Whether they’re consumed through food or a supplement, probiotics support a healthy gut microbiome before, during, and after pregnancy which promotes optimal health for mum and baby, during this pivotal time of development, and later in life.
I think we all know that probiotics are the “good” bacteria or microorganisms that live in and on our bodies – we actually have more bacteria living in us than we do cells! While we typically think of probiotics as being good for digestive health, they do a whole lot more to promote health in our bodies and can be found lining the mucous membranes of our digestive, urinary, and vaginal tracts.
Interesting research continues to emerge about how these beneficial microbes (probiotics) promote pregnancy, infant and postnatal health. They provide nutritional support for a normal healthy immune system and genitourinary tract, and help to relieve symptoms of gastrointestinal disturbances, all while infant supporting growth, their gut microbiome development and reducing the incidence of atopic dermatitis and eczema.
TRANSPORT OF PROBIOTICS IN PREGNANCY & LACTATION
Contrary to our past understanding, the probiotics we consume are not entirely contained within the gut. They can actually pass through our gastrointestinal tract and relocate (carried by our immune system) to other areas of the body, including to a lactating mothers breast. When baby receives probiotics through breast milk, these beneficial microbes will greatly contribute to the establishment of the bacterial communities in their gut – an important component of their developing immune defence system.
This translocation of probiotics is not limited between the gut and lactation glands. Further findings that contradict our past beliefs are the discovery of probiotic species within amniotic fluid, the placenta and meconium (first stool) of neonates. This is an incredible revelation, as past literature describes the infant gut as sterile prior to delivery. These findings have huge implications for the use of probiotics throughout pregnancy. Most recently, research suggests that these transported probiotics begin the process of foetal microbiota maturation much earlier than previously thought, so to think we have further opportunity to influence the future health of our children, during pregnancy with probiotics, is really exciting. Did you know the mothers oral microbiome, breast skin flora, gut microbiome, mammary tissue microbes and vaginal microbiome all playing a contributing role to the development of her babies gut microbiome? Amazing stuff.
ARE PROBIOTICS IN PREGNANCY SAFE?
Most probiotics supplements are considered safe to take during pregnancy and can be extremely beneficial for pregnancy, a growing baby and postpartum. There are a number of practitioner only probiotic supplements available that have been specificallly designed and clinically trialed for use in pregnancy and breastfeeding, but please always speak to your healthcare professional before taking any kind of supplements, especially during pregnancy.
WHAT ABOUT PROBIOTIC FOODS?
Fermented foods have been consumed for their probiotic effects for thousands of years, and contrary to popular belief (and the marketing of commercial probiotic manufacturers), foods like yogurt and kefir generally have a much higher concentration of beneficial microorganisms than probiotic supplements do. What’s more, fermented milk products like kefir and yogurt offer more benefits than beneficial bacteria alone, including minerals, vitamins, protein, amino acids, fats and antimicrobial agents. Fermented organic dairy products like yoghurt and kefir , sauerkraut (watch the salt content) and organic miso and tempeh are great probiotic-rich foods to consume in pregnancy – just be sure to purchase these from reputable sources and avoid any unpasteurised milk (and juice) products because of the risk of foodborne illness. If you have any questions about what is/isn’t safe to eat, please speak to your healthcare professional.
CAN I GIVE PROBIOTICS TO MY BABY?
In addition to receiving probiotics via breast milk, probiotics can also be given to your baby directly. You can add a bit of probiotic to a bottle of milk, you can take a little probiotic on your finger to give to baby orally, or you can put a little on your nipple and baby will ingest it during a feed. Again, there are a number of practitioner only probiotic supplements available that are designed for babies and children, but please always consult with your healthcare professional before giving them any kind of supplements.
5 BENEFITS OF PROBIOTICS IN PREGNANCY
1. CONSTIPATION RELIEF
Probiotics have a long history of demonstrated effectiveness in digestive health that supports their use during pregnancy. We’re talking increased absorption of nutrients, improved digestion and healthy bowels – all welcomed benefits for any expecting or lactating mother if you ask me!
One of the most common complaints amoung pregnant women is constipation – caused by an increase in the production of the hormone progesterone, which makes the smooth muscle in the gastrointestinal tract relax and everything then begins to “pass through” at a much slower rate. Studies show that daily consumption of a probiotics relieved constipation by significantly improving the frequency of bowel movements, abdominal pain and straining in pregnancy.
2. REDUCED RISK OF ECZEMA, ASTHMA & FOOD SENSITIVITY
Eczema or dermatitis is an inflammatory, allergic skin condition causing a red itchy rash that can be a real discomfort for some children. It’s most common in infants (occurs in around 20% of children under 2). Eczema is often called atopic eczema or allergic eczema because many people with eczema either already have other allergies, such as allergic rhinitis (hay fever), asthma and/or food allergy, or will go on to develop them later in life.
