The colon is the largest participant in the body’s immune system. Nearly sterile when a baby is born, the gut is quickly colonized by a multitude of bacteria that make up its microbiota. The immunomodulating effects of the microbiota, along with its ability to compete with and defend against pathogenic bacteria in food, are thought to positively impact health. Increasingly, the relationship between the microbiota and health rapidly is becoming better understood.
Building a Healthy Microbiota
Breastfeeding confers numerous benefits on babies, among them, a stable and balanced microbiota. Breast milk is naturally high in oligosaccharides that cannot be digested in the small intestine. They travel intact to the colon, where they nourish and are fermented by beneficial bacteria, including bifidobacteria. In this way breast milk serves as a prebiotic, with its oligosaccharides stimulating the growth and activity of the bacteria that make up the baby’s microbiota. It has been shown that the microbiota of babies who are breast-fed is dominated by beneficial bifidobacteria (Harmsen et al, 2000; Turroni et al, 2012).
As breast-feeding is best, it is an important goal for infant food manufacturers that infant feeding formulas come as close as possible to breast milk with respect to the physiological effects of the formula milk. Not all formulas, however, contain added non-digestible oligosaccharides that provide support for the microbiota. Babies fed traditional formula have been shown to have lower bifidobacteria counts than breast-fed babies (Closa-Monasterolo et al, 2013). Closa-Monasterolo’s team and Veereman-Wauters et al (2011) showed that babies whose formula was supplemented with a combination of inulin-type fructans from chicory root (Orafti® Synergy1) developed a bifidobacteria count that more closely resembled that of breast-fed infants.
Inulin-type Fructans and Health
The microbiota is vital to the immune system, the body’s line of defense against illness. Children in day care settings are exposed to a wide variety of potentially disease-causing bacteria. It has been shown that healthy children 4-24 months of age in day care settings who received 1.1 g/d oligofructose over a six-month period had lower incidence of fever, less need for phone consultation, and fewer visits to a doctor associated with episodes of diarrhea, along with less fever accompanying cold symptoms and less need for antibiotics during respiratory illnesses, as compared to a control group (Saavedra & Tschernia, 2002). They also had improved gastrointestinal comfort, with less emesis, regurgitation, and discomfort. A meta-analysis of five randomized controlled trials (RCTs) on children 0-24 months of age concluded that children receiving the prebiotic oligofructose or inulin/oligofructose for 6-12 months had fewer infections overall (1 RCT) and fewer infections requiring antibiotics (4 RCTs) (Lohner et al, 2014).
The study of the relationship between the microbiota and immunity is an area of emerging science. The BENEO-Institute is actively conducting and supporting research in this area in order to gain a better understanding of the ability of the microbiota to impact health and immunity and the role of prebiotics such as inulin-type fructans in nourishing a healthy microbiota.