From birth, humans are exposed to a myriad of microbes that form communities in and on our bodies. These microbes number in the tens of trillions and are made up of cells such as bacteria, fungi, protists, and viruses; collectively named the “human microbiota.” It is not surprising then that these microbes play a crucial role in almost all aspects of human health, affecting everything from digestive and immune health, to heart, mood, weight, and cognitive function. This is why there is such a profound need to understand how to positively affect the microbiota, as choices made early in life may have long-lasting effects.
To understand microbiota development and the impact it has on our health, we need to start at the beginning. When an infant is born, their microbiota is influenced by multiple factors. These factors include birth mode, antibiotic use, and the choice between being fed breast milk or formula. In a vaginal delivery, an infant acquires its microbiota from the mother via transfer from the birth canal, while those born via cesarean start life out with a very different microbial composition. These discrepancies in microbial makeup have led to in-depth research into their role in infant health, as the early microbiome is known to protect the infant from microbial pathogens at a time of life when the immune system is not full developed- something that won’t happen until around the age of two.
The Breast Milk Component
As mentioned above, the choice to formula feed over breastfeed can have an impact on infant gut microbial composition. Human breast milk is considered the hands-down, gold standard in infant nutrition and fosters the development of a newborn’s gut bacteria. When breastfeeding is not possible or not ideal for the mother, formula is the next best alternative. For many years, there was a significant difference in the nutritional makeup between breastmilk and formula. To help close the nutritional gap, studies were done to help us better understand what the composition of human milk was and how researchers could harness these components to help bring formula closer to milk. What they discovered is that breast milk is made up of more than 130 Human Milk Oligosaccharides (HMOs), a type of immune-stimulating prebiotic that helps influence the body’s development of “good” bacteria. This makes HMOs the third most abundant solid component of human milk after lactose and fats. It is no wonder then that a growing body of evidence suggests HMOs have profound influence on infant health and are beneficial for babies’ gut and immune system development.
The great news about this research is that the most abundant type of HMO found in breast milk, 2’fucosyllactose (2’-FL), can now be produced for commercial use through microbial fermentation. It can then be added to infant nutritional supplements such as formula, which helps bring formula one step closer to mirroring some of the benefits of breast milk.
The Power of Probiotics
Another way parents are overcoming the circumstances that may be less than ideal for infant microbial development is to supplement pregnant mothers and infants with a high-quality probiotic formulation. Many important studies have shown that pregnant women and their infants can benefit from probiotic dietary supplementation during pregnancy and beyond. There is a growing body of research into how early disruptions in the microbiome can influence a child’s likelihood of developing allergies and eczema. In a clinical trial, the probiotic Lactobacillus rhamnosus HN001 was taken daily by pregnant women from 35 weeks gestation to six months post-term, if breastfeeding. Their children took the same probiotic from birth to two years of age. They were then the subject of an on-going study considering the effects probiotic supplementation had on their health. At ages two, four, six, and eleven the prevalence of eczema and allergic sensitization were significantly reduced in the probiotic groups compared to that of the placebo subjects. This promising study is one of the few trials that follows the same set of children from birth through age eleven, showing that probiotic supplementation has a long-lasting positive effect on infants and children.
Probiotic supplementation has also been shown to be beneficial for immune and digestive health in infants and children. Over 70% of the human immune system resides in the gastrointestinal tract, which is why it is imperative to provide optimal support of the developing gut. Supplementing with beneficial bacteria is a key way that parents can help their infants develop their body’s natural defenses and ensure digestive wellness.
Restoring Gut Health
How infants come into this world and what they are fed early in life has a large influence on their health and development. Often these are uncontrollable factors with less than ideal circumstances for fostering a healthy microbiome. Therefore, having the power to choose formula with HMOs or a probiotic supplement specifically designed for the health needs of infants, can help restore some of the power back to parents who are looking to help their children have the best possible start in life. It is also why research in this area is so incredibly important and something DuPont Nutrition & Biosciences will continue to invest in for years to come.