Why Microbirth matters.

By Tammi Heap
Nov 2014

When I was a child, it wasn’t true that one in three people develop some form of cancer. Heart disease, diabetes and other chronic conditions didn’t happen to every few people. Chronic health conditions appear to be the norm in my neighbourhood whereas when I was younger there might have been one elderly person that experienced constant illness. The staggering statistics of those affected by chronic conditions today is increasing at lightning speed. We are told the average person is expected to have around 10 colds or flu episodes a year, which equates to many school and work days absent, doctor’s visits, and lighter wallets.

With this in mind I was intrigued by the Microbirth trailer that raised the concept that how we birth has a significant effect on how our immune system develops.

To celebrate homebirth week, Manawatu Homebirth Association held a screening of the movie Microbirth. I took this opportunity to watch it and see what the message was. Many scientists are stating that Microbirth should be mandatory viewing for every parent, pregnant women, health care professional and physician to better understand the need to protect and nurture the microbiome. This care is vital, not just in adulthood but during the pre-conception period, in utero, in labour, and post delivery including how we feed our babies. In fact, this is the most vital timeframe for our microbiome development.

So, what is the microbiome? It is essentially the population of microorganisms that live in our gut, mouth, skin and elsewhere in our bodies. The term was coined by Joshua Lederberg an American molecular biologist who discovered that bacteria could mate and exchange genes. The total number of genes associated with the human microbiome exceeds the total number of human genes by a factor of 100-to-one. These microbial communities in our bodies have numerous functions relevant to supporting life. They are needed to digest food, to prevent disease-causing bacteria from invading the body, and to synthesize essential nutrients and vitamins.

The movie, ‘Microbirth,’ is about our body and the immune system. It describes our internal and structural “ancient microbiome,” which is there to protect us against many chronic diseases and how it is weakening.

In our wonderful bodies right now, an estimated 100 trillion fungi, bacteria, protozoa and viruses are gloriously making up our microbiome. These cells living in the body outnumber human cells by 10 to 1. Of these, around 1000 different microbe species live in the intestine helping us to digest our food and benefit from the nutrients. But the last 20 or so years haven’t been kind. The introduction and use of multiple agents or health procedures have affected this greatly. We used to have much more impressive numbers. Scientists estimate that we have lost one-third of the “old friend” microbe species we’ve grown up with. Factors affecting this include excessive use of hand sanitisers and antibacterial soaps, washes and cleaning detergents, antibacterial impregnated materials, overuse of antibiotics, poor nutrition and other lifestyle factors. These are impacting our ongoing immune system’s ability to stay in a good health balance.

Our pre-conceptual health is emerging as another important area for the critical wellbeing to infant and future health. Both pre-conceptual and pregnancy diet and lifestyle set up the placental goodness and healthy transfer of microbes that the baby firstly receives during pregnancy. Microbirth shows how we all have to look at the long term aspects of birth and health, particularly those involved in pregnancy and birth care, because seeding and feeding a baby’s microbiome is so important for lifelong health.

Vaginal birth sets up the incredibly important critical transfer of microbes from mother to baby. This transfer has its greatest impact on the brain early in life, and long term impacts for lifelong general and mental health.

Lactobacillus is a critical bacterium that is passed to babies via their mother’s vaginal canal. The clue is in the name ‘lacto’ from milk.

Children born by caesarean section have different gut microbes to children born by vaginal birth. The research highlights that there is a developmental window for both building and strengthening the foetal and infant microbiome that serves us through life. C-sections are clearly identified as a key factor that can disrupt and deprive the baby of crucial beneficial bacteria that they should have received through the nature of a vaginal birth/and or early antibiotic use. This can produce long term consequences.

C-section rates have risen dramatically over the last 20 or so years, with the biggest jump the in the last 10 years. The increasingly risk-averse approach to childbirth has been a key factor in this increase. This attempt to reduce risks in birth, may in be fact be producing a global population of future chronic ill health and illnesses caused by an indirect result of weakening the infant’s immune system at birth.

