Right Nutrition to Build Immunity in Infants
All of us want our babies to be healthy and strong. Some have the means, some don’t. Some have the knowledge, some don’t. And let it be said loud and clear, nothing pains a parent more than watching their jolly little bundle of joy fall prey to those pesky infectious diseases. It is often said, but not emphasized enough, that the first 1000 days (starts from conception upto second birthday of child) lays the foundation for lifelong health. In fact, WHO recommends exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months with timely introduction of weaning foods and continuing breast feeding until 2yrs and beyond. This is basically, recognising the fact that breast milk provides the best start in an infant’s life and is the best and complete source of nutrition for a baby, which also supports their developing immune system.
Top 3 Components of Breast Milk
About 80%-90% of breast milk is composed of water. The dry constituent (remaining 10%-20%) is composed of carbohydrates, fats, prebiotic oligosaccharides, proteins, vitamins, minerals, bacteria, immune cells and certain bioactive compounds. Of these the top 3 component of the human milk dry matter are:
- Lactose: It is the main and most abundant carbohydrate found in mother’s milk. Its main role is to provide energy and with this it also promotes the absorption of vital minerals like calcium, magnesium etc. To certain extent lactose also exerts a prebiotic effect in babies.
- Lipids/fat: Helps meet the high energy or caloric requirements of babies, whilst also providing taste and aroma. As a part of lipids breast milk also contains essential long chain polyunsaturated fats such as docosahexanoic acid (DHA) and arachidonic acid (ARA). These fatty acids are extremely essential for the developing brain and immune system of the baby.
- Prebiotic Oligosaccharides: Sandwiched between simple sugars (monosaccharides) and starches (polysaccharides) is another group of carbohydrates that play an important role in nutrition. These are called Prebiotic Oligosaccharides. They are the third largest solid component in human breast milk.
Why are Prebiotic Oligosaccharides Important?
Gut is the largest immune organ of the body as it houses about 70%-80% of the body’s immune cells. The immune function of the gut is predominantly routed through the organisms that grow in it. As the good bacteria in the gut increases, it decreases the growth of bad bacteria/pathogens and thus helps build a stronger immunity in babies.
It is said that there are more than 1000 different types of oligosaccharides present in human breast milk. Of these around 200 oligosaccharides have been identified. These oligosaccharides are said to have a ‘prebiotic’ effect. This means that they pass undigested through the stomach and small intestine into the large intestine where they act as food for the beneficial/good micro-organisms, e.g. Bifidobacteria and lactobacilli, and promote their growth and activity. The good bacteria in the intestine play a crucial role in maintaining healthy gut and thus confer immunity to the baby.
Beyond increasing good bacteria and decreasing the bad bacteria counts prebiotic oligosaccharides in human milk also helps strengthens the mucosal lining hence further improving the immunity and preventing future infections and instances of diarrhoea or general sickness.
What are the other Sources of Prebiotic Oligosaccharides (PBOs)?
In cases where breast feeding is not possible one may need to find alternate solutions to provide the same to the babies. Some of the prebiotics that are researched the most are galacto-oligosaccharides (GOS), fructo-oligosaccharides (FOS), poly dextrose (PDX), inulin, 2FL etc.
Benefits of GOS:FOS
Apart from oligosaccharides in breast milk, the specific mixture of GOS:FOS in the ratio of 9:1 has been studied most extensively in infants. There are numerous health benefits of GOS:FOS in this ratio for infants, which has been validated in more than 30 clinical studies, and include:
To summarize, human milk is the best source of nutrition for infants, as it is replete with all essential nutrients and the many bioactive compounds present in it. These compounds along with proteins, prebiotic oligosaccharides, certain bacteria’s and immune cells help to create a healthy gut and immune system in infants. In case breast feeding is not possible and the child has not initiated on weaning foods it would be appropriate to ask your doctor for alternate routes to providing prebiotics for your baby.
It must be our constant endeavour to support every infant grows by helping them develop a healthy and resilient immune system. Let’s make every day count, for you and your baby.