Each of us harbours trillions of bacteria in our gut which help control our immune system, regulate our metabolism, and produce chemicals that influence our mood (90% of our serotonin is made in our gut). Research now suggests they may help protect us from allergies and obesity, behavioural and learning problems and possibly even certain mental health disorders.
The best time to influence our gut population is the first few years of life, says Durban clinical microbiologist Dr Chetna Govind.
1. If possible, start preparing for your baby even before you become pregnant, by getting your own gut “biome” (community of microorganisms) into good shape. About 85% of bacteria in a healthy gut are “good” ones that promote health. To encourage them, eat a diet high in a wide variety of the complex carbohydrates they thrive on – vegetables, fruit, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds.
2. Avoid foods that create a hostile environment for good bacteria, and that support the growth of “bad” bacteria, which can crowd them out – such as refined carbohydrates and sugar.
3. Add to your colonies of good bacteria by consuming live and active cultures in plain yoghurt (check the label), and other foods with probiotics: fermented dairy products like kefir, and fermented vegetable products like miso, kimchi and sauerkraut.
4. Avoid unnecessary antibiotics that kill good bacteria along with bad; and antacids, that can make your gut environment unfriendly to good bacteria. If you must take these, ask your health practitioner about taking a probiotic concurrently, suggests Dr Govind.
5. Opt for vaginal delivery if you can, as your baby’s largely sterile gut gets its first helpful bacteria from the birth canal; if you need a Caesarian section, ask your health professional about taking a probiotic while breastfeeding.
6. Breastfeed for as long as you can – it’s best for your baby’s gut flora.
7 From six months, when introducing solids, keep breast-feeding as well for as long as you can. Introduce baby to a variety of vegetables, fruit, whole grains and legumes. Good bacteria thrive on fermentable fibre present in raw oats and barley, rather than sweetened commercial cereals.
8. Avoid using antibacterial soaps for baby or for you, and take baby into the garden when possible. Encourage her to play outdoors as she grows, and to have a pet. This will introduce her to a range of bacteria from a young age and help her build immunity to harmful ones.
9. Introduce good oral hygiene early with regular tooth brushing when she’s old enough. Our mouths harbour about 700 types of bacteria, and an overgrowth of harmful ones can enter the rest of our system when we swallow. Traces of sugar left in the mouth can ferment into bacteria that cause cavities.
10. Encourage your child to play and to rest, and make time regularly to so yourself – stress can have a harmful effect on the gut biome, through the release of hormones such as cortisol. Enjoy unwinding with your child, knowing it’s also helping her all-round health and your own.
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