A healthy gut is especially important for expectant mothers. In addition to a healthy diet during pregnancy that’s full of nutrients, taking a probiotic may help ensure that mom has a healthy gut to prevent unwanted digestive issues that are more common during pregnancy and to establish the best foundation for baby’s initial exposure to good bacteria to set them up on the right foot to develop their own unique microbiome.
What is a Microbiome?
The human microbiome refers to the community of microorganisms living within our bodies. There are 10 times more microorganisms than human cells in our bodies. The species, diversity, and abundance vary depending upon the location within our bodies: our skin, mouth, nasal cavity, gut, reproductive tract, and the placenta each harbor a unique ecosystem. Our microbiome and its composition influence our health and wellbeing through a variety of complex processes. In the gut, for example, microbes help with food digestion and liberating short-chain fatty acids (SCFA) from indigestible dietary fibers. SCFA are an important energy source for our intestinal mucosa and modulate immune responses in the gut. It is also believed microbes are constantly engaging in active two-way communication with the brain via a gut-microbe-brain axis. Conditions related to chronic inflammation (such as heart disease, certain forms of cancer, and inflammatory bowel diseases) are associated with lower microbiome diversity and abundance of certain species of microbes or bad bacteria.
Microbiome in Pregnancy + Early Infancy
The maternal microbiome plays a role in influencing certain pregnancy risk factors and infant health outcomes. Imbalance in mom’s microbiome has been associated with increased risk for preterm delivery, preeclampsia, gestational diabetes, and excess weight gain in pregnancy. It’s believed that the infant’s own microbiome begins to be colonized in utero, and further colonization occurs during the birthing process, feeding, and with skin-to-skin contact. Baby’s size and age at delivery also impact microbiome composition. During the first several weeks of life, infants begin to develop body site-specific microbiomes, and how an infant feeds greatly influences the composition of gut colonies. Breastfed infants have guts with a greater abundance of Bifidobacteria, a key player in healthy immune system development. Breast milk naturally contains high numbers and variety of beneficial microbes, and baby also receives mom’s microbes from her skin while breastfeeding.
Skin-to-skin contact is known to be beneficial immediately after birth and beyond, helping to regulate baby’s temperature, blood sugars, breathing rate, and promoting colonization of bacteria from mom and dad’s skin.
The timing of introducing solid foods as a complement to infant milk also plays an important role in baby’s future health. If introduced too early, baby is at increased risk for developing gastrointestinal infection and food allergies. Most infants are developmentally and physically ready for complementary foods around 6 months of age. With each developmental change in eating pattern that occurs, we know baby’s microbiome continues to develop and change.
Although the human microbiome begins to establish itself as early as in utero, the first 2.5 years of life are an extremely sensitive period for the development of your baby’s microbiome. After 2.5 years of age, your microbiome becomes established and relatively stable. About 65-75% of its composition remains stable throughout our lifetime, leaving 25-35% of the microbiota susceptible to influence from diet, activity, lifestyle, hygiene, environment, antibiotic use, etc. Because of this- we have an excellent opportunity to consider how we can shape our baby’s microbiome.
Diet can change your microbiome within a 24 hour period. You can have a small, but significant change in your microbiome, by just changing what you eat on a daily basis. When you eat healthy foods, you will crave more healthy foods. Your cravings come from the type of bacteria you have been feeding your body or put into your system. If you feed yourself sugar and processed foods, you will crave more of this since this is the type of bacteria proliferating your gut. Bacteria that like healthy foods, encourage you to eat more healthy foods.
What are Probiotics?
What are probiotics? Probiotics are living microorganisms, the majority of which are bacteria followed by yeast. They are similar to the naturally occurring microorganisms found in the intestines, or gut, of every person. Three of the most commonly used probiotics include Lactobacillus, Bifidobacterium, and Saccharomyces. They are often nicknamed the “friendly bacteria.” Probiotics are helpful in supporting your digestive health. Probiotics are the good bacteria that inhabit our gut alongside the bad guys or the bacteria and fungi that threaten our digestive health. When the bad guys outweigh the good, our digestion and immunity can become compromised. When a mother’s diet is high in processed foods, low in fruit and vegetables, and high in caffeine or carbonated beverages, gut health can suffer. Stress, antibiotics and other medications can cause what is known as poor gut flora, or a situation where the bad bacteria overtakes the good. Probiotics are found naturally in yogurt, kefir and other fermented foods. Certain fiber in whole grains, fruits and vegetables can help naturally boost probiotic production in the gut, and supplements contain strains known to be beneficial to human health.
The Benefits of Probiotics during Pregnancy
Perhaps no group of individuals has as many digestive issues as pregnant women. Whether it’s heartburn, constipation, cramping, or diarrhea, pregnancy has a host of digestive issues. Probiotics can encourage more of the “good guys” and less of the “bad guys” in terms of bacteria in our gut, which can help our intestines move food along through our digestive system. Probiotics do help lower our colons’ pH levels, creating a more acid environment, which can aid in digestion, in addition to improving absorption of protein and vitamins. Because constipation and diarrhea are incredibly common during pregnancy, probiotics may be an easy natural relief method for pregnant women.
What Kind of Probiotics Should I Take?
Spore-based probiotics are highly recommended as they are also stable in the presence of antibiotics, while other probiotics are not. They also have the ability to find bad bacteria in the gut and kill them, preventing competitive exclusion. This is when bad bacteria can bounce back faster after taking antibiotics, thus creating more bad bacteria. Spore-based probiotics also produce prebiotics to help regrow the food bacteria in your gut. If you think of your gut as a garden, spores act as a gardener, pulling out weeds and growing good bacteria. To learn more about these specific spore-based probiotics, check out this podcast interview with research microbiologist Kiran Krishnan who explains the huge benefits of these unique spores. After listening to this podcast and doing my own research, I decided to switch to these spore-based probiotics now that I’m 20 weeks into my pregnancy.
Another recommended probiotics are yeast-based such as saccharomyces boulardii. These are also stable during antibiotic use. They also produce lactic acids which are killed off by antibiotic use. The gut functions at its best when in a more acid environment, so the production of lactic acid through your gut keeps the pH low and makes it harder for the bad bacteria to thrive.
The benefits of probiotic use can make a real fundamental change in the gut and change the microbiome. Typically they can stay in your system for about 3 weeks, and the impact can last longer depending on your lifestyle. Overall, probiotics are beneficial in helping to create a healthy microbiome for pregnant women as well as their baby. However, there are many other factors such as diet and lifestyle that can affect gut health just as much. Using a combination of probiotics, healthy eating, breastfeeding, and skin-to-skin, can allow baby’s ecosystem to thrive in a positive way.
For more on eating during pregnancy check out 7 Key Nutrients For a Healthy Pregnancy