Infants and children with atopic eczema have significantly less Lactobacilli and Bifidobacteria in their gut than healthy individuals, so improving colonisation of these microbes reduces the risk of atopic eczema development. It does this by improving the integrity of the gut lining and modulating how our immune responds to allergens. Probiotics consumed during pregnancy and lactation (for up to 6 months) decrease the incidence of asthma, allergy and eczema in the first 2-7 years of a child’s life. Establishing a balance of this “good bacteria” in an infant’s digestive tract is the first way that their immune system will be stimulated and stimulating it away from inflammation will help to prevent atopic dermatitis, asthma and food sensitivities.
According to the World Allergy Organization-McMaster University Guidelines for Allergic Disease Prevention: “Clinicians should recommend probiotics to women at high risk of having an allergic child, those who breast-feed infants who are at high risk, and to infants who are predisposed to the development of allergy.” According to the guidelines, “High risk for allergy in a child is defined as biological parent or sibling with existing or history of allergic rhinitis, asthma, eczema, or food allergy.”
3. TREATMENT FOR LACTATIONAL MASTITIS
Mastitis is a painful infection of one or more lobules of the mammary gland that affects in around 33% of lactating mothers and is one of the primary reasons why many women stop breastfeeding. Although the condition may happen at any point during the lactation period, between 75-95% of cases occur within the first 12 weeks, with the frequency particularly higher during the second and third weeks postpartum.
New research shows that lactational mastitis is caused by a microbial imbalance and the presence of pathogenic bacteria strains that are multi-drug resistance to antibiotics (the traditional treatment for mastitis) – an explanation for why this condition is difficult to treat and can become recurrent or chronic. Significant levels of beneficial microbes (including Lactobacillus gasseri and Lactobacillus salivarius) are found in healthy breastfeeding mothers, whilst their presence is unidentifiable in the milk of those with lactational mastitis. Research is demonstrating that there is a more effective way of treating mastitis, with probiotics rather than antibiotics and consumption of probiotics with these Lactobacilli strains has been shown to have positive effects in treating mastitis and reducing breast pain and inflammation.
Left untreated, mastitis is unlikely to resolve on its own and there is a risk of breast abscesses forming. If you feel you have mastitis it is important to speak with your healthcare professional – the earlier mastitis is diagnosed and treated, the better the outcome.
5. VAGINAL HEALTH
Research shows that taking probiotics during pregnancy can increase the levels of good bacteria in your vagina. This bacterium is transferred to your baby during vaginal delivery, and helps your baby’s gut microbiome and immune system to develop.
Use of probiotics in pregnancy has also been found to keep levels of Group B Streptococcus (Group B Strep) low. Group B Strep is a common bacterium of the vaginal lining, but if levels of these bacteria get too high at the end of pregnancy it can pose some risks to your baby. When this issue presents itself, it’s often managed during labour/delivery with antibiotics. However, taking a probiotic during pregnancy can reduce the risk of this condition.
During pregnancy, there is an increased risk of certain conditions such as urinary tract infections and thrush. Taking probiotic supplements with Lactobacilli can improve urogenital health by supporting the immune system and making the vagina an inhospitable place for pathogenic microbes to hang out.
5. DECREASED RISK OF GESTATIONAL DIABETES
Another common condition during pregnancy is gestational diabetes (GDM) with approximately 10% of women experiencing glucose transport problems. A small number of studies suggest potential protection with the use of probiotics in pregnancy and a 2017 randomised controlled trial showed that participants who took Lactobacillus rhamnosus in early pregnancy had a significantly lower incidence of GDM than those who didn’t (2.1% vs 6.5%).
REDUCE THE RISK OF PREECLAMPSIA
One study showed that a daily intake of probiotics has been shown to decrease the likelihood of preeclampsia by 20%. Probiotics help to reduce inflammation in the intestines, which is believed to lower blood pressure.
Heartburn is common complaint amongst mums-to-be because progesterone (remember the hormone that relaxes muscles during pregnancy) also relaxes the stomach valve that keeps acid out of the oesophagus. Probiotics that contain species such as Lactobacillus rhamnosus and Lactobacillus salvarius help by balancing out gut flora and encouraging proper functioning of the digestive tract. Probiotics also speed up gastric emptying so there is less opportunity for the excess acid that causes heartburn to be produced.
REDUCE THE RISK OF POSTNATAL DEPRESSION
Preliminary research is finding the importance that taking probiotics can play by altering the neurotransmitters in the gut (there is a line of communication between the gut and the brain called the “gut-brain axis”), boosting the ability to deal and cope with anxiety and depression.
Disclaimer: This article is not intended to diagnose or treat any pre-existing conditions. Always consult with a healthcare professional before making any changes to your diet or taking any supplements.