Say hello to your little friends.
Did you know that bacteria outnumber your human cells by about 9:1? Yup. We are more bacterial than human, by far. We share our bodies with hundreds of species of bacteria that live in our mouths, on our skin, in our small intestine, in our vaginas, and pretty much everywhere else. They are really, really important. They shape our digestion, immunity, metabolism and mood, and help produce vitamins and enzymes. We also have a growing body of evidence to suggest that many of our health issues today--for example, autoimmune disease--are a result of meddling with our microbes.
Why do I think it's important to write to you about this? Because we need healthy bacteria in order to be healthy ourselves, and to have a healthy birth, and to have a healthy baby and healthy family. It's an issue to be aware of because we live in a society that tends to view bacteria as the enemy; antibiotics are so prevalent in our food systems (they're given to animals to suppress illness within the industrial food system), in our healthcare system, and in our everyday lives (ditch the antibacterial stuff!).
When I work with pregnant women, or postpartum mamas, I talk a fair amount about our bacterial flora. For example, Group B Streptococcus (GBS) is a type of bacteria that lives in the rectum and vagina, and a positive GBS test (tested around 36 weeks) can limit some of our choices in labor; GBS is controlled by healthy lactobacilli populations in the vagina. Babies' guts are colonized at birth, either by vaginal flora or by the bacteria on our skin if we have a cesarean (or our doctors' skin, which is not so optimal and raises risks for lifelong health issues). Literally one of the purposes of breastmilk is to feed our baby's bacteria. And finally, infant colic and eczema can be caused by less than optimal gut bacteria.
In the meantime, just know that we've got to take care of the bacteria that make us happy and healthy by feeding and nourishing them with the right foods, by caring for our health and avoiding taking antibiotics unless necessary, and embracing the microbiome.
Ok, you're feeling it. Now what do you do?
- Include plenty of high fiber fresh fruits and vegetables in your diet. We call these "prebiotics," because they nourish your buggies (not to mention they provide so many important vitamins and minerals for pregnancy).
- Include fermented foods in your diet. These are foods made or preserved by bacteria (and food preservation was critical in the days before refrigerators and canning) and no matter where in the world you're from, your people ate them. My Polish ancestors ate sauerkraut, yoghurt, and cheeses. Yours might have eaten torshi left, or injera, or kimchi, or laban kishk, or miso. There are countless wonderful options to choose from, and they are so easy to make. Check out the resources below for ideas. I guarantee, it is simple enough that anyone can do it.
- Seriously, if you can avoid taking an antibiotic, your body will thank you. We should really reserve antibiotics for serious infections. A 2015 study found that a single course of antibiotics changes the composition of your gut bacteria for a year. A YEAR. Strengthen your immunity naturally by eating a healthy diet low in simple carbohydrates, using herbal immune support, eating probiotic fermented foods, getting quality rest, and addressing stressors (if you think you'd benefit, I do herbal consultations that fit the bill).
- Should you take a probiotic (and which one)? It can help for a range of issues (especially if you've taken antibiotics in the past year), but if you balk at the expense then ferment your own foods and eat them daily.
The simplest place to start is just by including some common fermented foods in your diet: try plain, whole milk yoghurt, lacto-fermented pickles, sauerkraut, kimchi, miso soup, organic tofu, and/or kombucha. All of these can be found in your local grocery store. Eat these foods, even a small amount, every day.
The next step is to make your own. It's easy, and seriously fun. Try starting with yoghurt, which you can make overnight. The only ingredients are yoghurt starter and milk!
- Listen to this fantastic interview with Dr. Aviva Romm on the baby's microbiome.
- Wild Fermentation (a good beginner's guide) or The Art of Fermentation (if you're a fermentation geek like me) by Sandor Katz are two amazing books that will get you started making your own fermented foods. Also see his website and forum at Wild Fermentation.
- Cultures for Health is a good site for ordering heirloom yoghurt and other starters.
- For more on the microbiome and health, check out this piece from Michael Pollan, "Some of My Best Friends Are Germs."
- If you want to go deeper, read Moises Velasquez-Manoff's fascinating book An Epidemic of Absence, on ways that scientists are reintroducing bacteria into peoples' systems to combat autoimmune disease (or just watch his TedTalk).
- Microbirth is a recent documentary on how childbirth shapes our health.