Food, Nutrition & Science

from our newsletter, broadcast on
Wednesday June 25, 2014

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Microbes and Malnutrition

Underdeveloped gut bacteria may be contributing to malnutrition in children in developing countries, says a new study from Washington University in St. Louis and published in Nature. 

Researchers looked at the microbial maturity of children with severe acute malnutrition (SAM) living in an urban slum of Dhaka, Bangladesh and found that these children had significant microbiota immaturity. These same children had been treated with ready-to-use therapeutic foods (RUTF), an intervention designed to bring children back from the brink that is used almost exclusively in very poor circumstances where refrigeration is not available. These nutritious, high-calorie and non-perishable treatments have been successful in somewhat improving the circumstances of children across the globe.

However, in many cases – as in the cases of the children in this study – healthy growth is not completely restored by the RUTF. The results of this study indicated a relationship between SAM and significant relative microbiota immaturity that is only partially improved followed two widely used nutritional interventions. SAM is the greatest contributor to child mortality in the world today, and while RUTF has helped reduced the child mortality rate, the longterm health improvements are unclear. What is becoming clear, though, is that a child’s gut health has a significant impact on normal growth and development.

According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), each of us is born with a unique “microbiome”, a collection of a hundred trillion bacteria, which affect our health, ability to digest food, and more. We inherit a baseline of bacteria from our parents, but our environment continues to shape the developing system in our bodies into adulthood. Different world diets and living circumstances greatly affect the makeup of each person’s microbiome. Interestingly, although microbiomes are unique to each individual, the mapping of a community’s microbiomes could help scientists assess the risk for certain diseases and personalize therapies. For children living with SAM, the lack of proper nutrition may be causing a delay in the development of these important microbiomes that regulate so much of our digestive and therefore, overall health. 

This study indicates that the assessment of microbiota maturation can provide a more comprehensive view of normal human development, and could therefore potentially lead to some new directions in preventative medicine. Short term applications of RUTF may not be enough to help improve clinical outcomes for children with SAM or MAM (moderate acute malnutrition). More prolonged interventions of RUTF along with the addition of probiotics might be needed to repair gut microbiota immaturity in children suffering form malnutrition and delayed growth and development. 

“A healthy and balanced diet, as well as probiotics, has been shown in recent studies to be helpful in preserving gastrointestinal health and can potentially restore the composition and function of gut microbes. There could also be a role for prebiotics, or non-digestible food ingredients, that stimulate the growth and activity of bacteria in the colon,” adds Alissa Rumsey, Registered Dietitian and Spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.