In New Zealand we have a publicly funded health care system which means we can access emergency and elective treatments at no cost to the end user. Many kiwis feel fortunate that we don’t have to pay for compulsory medical insurances and care. The scary reality of the research shows that at the rate illness is expanding, by 2030, every country in the world will be unable to afford medical care costs. We are not talking about small margins and deficits here, but trillions of dollars in each country. The scientists describe that, as a global population, our immune systems are reducing at such a rapid percentage rate every 20-30 years, that by 2030 more than 60% of the global population will be suffering from more than one chronic condition as the norm. This as a result will cripple global governments financially. Pandemics will become the norm, as a result of lower immune response resistance. For the average person, health care costs will be out of reach, and free health care will not be financially possible at a public level.

The whole idea of developing a “cast iron gut,” and getting to play in dirt, is actually good for us. Parents that run around in panic, with hand sanitiser stations at every ten steps are actually undermining our health, both now and for our future generations.

While watching the movie, I had a fair few “aha” moments, as I could easily consider the rationale in relation to my own children, and the effects of their differing immunity statuses over their first few years of life. Our first son was born vaginally and was premature at 5 weeks. Separation soon after birth disrupted the crucial microbiome set up. Furthermore, he was sent off to the neonatal unit, and given formula in those first few precious hours of life (for low blood sugars). He suffered with apnoea in his first six months of life, and also febrile convulsions when struck down with temperatures. During his first 18 months of life, he was hospitalised twice, once for pneumonia, and secondly for prolonged gastroenteritis. Our following two sons, who had protected microbiomes, have incredibly robust immune systems, and have not had any trips to the GP or hospital for illnesses. When they do get a cold or child related illness (which is much less frequent than their peers) the illnesses are less severe and shorter in duration.

My mum breast fed me until I (as she put it) had too many teeth to grind down the boob. She had so much milk she also fed two other local babies with her donated milk. As children, both my sister and I were very rarely ill, never laid up with flu, colds or even the dreaded chicken pox/mumps and the like.

As both a mum and midwife, I feel the aspects of Microbirth are just as important as attachment parenting and nurturing as a whole. As a parent, and “crunchy mummy,” I plan to breastfeed my youngest child for as long as he is happy to, because not only is he benefiting a thousand fold, so, I believe, am I.

Within my own family, various forms of cancer are rife. Four generations affected by cervical cancer, starting with my great grandmother, grandmother, mother and sister; add to that breast cancer now affecting two generations. Other family members have experienced various other cancers. I appreciate the understanding of how we as a family can reduce our risks both now and in the future with maintaining a healthy lifestyle.

Word about Microbirth is definitely spreading around the world! Keep it going! While the message of Microbirth seems sober, it’s not all doom and gloom; while we can’t change the past practices we’ve experienced, we can make very positive changes right now.

So, what are some of the things we can start to do today? Spend less time indoors, stop/reduce using antibacterial soaps for everyday use, use hand sanitisers only when infectious illnesses are present or in high illness traffic areas. Eat as much food that is unprocessed as you can (if it looks like how it was grown out of the ground, even better), when possible buy organic, grow your own gardens and fruit trees, eat fermented foods, diet is so crucial. Question the need for antibiotics if offered, are they really needed? Make a stand to hospitals to actively intervene to lower their c-section rates.

Methicillin resistant Staph Aureus or M.R.S.A, an infection often found in and contracted in hospital environments.

Maintain a healthy diet when planning a pregnancy and throughout the pregnancy period. Rock your vaginal birth! Choose Home Birth so babies can be born in their family microbiome instead of the microbiome of sanitised infectious illness. Rock your VBAC! Look at your options for vaginal birth with breech or twins and other complex pregnancies. If a c-section is the only way to birth your bub, research, and request vaginal swabbing for transfer to baby immediately post birth. Breastfeed for as long as your baby/child wants. Watch the Microbirth movie!

I really do urge everyone to see it at least once, straight away aspects of the movie may fall into place for you or just seem to “click.”