The Gut Microbes and Poop - How Our Gut Flora Shapes Us

Author // Jennifer Tow, IBCLC

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The Gut Microbes and Poop
How Our Gut Flora Shapes Us
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How Our Gut Flora Shapes Us

There is so much that our contemporary, invasive birth practices impose on mothers and babies that damages intestinal flora. Frankly, I think disruption of this essential process of gut inoculation is reason enough to avoid a cesarean, unless there is clear and real medical necessity. And it is reason enough that babies not be touched by anyone who is not the mother before the baby nurses. Introduction of any substance other than mother’s milk damages the gut— this includes artificial milk, sugar water and drugs.

So, the infant gut, pristine in utero, becomes a hotbed of microbe activity at birth, and the nature of those microbes will become how and who that baby is. Gut flora determine our relationship to the environment around us, as 75 percent of the immune system resides with the gut. They determine much about our emotional well-being, since 80 percent of our serotonin is in the gut. The enteric nervous system—often referred to as the “second brain”—is embedded within the gut. Gut microbes determine our vulnerability to disease and stress, and direct our potential to thrive emotionally, physically and intellectually.

Given the significance of gut function to the well-being of the infant, I want all babies to have strong, healthy guts. So when I see a baby who is not on solids, not sick, getting enough food and still not pooping as often as I know healthy babies do, I want to know why.

I will rule out or refer for treatment any tongue-tie and other structural causes of vagus nerve suppression, such as birth trauma. I want to rule out oversupply or overactive milk ejection reflex. I want to know what the baby’s poop looks like. Pasty poop is not normal, nor is mucus or poop that soaks into the diaper. Neither is poop that’s green, simply a skid mark or takes a lot of straining to achieve. And volumes of poop once per week does not indicate the milk has been “all used up.”

It means it has been sitting in the colon, going nowhere. Pasty poop has not absorbed enough water. Poop that smells foul indicates an imbalance of intestinal flora.

Other indications of poor gut function include cradle cap, eczema, skin rashes, “baby acne,” a red ring around the anus, thrush, dark circles under the eyes, difficulty organizing states, cognitive delay, difficulty sleeping, poor appetite, poor growth, “colic,” “high-needs” behaviors, congestion, reflux, refusing the breast, arching at the breast, gassiness and infection.

Restoring Gut Health

Clinically, I know that gut function is a problem because when babies are treated, gut function is restored. Restoring gut function is a complex topic and is somewhat individualized. Treatment eliminates allergens and food sensitivities, and might include use of probiotics, pascalite (a kind of bentonite) clay for detoxification, digestive enzymes, slippery elm bark powder and other healing herbs, castor oil compresses on the belly and, most important, healing the maternal gut through elimination of pro-inflammatory foods and the inclusion of healing foods and supplementation as needed, especially to support the liver, restore the intestinal lining and balance hormones. Structural work, body work or energy work for baby and mom provide essential foundational support. Remember, the intestinal flora in the mother’s gut ends up in her milk, so healing cannot focus entirely on the infant.

The process of microbe inoculation that is clearly a primal imperative in most babies is interrupted and incomplete at best. Within weeks of birth, many mothers are observing the kinds of symptoms I have described. Because common tends to be referred to as “normal,” often symptoms are dismissed by healthcare providers or labeled as a dairy allergy (as if there is no other allergy), reflux, GERD, “colic” or worse: a “breastmilk allergy.” Many moms end up weaning prematurely because the gut damage tends to worsen with time, or the “treatment” involves weaning to artificial infant milk. Sometimes, on the other hand, the symptoms seem to disappear. Certainly the gut can heal, especially on an exclusive diet of momma milk. But often the symptoms have simply changed, or are not recognized as such. Ear infections, frequent colds, bed wetting, asthma and “tummy aches” often replace the vomiting, colic and sleeplessness of infancy. The bottom line is that our babies need healthy guts both to survive and thrive in the world. Passing off as “normal” common indications of poor gut function serves no one—least of all, the baby.

I will continue thinking about the gut and about microbes and about how we are as they are. And with any luck, as people become more attuned to the primary urgency of protecting the gut integrity of infants, practices will change. In the meantime, I hope we will all begin to see babies in a different way, and be more inclined toward restoring full function than simply managing dysfunction. And that we remember that to heal the baby, we have to begin by healing the mother.

Pathways Issue 36 CoverThis article appeared in Pathways to Family Wellness magazine, Issue #36.

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