Babies, Breast Milk and the Development of the Early Microbiome and Immune System

That the first few months of life are critical for the development of a healthy microbiome, which in turn, affects health life-long is now accepted as a self-evidient fact.  For those of you who, like me, have been following biome research for the last 20+ years, it is still shocking though to see how cavalierly this fact is now referred to, when it wasn’t long ago that it was even discovered.  I’m still taken aback when articles start with sentences like this one, “Many diseases caused by a dysregulated immune system, such as allergies, asthma and autoimmunity, can be traced back to events in the first few months after birth.”[i]  This field really has come a long way in the last 2 decades, which may be the only bit of good news in an otherwise dark landscape:  the incidence of diseases like asthma, type 1 diabetes, allergies, Crohn’s, obesity, autism, etc. are continuing to skyrocket in the industrialized world.

In fact, an article just appeared in the European Society for Paediatric Gastroenterology, Hepatology, and Nutrition which shows that in the last 25 years, cases of pediatric celiac disease, another autoimmune disease, have doubled.[ii]

The article I cite above is about new research out of the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden, a real powerhouse in biome research.  This particular paper is about the relationship between  the early development of the gut bacteria and the immune system, and breast feeding.  Prior research has shown that bifidobacterial are more common in babies that are breastfed in less developed nations where autoimmune diseases are at much lower levels.

We know that breast milk is rich in prebiotic sugars, including human milk oligosaccharides (HMOs), which babies cannot digest: from an evolutionary point of view, the sugars are meant to feed specific species of gut bacteria which, in turn, provide benefit to the infant’s developing immune system.  Says the lead researchers, ““We found that babies whose intestinal flora can break down HMOs have less inflammation in the blood and gut…This is probably because of the uniquely good ability of the bifidobacteria to break down HMOs, to expand in nursing babies and to have a beneficial effect on the developing immune system early in life.”

Between 2014 and 2019, 208 breastfed babies had their immune systems analyzed through tiny blood samples.  A second cohort of infants were followed by collaborating researchers at the University of California. These babies were also breastfed, but were supplemented with B. infantis as well.

It turns out that breastfed babies, who were given supplemental bifidobacteria, had higher levels of two molecules in their intestines.  The first is called indole-3-lactic acid, which is needed to convert HMO molecules into nutrition for the baby.  The second is called Galectin-1, a newly discovered molecule that is crucial for preserving beneficial, anti-inflammatory bacteria:  “Galectin-1 is central to the activation of the immune response to threats and attacks.”

In future research, the researchers would like to follow such babies for longer periods of time to see which develop eczema, allergies and asthma, as well as comparing the immune systems of babies from Sweden with those from rural areas in Africa.  The goal is, of course, the figure out a way of ensuring that all babies – breastfed or not – have an ideal biome/immune start in life.  In case you missed it, a couple of weeks ago I posted, on my Facebook page, a story about research out of the University of Chicago that showed, in a mouse model, that “…restoring a single microbial species — Bacteroides sp. CL1-UC (Bc) — to the gut microbiome at a key developmental timepoint can prevent antibiotic-induced colitis in a mouse model of the condition.”[iii] 

Repair to damaged or suboptimal microbiomes is possible early in life, and this should set babies up for better health as they age.  It’s not a pipedream; it will happen.  As the parent of a son with autism and a history of inflammatory bowel disease and severe immune dysregulation, I believe this line of research may be the most important being conducted in the world today.





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