period of life. For the first 9 months, you go from two cells to a newborn measuring 50cm in length and 3 kg weight. Then, between birth and 3 years of age, your body size doubles and your weight increasing your five-fold.
Amazing, isn’t it? And as part of this amazing process, nutrition and gut microbiota play a key role in laying the foundations your health in later life.
“It’s not that the early development stage can make you healthier or sick, but that the systems that have been established in early life are the ones you will have in later life; a tool-box for dealing with the challenges that come from the environment,” says Professor Eline van der Beek, an expert in nutritional programming from the University of Groningen (Netherlands). Her research looks into the contribution of maternal health and the role of nutrient quality during early development with later life health.
During pregnancy, mothers provide the fetus all the essential nutrients, which, in turn, are the energy and building blocks for growth. If the right nutrients are missing, it can cause a permanent alteration in organ size or function.
“When early life development is less optimal, then the whole system is impacted and what you get is an organ that may be less flexible and less capable of generating the right responses when needed later in life,” highlights Van der Beek.
In laying the foundations for later life health, our gut microbiota plays an essential role. Of all the important functions it has for human health, the way it trains the immune system and helps us obtain energy and nutrients from food stands out.
Bacteria from the mother start colonizing the newborn most during vaginal birth. Then, breastfeeding and subsequently, weaning foods and dietary habits contribute the most to establishing a healthy bacterial community.
Professor Van der Beek states, however, that there are many other factors, other than breastfeeding, that influence the association between gut microbiota and later life health. If we take a look at how the gastrointestinal tract and especially our gut microbiota develop, she says, we would see it is influenced by our genetic make-up, our health circumstances during pregnancy and also our mother’s health. Other factors also include birth mode, the early mode of feeding, and later the introduction of weaning foods and dietary habits.
“Even if you are breastfed and vaginally born, and your mother was completely healthy, if you start having your meals at ‘fast food restaurants’ when you are five, there is no way out,” she says ironically.
Given that we know how important a role our gut microbiota plays in later life health, some attempts are being made to steer our bacteria in a healthy developmental direction by using probiotics and prebiotics in infants. Nevertheless, Professor Van der Beek is cautious about this point: healthy infants being breastfed may not need probiotics. Breast milk is already rich in probiotics, so there is no need to add more. Most of the biotics found in the milk are prebiotics, which directly feed our gut microbiota.
Nevertheless, apart from nutrition, during these first 1000 days of life, it is known that antibiotics also influence the establishment of gut microbiota. It has been shown that repeated courses of antibiotics given during the first years of life affect children’s gut microbiota and can make them predisposed to conditions such as allergies, asthma, obesity or even type 2 diabetes. “In some cases, they are needed, but they are a nightmare,” considers Van der Beek. This is because they profoundly alter gut microbiota.
“Antibiotic use around birth and in young infants has a severe impact on gut microbiota development. We need to be a bit more careful. Frequently, when children have recurring ear infections, for instance, they are systematically prescribed antibiotics, but why should you give antibiotics to children? Maybe it is an easy option for pediatricians, but they should not do it”.
In this regard, and importantly, Professor Van der Beek reminds, probiotics might have a key role to help reduce the consumption of antibiotics during early life, and even during delivery, when they are administered to prevent infections. “Preliminary data suggest you may be able to restrict the use of these drugs to very specific situations, such as with a C-section.”
Van der Beek, E. (2018). Nutritional Programming and Later Life: The role of macronutrient quality during the first 1,000 days. Sight & Life E-magazine, 32(1), 46-52.
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