I’ve previously discussed the concept of keystone species, i.e., species that are crucial for maintaining the balance of life in an ecosystem, such as plankton in the ocean—without plankton, jellyfish and whales could not survive. The same sort of principle applies to the bacterial (and fungal and Archaeal) species in your intestinal microbiome: there are keystone microbial species whose presence and metabolites are crucial for the survival and proliferation of many other species and thereby crucial for human health.
There is a very interesting keystone species that was meant to be passed onto child from the mother at birth via passage through the birth canal and/or breastfeeding: Bifidobacterium infantis. B. infantis is the #1 major metabolizer of something called human milk oligosaccharides, HMOs, a major constituent of breastmilk. HMOs are indigestible to humans, but digestible by bacteria, especially B. infantis. For this reason, babies are meant to have a microbiome dominated by this species.
Unfortunately, B. infantis is among the many casualties of the modern microbiome, species that most modern people have lost due to antibiotics and other factors. If the mother, for instance, took antibiotics in her past, consumed glyphosate in corn and soy products, drank diet soda sweetened with aspartame or was exposed to the many other factors in modern life that disrupt microbiome composition, she herself lacks B. infantis and is thereby unable to pass it onto her baby.
The 90% of babies who lack this species are thereby unable to digest the milk oligosaccharides in their mother’s breast milk. Milk oligosaccharides are a crucial prebiotic fiber for babies that enhance growth and cultivate proliferation of other healthy bacterial species in the baby’s nascent microbiome. HMOs thereby provide the nutrition for building a healthy collection of microbial species, help regulate gastrointestinal function, and help the immune system mature. Lack of this species therefore represents a major health deficit with both short- and long-term health implications.
What happens if B. infantis is restored to an infant who is breastfeeding and obtaining milk oligosaccharides? The evidence shows that babies:
- Have 50% fewer bowel movements that are better-formed—meaning mom and dad have to change 50% fewer diapers
- Have less colic—Any parent who has had to quiet a crying child with colic knows what a challenge this can be.
- Have less diaper rash
- Are more likely to sleep through the night
- Take longer naps
I wish I knew about this when my kids were small.
Later in life, B. infantis-replenished children have less risk for asthma, type 1 diabetes, and autoimmune diseases. The loss of this and related species is believed to be the reason that the pH of infant stool has changed over the past century, increasing from an acidic pH of 5.0 to its current more basic pH of 6.5, a huge change in the logarithmic pH scale. In short, restoration of this microbe is transformative, restores an acidic stool pH, helps restore gastrointestinal health, alters microbiome composition, enhances immune function, and changes the course of the child’s health and development. Restoration of B. infantis, combined with the advantages of vaginal delivery and breastfeeding, are among the most important factors in determining the child’s long-term health and development.
(Because infant formula does not contain milk oligosaccharides, given the complex structure of these molecules, it is not known whether kids consuming synthetic formulas obtain these same benefits. There is no harm, of course, in restoring B. infantis to a formula-fed infant, but there is insufficient evidence to know whether the same benefits apply.)
Much of the evidence for the benefits of B. infantis are with the commercial strain EVC001 called Evivo. (Remember: Many effects are specific to strains; other strains of the same species cannot be assumed to yield similar effects.) This product comes as a sachet with 8 billion CFUs per envelope, meant to be combined with a few tablespoons of breastmilk and fed to the baby. It is pricey at $79 for a 28-day supply. The mother of a newborn can thereby replenish this lost microbe to her baby. One nice feature: Unlike most other probiotic species, this microbe can persist for months, even one year, after restoration.
Why not go a step further and not just provide the microbe as a probiotic to the infant, but why not restore the microbe to the pregnant mother who, upon delivery, transfers this and other microbes to her baby as he/she passes through the birth canal or feeds on breastmilk? A microbial species provided by this route is more likely to be passed on in the company of other healthy microbes. Because the Evivo product is sold with the relatively modest bacterial count of 8 billion CFUs per packet, we can also increase bacterial counts by making yogurt out of it. (Our latest batch of flow cytometry studies of our yogurts fermented by the unique methods I advocate, i.e., prolonged fermentation in the presence of prebiotic fibers, yielded 260 billion CFUs at 36 hours—far greater than provided in the commercial product. Bigger numbers provide bigger, more confident effects.) The pregnant mother can therefore make yogurt, consume it, restore B. infantis that she can then pass on—the natural way—to her newborn baby. To make the yogurt, she needs to purchase the Evivo product only once, as she can propagate batch after batch just by starting another batch with a bit of a prior batch. (The yogurt should not be fed to the baby, however; it is only meant for mom’s consumption.)
Doing it this way also means that mom can also share in some of the benefits, such as reduced anxiety, improved immune response, anti-inflammatory effects, and improved intestinal barrier function that can reduce bacterial endotoxemia.
To make B. infantis yogurt:
1 sachet Evivo B. infantis
1-2 tablespoons raw potato starch or sucrose
1 quart organic half-and-half (with no added mixing agents, emulsifiers, or thickeners)
(The raw potato starch or sucrose is there to feed microbes, not you. There should be little to none remaining at the end of the fermentation period. With Bifidobacteria species, we avoid use of inulin as the prebiotic fiber, as not all can metabolize this variety of prebiotic fiber.)
In medium-sized bowl, combine contents of one sachet, raw potato starch or sucrose, and two tablespoons of half-and-half, and stir until well-mixed.
Pour in remainder of half-and-half and mix thoroughly.
Cover and maintaining at 100 degrees F for 30-36 hours. Consume 1/2 cup per day.
Disclaimer: I have no relationship with the Evivo product or company.