words by Sandra Tonkinson
Research is showing that our gut flora is tied to our overall health. Many leaders in alternative health and functional medicine, like Chris Kresser, believe that “supporting intestinal health and restoring the integrity of the gut barrier will be one of the most important goals of medicine in the 21st century.”1 Chris Kresser, along with Michael Pollan, Dr. Andrew Weil, Tim Ferriss, Mark Sisson, and Dr. Mercola, was recently named by Greatist.com as one of the 100 most influential people in health and fitness.
One super interesting fact about our body that many people do not know is that microorganisms outnumber human DNA. Not just by a slim margin but by a ratio of 10:1. There are 10 times more bacteria in our gut flora, which alone has 1000 species, than in the entire human body. Given this, the importance of the gut flora is understandable and hardly surprisingly.
Decades of antibiotic use – many would argue overuse – and other lifestyle factors such as chronic stress and a diet of sugary, processed, and refined foods have weakened the resilience of our gut flora, and specifically the good bacteria. Antibiotic kills both good and bad bacteria, leading to the loss of diversity of microorganisms in our intestines. Like the macro ecosystem visible to our eyes, where the destruction of our forests has led to the extinction of multitude of species with its affect only starting to be understood, the loss of different microorganisms changes the composition of the gut flora which leads to changes that are now showing up in the increased sensitivity of adults and kids.
The immunity-gut flora link is not a new one. This information has been out in mainstream medical news for years. Dr Mercola’s very informative article How Your Gut Flora Influences Your Health dates back to 2012 and discusses Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride’s research on the gut-brain-immunity interaction from birth, highlighting what may be happening for children with autism.
Earlier in 2014, British filmmakers and founders of ONE WORLD BIRTH, Toni Harman and Alex Wakeford, raised over $80,000 USD to launch their groundbreaking documentary Microbirth. Their film centres on the process of birth, on a microscopic level and specifically how modern interventions and advances such as c-section and the use of synthetic oxytocin have changed the dynamics of childbirth and their potential impact on the long-term health of children.
Premiered in September 2014, with over 350 public screenings in 45 countries, Microbirth has since won several awards, including the Life Sciences Film Festival 2014. The documentary features various medical practitioners and researchers, including Martin Blaser, the director of the Human Microbiome Project, Maria Gloria Dominguez-Bello who is leading a worldwide study on the effect of inoculating babies at birth with vaginal swabs from their mothers, Neena Modi, Professor of Neonatal Medicine at the Imperial College of London, Anita Kozyrskyi from the University of Alberta and part of the Symbotica project, and Rodney R Dietert, Professor of Immunotoxicology at Cornell University,.
Microbirth provides interesting information and data, pressing on the urgency of action, the economic cost of non-commnicable diseases estimated at 40+ trillion dollars between 2010 and 2030, and the ethical question of not understanding everything we can while we continue with the medical interventions that may not be necessary such as elective c-section. Their viewpoint is that the world is essentially “bankrupting” itself, creating an invalid society, too sick to work, with not enough caretakers.
The hinge point of their “argument” is that the children are not as healthy as before because their immunity is weak on a microscopic level and that the cost is long-term chronic disease. C-section, for example, is preventing the transfer and subsequent population of bacteria that occurs during vaginal birth and reinforced with skin-to-skin contact and breastfeeding. The skin-to-skin contact, which allows further transfer of bacteria from mother to child, also helps regulate the baby’s body – stress, temperature, etc. Breast milk provides the baby with needed bacteria, antibodies, microbes, and sugars, which are indigestible carbs necessary for the growth of the microbiome. The mother is also releasing oxytocin, “relaxing, and falling in love with her baby,” a natural process that ensures the survival of the infant.
Why is this important for the immune system? The first bacteria sets the “tone” and primes it. What needs to be learned is which bacteria is friend and which bacteria is foe. It would make sense for that seeding be from the mother, rather than what lives in a hospital environment.
Some critics of Microbirth are saying that the documentary is advocating for home birth, which they deem to be unsafe. This is an interesting counter argument and while they do advocate vaginal birth, the speakers featured in Microbirth also understand that c-section is a reality and a necessary medical advance that has saved lives. It is unlikely to disappear and nor should we want it to. Philip Steer, Emeritus Professor of Obstetrics at the Imperial College in London, points out that c-sections are getting safer and safer and are therefore more likely to be requested for its lower risk, even with its well-known associated risks which are more short-term problems. The question is – are there long-term problems? What other transgenerational questions should we be asking?
What would happen if these considerations were part of the birth plan? Even if a natural vaginal delivery is not possible, there are other things that mothers can insist on and doctors and doulas can offer. It would be interesting to find out the results of the worldwide study that Maria Gloria Dominguez-Bello speaks of. Initial evidence already points to babies who were exposed to their mother’s bacteria at delivery resemble those birthed vaginally compared to those birthed by c-section.
Here from the filmmakers why they made Microbirth.
Like the filmmakers say, films don’t change the world, people do. And do remember we can change our health at any time. Now that we know the importance of our gut flora, adding to the ancient wisdom of we are what we eat, we can look one step before that – our micro biome. There are many ways to heal our gut, such as the elimination of sugars, incorporation of probiotics, and restriction of the use of antibiotics to necessity. Most people would agree, however, that prevention is better than treatment.
1 9 Steps to Perfect Health – #5: Heal Your Gut by Chris Kesser