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Kūmara study offers hope for sleep

Jun 26, 2023Jun 26, 2023

Kūmara is the focus of new research from Waipapa Taumata Rau (University of Auckland), to see if it acts as a prebiotic, fostering the growth of healthy bacteria in a baby's microbiome. Photo / PxFuel / Creative Commons

Sleep-deprived parents may find a glimmer of hope in a recent study, Seeding throUgh feediNg (SUN), that investigates whether kūmara (sweet potato), can enhance babies' microbiome, potentially leading to better sleep quality and improved immunity against viruses.

The trial, led by the Waipapa Taumata Rau (University of Auckland), aims to determine whether kūmara acts as a prebiotic, fostering the growth of healthy bacteria in a baby's microbiome—the community of microorganisms that reside in and on the body.

The microbiome plays a crucial role in various aspects of health, including immune function, metabolism, and brain development.

Professor Clare Wall, principal investigator in the SUN study, highlights the importance of early stages in a baby's growth and development, emphasizing the impact of their initial diet and environmental factors.

"What babies first eat and what they're subjected to within their environment really impacts the way they grow and develop," she explains.

Breastfeeding has already been shown to support the development of the baby's microbiome. However, the introduction of solid foods and its influence on further microbiome development, immune competence, and metabolic function remains unclear.

The SUN study focuses on the use of kūmara, a popular food choice for babies that contains prebiotics—dietary fibers and specific carbohydrates that nourish the bacteria in the large bowel.

The researchers aim to enrol 300 healthy babies who have not yet started on solids.

By analyzing stool samples before and after the introduction of solid foods, particularly kūmara, the study will evaluate the effects on the baby's microbiome, and mothers may also choose to provide stool and breastmilk samples for analysis.

The study will also record other dietary aspects of both the mother and baby to assess the impact of breastfeeding and kūmara consumption compared to a control group.

In addition to microbiome analysis, the study investigates the potential influence of kūmara on sleep patterns.

"When you feed your bugs in the microbiome in your large bowel with carbohydrate-type foods, they produce short-chain fatty acids," explains Professor Wall.

"These fatty acids are crucial for gut health and signaling pathways in the body and may contribute to longer sleep duration in babies."

The SUN study, funded by the MBIE as part of the High-Value Nutrition National Science Challenge, aims to provide dietitians with evidence-based advice on introducing solids to babies for optimal long-term development.

Trial manager Dr. Robyn Lawrence says there's huge value from research, in informing dietary recommendations for healthy babies and families.

"Being a dietitian, I use a lot of research-informed evidence to give people advice on what to feed their baby. And my view is, if we don't have the research, we don't really have a lot to base our recommendations on." Lawrence says.

"Our study is adding to that evidence base, so that we can make good recommendations for healthy babies and healthy families."