Your bowels are sterile before birth; microbial colonization occurs at delivery. But before you are born, your biome communities and your immune system get instructions from your mother’s flora and will be consistent with the environment provided by her.
A mother who eats substances that nourish bacteria like yogurt, kefir, kombucha, and sauerkraut can be conscious that she is populating her baby’s biome and providing her baby with essential nutrients to allow the immune system to develop after delivery and her influence ceases.
Hormone levels are also affected by diet and biome, which are essential to the infant’s brain and its developing immune system. But diet is only one contributing factor. Before you were born, your well-being was also subject to maternal factors like stress, medications, allergies, and her mental state.
How this happens is complex and compelling. Early life stress for the fetus can alter the hypothalamic pituitary axis (that part of the brain that is the conductor of the glandular orchestra which sits at the base of the brain and secretes a variety of hormones and chemicals) and the autonomic nervous system (responsible for your “fight-or-flight” instinct, digestion, sweating, and much more and largely responsible for later behavioral and physical changes as the child ages).
Asthma and eczema are two results of this disruption, and there are likely many more. Prenatal and early stressors in infants can affect their immune systems and their development very early and impact the rest of their lives.
There are studies today geared to look at infants’ “imprinting” by the early presence of microorganisms or lack thereof in their bowels. Imprinting is an older term for epigenetic, which means that your behaviors, environment, and other nongenetic influences can cause changes that affect the way your genes work.
The mother’s environment is the earliest epigenetic set-point in a person’s life. A recent epigenetic model of disease development predicted that early life exposures to nutritional imbalances, metals, maternal care variations, or other stressors within the environment can lead to altered expression of genes during a person’s life, the basis for epigenetic changes.
Finally, the bacteria of the vaginal canal and breastfeeding are also critical to the biome and a lifelong alteration of flora in the baby’s bowel. Some allergic and even autoimmune diseases as well as obesity may be more common if the baby is not vaginally born or later breastfed.
For example, there is a 20 percent increase in childhood asthma when a baby is born by caesarean section. Babies are exposed to some organisms while they are in the womb, but all doctors agree that vaginal passage and subsequent breast-feeding are probably the most important early events in establishing the biome of the infant and seeding the bowel with healthy organisms.
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