The microbiome, why it’s important for birth, and how it’s related to Chinese medicine.
For thousands of years Chinese medicine has known that good digestive function is fundamental for overall health. An old saying is “The doctor who wants to nourish life has to tonify the stomach and spleen.” This is because the stomach and spleen are seen as energetically responsible for the overall process of digestion and all of the digestive organs. The spleen is called the foundation of post – heaven existence, this is because it extracts all the essential nutrients from our food and transforms them into qi and blood. It is also responsible for transporting this qi and blood throughout the body, providing nourishment to every organ and body system. Moreover, the spleen is considered to affect our ability to concentrate and stay present in the here and now. Therefore someone who has a strong spleen enjoys an abundance of vital energy, has smooth digestion, good immunity, an upright body with strong muscles and a centered disposition.
Western medicine is now increasingly confirming that a ‘healthy gut’ is indeed the cornerstone of good health. Through projects like the human microbiome project we are learning how our bodies house multiple and diverse communities of microbes collectively known as our microbiome. And it is in our gut that these communities really demonstrate their relevance to our health. We all have a unique manifestation of gut flora, the composition of which is largely determined by our gut environment, which is shaped by the food we eat . A healthy balance of gut flora provides us with essential vitamins and nutrients , aids our digestion and trains our immune systems . Whilst research is still in its early stages, it is becoming apparent that a disrupted gut flora is associated with many health conditions, such as eczema, asthma, obesity, cancer, diabetes, autism, arthritis, ibs, crohns disease, artheroscleroisis, and even depression. A great video showing the importance of the gut flora can be found here
There is also some exciting research being done which shows the importance of nutrition in the treatment of mental health conditions. An interesting talk about the current research into this topic can be found here
This again shows the crucial importance of a healthy digestion.
Whilst Western and Chinese medicine can at times appear poles apart, when it comes to the influence of digestion and nutrition on overall health they are referring to the same thing. These two schools of medicine may use different maps, but the landscape is the same. Instead of seeing the gut flora (Western medicine) and spleen qi ( Chinese medicine) as separate, it may be more accurate to consider them as the same thing, i.e., that the collective action of our gut flora is simply our spleen qi. After all gut flora and spleen qi when compromised are associated with the same symptomolgy , i.e., impaired digestion, bloating, reflux, possible diarrhoea and or constipation, fatigue, depression, anxiety,poor or disordered immunity, obesity and or malnutrition. Furthermore they can both be affected and injured by factors such as the overuse of antibiotics, poor dietary choices and compromised living conditions. When someone has been treated with antibiotics it can take a while for the gut flora (spleen qi) to recover, and this recovery period may last from a few weeks to several months, or even up to a year, and sometimes the flora will remain permanently altered. Whilst antibiotics are often necessary and can save lives, they are too frequently overused; the long term consequences of antibiotics are too often ignored.
In Five Element acupuncture the spleen is known as the earth element, the archetype of our mother – it is how we were nourished as children, and later how we nourish ourselves and others. And it is through our mothers that we first become inoculated with our own unique (but familiaral ) gut flora. When babies are in the womb they are in a largely sterile environment. So their first exposure to microorganisms is through the process of being born, when they are exposed to the flora within their mother’s vaginal tracts. This is when the microbes first begin to seed a baby. The process ideally continues through skin to skin contact and breast feeding. The development of a healthy gut flora can take several years, and in Chinese medicine the Spleen qi is said not to mature until the age of 7. Whilst we can feed our gut flora by estabilishing good dietary habits, our initial exposure remains the most significant: that first floral fingerprint underlies our fundamental constitution, which is challenging to profoundly alter.
While more research is needed, it seems that whether or not we will have a predisposition to allergies and autoimmune conditions is determined by our gut flora in the first weeks of our lives, even though these conditions may not become apparent till much later. Therefore, to mess up this seeding process could have serious consequences for the child’s future health, consequences that we are only beginning to understand. Some people believe the reason that many of these allergies and autoimmune conditions are increasing is because we have lost many of our key gut microbes. They point out that our microbiomes look far less diverse than those of people in less developed countries and earlier generations.
Babies who are born by C- Section have different flora than babies born vaginally, and breastfed babies have different flora to formula fed babies. Also, the use of antibiotics around infancy can have serious consequences for the developing gut flora, and these consequences will perhaps be felt throughout the individual’s life. Animal studies have shown that mice exposed to lo dose antibiotics in infancy still have disturbed gut flora into adulthood and are much more likely to suffer from obesity. The use of antibiotics has also been associated with the development of asthma, with studies showing that babies exposed to antibiotics at delivery are 20% more likely to have a wheeze until 2 years and 40% more likely to have a wheeze up to the age of 7.
Sometimes, however, babies need to be born by C- Section, so what should a mother or midwife do to ensure the child developed by C- Section develops healthy gut flora? Probably the easiest method is the “Swab and Suck” method recommended by Dr Lindsay Matthews https://drlindseymathews.wordpress.com/tag/swab-and-suck/
She recommends taking a swab of the mother’s vagina and rubbing it on her chest and tummy area, so that when baby does skin to skin and breastfeeds, the baby is exposed to a similar bacterial environment as would have been encountered through a vaginal birth.
Regarding the use of antibiotics during pregnancy, escpecially around the time of the birth, there needs to be more research. With conditions such as Group B strep (GBS), mother’s are often routinely treated with IV antibiotics during the labour, although the actual risk of serious infection is relatively low. Sarah Buckley in her book “Gentle birth, gentle mothering” highlights how currently there is little research into whether the short – term benefits of eliminating the GBS infection outweigh the long-term risks of antibiotic use on the newborn’s future health.
Perhaps the best thing a pregnant woman can do is to work on nourishing her gut flora/ spleen qi early on in pregnancy, by increasing her intake of fermented food like sauerkraut, pickles, kombucha, miso etc. Anne Frye, cited in “Gentle birth, gentle mothering”, also recommends trying to eradicate GBS in early pregnancy by natural methods, such as taking probiotic supplements both orally and vaginally, inserting scored garlic cloves into the vagina for at least 4 nights , and getting general immune support from supplements such as vitamin C, garlic, propolis and echinacea .
Of course acupuncture would be good too, to support the spleen!
Sources for this blog:
Understanding Wei Qi, by Yong Ping Jian, Dom PhD “Acupuncture today” March, 2003, Vol.04, Issue 03
The human microbiome : considerations for pregnancy, birth and early mothering,
January 15th 2014
Gentle birth, gentle mothering, Sarah J.Buckley 2009
Dr Lindsey Matthews – Birth fit site https://drlindseymathews.wordpress.com/tag/swab-and-suck/