Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) affects as many as 80,000 children in the United States alone. The research done in conjunction with the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation has identified over 160 genes associated with IBD.
While it’s common knowledge that mothers pass genetic traits to their children, including the genetic traits toward IBD, new research indicates that the microbes passed to their offspring may also affect the child’s DNA. These maternal microbes are passed to the infant during the birthing process, breastfeeding and other close contact, but not until recently did we know their role in the risk of a child developing IBD.
This study published in Nature in 2015 was conducted using the mouse model of IBD. Researchers found that the bacteria that live in the mother’s body can also pass a trait to offspring — similar to the way the parents’ own DNA passes traits. In this case the adult mice passed Sutterella bacteria directly to their offspring. Sutterella then caused a reduction of IgA in the offspring.
This reduction is important to note because IgA helps the body fight off infection and reduces inflammation. Low levels of IgA are frequently seen in IBD patients and those with chronic diarrhea. In the past it was thought that these patients with low IgA levels were just born that way. This is the first study to indicate that microbes passed to an infant soon after birth may actually play a role in the issue as well.
But for now, don’t stop breastfeeding or other close contact with your infant in the hopes of avoiding passing the Sutterella bacteria. We still don’t have research showing these findings apply to humans.
Breastfeeding is still one of the best ways to nourish your infant and provide your child with some protection against childhood infections. According to the National Institutes of Health, breastfeeding may also improve the infant’s survival rate over the first year of life and reduce the risk for Sudden Infant Death syndrome (SIDs). The early skin to skin contact has also been shown to stabilize the infant’s cardio-respiratory system and provide positive benefits to the physiological development of the child.
The most practical application of this knowledge will be used to help establish more mouse model studies that will take into account inherited bacteria that could have been influencing the results of previous research. With regard to human beings, we do not yet know how many strains of bacteria or viruses could be influencing traits or altering a person’s susceptibility to disease, but the science provides a lot of hope for the future of IBD prevention.
Future research will seek to determine if the results seen in this mouse model also apply to human beings. Should the results be repeated in humans, identifying the specific bacteria causing disease and providing targeted ways to address the issue could be an exciting next step. In the future, an infant’s microbiome may be tweaked as early as possible to provide the healthiest outcome for the child and — who knows — could potentially prevent diseases like IBD altogether.
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Jennifer Rackley is a nutritionist and mother of three girls. Two of her children have dealt with acid reflux disease, food allergies, migraines, and asthma. She has a Bachelor of Science in dietetics from Harding University and graduate work in public health nutrition through Eastern Kentucky University. In addition to writing for HealthCentral, she does patient consults and serves on the Board of Directors for the Pediatric Adolescent Gastroesophageal Reflux Association.