An article in the New Scientist reports a new discovery about bacteria in the foetus. It was previously thought that the foetus could not be affected by bacteria from the mother in the womb and that they could only get bacterial contamination from the mother’s vagina at birth. New research shows that this is not so and that bacteria in fact colonize the foetus’s gut in the womb.

This has two interesting implications in Chinese medicine, one to do with the idea of Toxic Heat from the uterus and the other with the aetiology of allergic asthma.

According to Chinese medicine, we are all born with “Toxic Heat from the uterus”. Dr J. Shen used to give new-born babies a herbal formula to eliminate such Toxic Heat: its elimination would prevent that person from suffering from skin diseases later in life.

Pilar Francino and her colleagues at the University of Valencia in Spain collected and froze the meconium of babies from 20 women. They removed the outer layers of each sample to rule out any bacteria picked up after birth, then looked for bacterial DNA.

The team not only identified bacteria in the babies’ meconium – which before then was thought to be sterile – they found bacterial communities so developed that they seemed to fall into two categories. Around half of the samples appeared to be dominated by bacteria that produce lactic acid, such as lactobacillus, while the other half mostly contained a family of enteric bacteria, such as Escherichia coli.

Francino’s team checked up on the health of the infants at 1 year of age, and again at 4. The group were surprised to find that infants born with more lactic acid bacteria were significantly more likely to develop asthma-like symptoms, while those born with more enteric bacteria were at a greater risk of eczema.

This is a fascinating finding that, to me, further confirms my view that the aetiology of allergic asthma is congenital (either from the parents or due to events in the womb during gestation). It is also interesting that one group of bacteria would predispose the child to asthma and the other to eczema, which further confirms the common aetiology of allergic asthma and eczema. Furthermore, the presence of these two groups of bacteria affects precisely the organs that are linked in Chinese medicine, i.e. lungs and large intestine.