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Stay up to date with our recent research findings, news features, and publications below! Our blog is a great place to learn more detailed information about the collective nationwide network of Children's Environmental Health researchers and their findings.

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What is the gut microbiome and why is it important to your health?

In a lot of the research we share, we reference your gut microbiome, but what exactly does that mean and how does your unique gut microbiome affect health outcomes in developing children?

The microbiome is the population of microbes living in and on the body that is acquired from an individual’s environment. This population of microbes is hugely relevant to human health, providing both innate and adaptive immunity to pathogens. The microbiome has been linked to allergy development, the effectiveness of drugs and vaccines, and numerous other factors.

Each person has an entirely unique network of microbiota that is originally determined by one’s DNA. A person is first exposed to microorganisms as an infant, during delivery in the birth canal and through the mother’s breast milk. Exactly which microorganisms the infant is exposed to depends solely on the species found in the mother. Later on, environmental exposures and diet can change one’s microbiome to be either beneficial to health or place one at greater risk for disease.

Over the course of the first year or two of our lives, our gut microbiome changes quickly, but stabilizes by the time we reach the age of three. As we continue to age, our environment, our long-term diet, stress, and the drugs we take, such as antibiotics, continue to play a role in changing our microbiome.

Why has the gut microbiome become such a hot topic in recent years?

In recent years the gut microbiome, in particular, has been linked to a plethora of diseases and conditions, from diabetes to autism and anxiety to obesity.

The gut microbiome has also been linked to how individuals respond to certain drugs, including how cancer patients respond to chemotherapy, and it has even, tentatively, been suggested that it could be linked with how well we sleep.

Meanwhile, a range of studies have raised the importance of other aspects of our microbiome, including that the vaginal microbiome is important in whether an HIV-prevention drug applied to the vagina is effective.

What has the Children’s Environmental Health and Research Center at Dartmouth discovered about the long-term health outcomes associated with our research on the infant gut microbiome?

Using data from the New Hampshire Birth Cohort Study, researchers found that a baby delivered by c-section and wiped with a pad of gauze which was first rested in the vagina would develop a gut microbiome more similar to that of a baby delivered via vaginal birth, indicating that the vaginal environment provides a unique microbiome.

Researchers from Dartmouth also discovered that even relatively low levels of arsenic in drinking water sourced from private wells in New Hampshire had a significant association with infant gut microbiome composition.

Did you know: PCBs were widely used in construction materials until 1979, meaning dozens, maybe hundreds, of Vermont school buildings could have high airborne levels of the chemicals. While the local and state governments deliberate on the best course of action to take in addressing the issue, it’s important to be aware of the indoor air quality within your home as well.

Here’s what you can do:

1. Improve Ventilation: One approach to lowering the concentrations of indoor air pollutants in your home is to increase the amount of outdoor air coming indoors.

Natural ventilation can also improve indoor air quality by reducing pollutants that are indoors. Examples of natural ventilation are:

  • opening windows and doors

  • window shading such as closing the blinds

2. Use Air Cleaners and Filters: There are many types and sizes of air cleaners on the market, ranging from relatively inexpensive table-top models to sophisticated and expensive whole-house systems. Some air cleaners are highly effective at particle removal, while others, including most table-top models, are much less so.

Air cleaners are generally not designed to remove gaseous pollutants. Check out the NYTimes list of best indoor air quality monitors: https://www.nytimes.com/wirecutter/reviews/best-home-air-quality-monitor/

Another important factor in determining the effectiveness of an air cleaner is the strength of the pollutant source. Table-top air cleaners, in particular, may not remove satisfactory amounts of pollutants from strong nearby sources. People with a sensitivity to particular sources may find that air cleaners are helpful only in conjunction with concerted efforts to remove the source.

Consider HEPA air filters (high efficiency particulate air [filter]). This type of air filter can theoretically remove at least 99.97% of dust, pollen, mold, bacteria, and any airborne particles with a size of 0.3 microns (µm).

3. Bring the Outdoors In: Plants!

Over the past few years, there has been some publicity suggesting that houseplants have been shown to reduce levels of some chemicals in laboratory experiments. There is currently no evidence, however, that a reasonable number of houseplants remove significant quantities of pollutants in homes and offices. Indoor houseplants should not be over-watered because overly damp soil may promote the growth of microorganisms which can affect allergic individuals.

Plastic seems like an unavoidable part of modern life in the U.S. Waste, and how we choose to handle it, affects our world's environment. Because of the widespread use of plastics, experts are taking a closer look at the possible health risks associated with them. Extensive research has been conducted on two types of harmful chemicals in plastics, phthalates, and bisphenol-A (BPAs). In response to the extensive research on BPAs that have been published, a lot of products that historically contained BPAs, no longer contain the chemical. Early studies about the health effects of chemicals from plastics show that they may affect the:

  1. Brain

  2. Endocrine system (the system that controls hormones, or the chemicals that regulate metabolism)

  3. Immune system (the system that helps keep you from getting sick)

  4. Reproductive systems (the male and female systems that allow us to have babies)

Some plastic containers can release chemicals into the things they’re holding — like food and drinks. When people eat or drink what was in the container, they can be exposed to (come in contact with) the chemicals in the plastic. This happens most often if the food or drinks are heated in plastic containers. Plastics are not only an issue for our health, but also for the health of plants and animals everywhere. Approximately 50 percent of our plastic waste goes to landfills (where it will sit for thousands of years due to limited oxygen and lack of microorganisms to break it down). The remaining 45 percent ends up as litter in the environment where it ultimately washes out to sea, damaging marine ecosystems and entering the food chain. For example, 42% of the rivers tested in America turned up positive for Bisphenol-A or BPA. (https://www.smallfootprintfamily.com/avoiding-toxins-in-plastic) What can you do to reduce your consumption of plastic for the sake of your health and the environment?

  1. Change your diet and opt for foods that are not packaged in plastic, for example, buy eggs that come in cardboard packaging vs. Plastic.

  2. Store, reheat or freeze your leftovers in glass containers. Always remember to bring a stainless steel or glass water bottle with you as well!

  3. Bring your own reusable produce bags to the grocery store.

  4. Avoid disposable plastic or polystyrene dishes and utensils. There are some great reusable and affordable bamboo travel utensils on the market!

  5. Use cloth diapers! In the past, many people have avoided using cloth diapers because they can be tricky to use, but there are some affordable ones you can buy that have streamlined the process!

  6. Replace your school-age child’s plastic lunchbox with a cloth or stainless steel one.