The Best Thing A Mother Can Do For Her Newborn Is Poop On His Or Her Head

Last month the Book Club read Jessica Snyder Sachs' Good Germs, Bad Germs: Health and Survival in a Bacterial World. If you're inclined to freak out about superscary and mysterious bacterial infections such as MRSA for example, it's a frightening read. Overall, however, it's actually a compelling call to action: One of the salient points Sachs gets across is that antibiotics — once very widely used and still rather widely used — disrupt the body's native microflora.

An antibiotic is like a nuclear weapon — yes, while antibiotics are effective at killing bad bacteria they also wipe out a body's "good" bacteria. If you or someone you know ever became ill with a subsequent infection after using an antibiotic (or even just had diarrhea) this is what is happening.

Over and over Sachs drives home the point that we have become "too clean" — for more than 50 years, scientists and researchers and drug companies have quixotically and simplistically attempted to eradicate bad bacteria vis a vis antibiotics and antibacterial cleaners without fully understanding the delicate ecosystem of the bacterial world. And even if you yourself abandon antibacterial hand soap and house cleaners in favor of good old vinegar and non-antibacterial products, it's actually too late — because everyone else is using these items and subsequently increasing germ resistance. You've probably heard these theories in some shape or form before and Good Germs, Bad Germs is a good primer on exactly how this all works.

One thing I didn't really understand was how antibiotics worked in poultry and livestock. I mistakenly assumed antibiotic use in animals was a prophylactic to prevent sickness. It is that but antibiotics are also used in livestock because many years ago scientists discovered that antibiotics also sped up growth, giving farmers an added economic incentive to mix them in with animal feed. It's unclear that these antibiotics are contributing to germ resistance, but a larger lesson the book hammers home is that over the years nearly every example of antibiotic research produced unintended consequences that either didn't help or even eventually made things worse.

Although it's a relatively quick read, Good Germs, Bad Germs can be thick with details; you may find yourself flipping back and forth to remember all the exotic Latin names of different bacteria. Some passages however are gripping. An early section about how a human baby develops a healthy mature immune system, for example, will blow your mind. I had no idea this was what happened:

Like the colonization of the mouth and the skin, that of the human digestive tract — home to 99 percent of the body's microflora — begins during birth, starting with the lactobacilli encountered in the birth canal. As the baby's head crowns, it compresses the mother's rectum, pushing out a small amount of stool. Though doctors and nurses move quickly to wipe away the offense, their squeamishness may run counter to nature's purpose — an immediate and direct inoculation of the newborn with the mother's own intestinal bacteria. If so, it's no coincidence but rather the result of natural selection that a newborn's head typically faces in the direction of its mother's rectum when its head first emerges and remains there until the next contraction delivers the shoulders and the rest of the body. This head-to-anus juxtaposition ensures that, of all the billions of microbes the baby will meet in its first day of life, the first will be those to which its mother's immune system has already developed protective antibodies. . . . A chaser of breast milk delivers the second wave: millions of bifidobacteria

Suffice it to say, Holy Moly.

Basically, babies are immunological blank slates for several years while their immune systems develop. And the book goes on to explain that if you have allergies, it might have something to do with not coming in contact with these helpful bacteria early on — babies born via C-section instead of vaginal childbirth miss out on all that helpful vaginal bacteria and stool. And breast feeding seems to be as much about the bacteria on a breast as it is the milk itself. It's a fascinating read.

Speaking of allergies, if you grew up in an era before parents and schools freaked out about peanut products and maybe you have a cynical "harrumph" reaction to all these newfangled food allergies, Good Germs, Bad Germs is helpful as well — basically the rise in instances of weird food allergies and mysterious autoimmune ailments like Irritable Bowel Syndrome is related to a general imbalance in our bacterial ecosystem. You'll understand it, feel sorry for the people who suffer from these ailments and if you are of childbearing age, you might strongly consider pooping on your newborn's head — if not often, then at least early.

The good news is that there's a way out — love good bacteria, and don't try to wipe them out with antibiotics. Doctors have got this message and are doing their part in no longer overprescribing antibiotics. These things change slowly, but they're changing — though you might remember (recently even) being prescribed antibiotics before minor dental work, for example — apparently this is an example of a surgeon covering his or her ass.

But the biggest thing we can do that we actually have control over is eating yogurt — or at least somehow getting a "probiotic" like Lactobacillus GG. This good bacteria travels through your gastrointestinal system and helps keep a healthy balance among the body's microflora. We traveled to India in 2007 and ate yogurt every morning — and we never had any stomach trouble. We only vaguely understood what the yogurt was doing — our driver said something along the lines of that the yogurt had local enzymes that made us adjust to the food — now I guess I understand that it was the live lactobacillus cultures that assist the microflora in our digestive tracts. We repeated — and evangelized — this strategy on our recent trip to Egypt and Jordan — it worked for me again (not sure about the others though).

Posted: January 13th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Books Are The SUVs Of Writing | Tags: , , , , , , ,

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.