In the last decades, our knowledge regarding the miracle of creating life has advanced with leaps and bounds. We have learned so much about how the baby grows, the different developmental stages and what is necessary for a healthy baby.
Until quite recently, scientists believed that the uterus was a perfectly sterile environment, where the baby was safe from infections or other detrimental exposures. Natural birth was supposedly the first contact with bacteria and other blessings of the outside world.
There is no doubt that passing through the birth canal seeds the baby with precious beneficial bacteria from the mother, a critical event that research has found to play a major role in the short- and long-term health of the baby. The excellent documentary Microbirth is a testimony to this radical, yet entirely science-based truth.
But now we have gone even further. Studies have found that the uterus is not the perfectly sterile and safe haven that we thought it was. In fact, both the uterus and the placenta (the organs most closely and intimately related to the baby) are now confirmed to harbor their own unique microbial communities, which are decisively different from microbes in other maternal organs, like the vagina or the gut.
The type of bacteria dominating these critical (for the baby and pregnancy) organs seems to influence the risk for pregnancy complications; when potential pathogens are present, there is higher risk for preterm birth and conditions such as preeclampsia.
Therefore, we need to do our best to ensure that the symbiotic bacteria of mothers-to-be are characterized by health-giving, beneficial strains, not pathogenic ones.
Another ground-breaking scientific finding is that the placental and uterine bacteria seem to be more similar to the bacteria of the mouth, despite the considerable physical distance between them. Perhaps, this is why serious gum infection (periodontitis) has been linked to higher risk for labor complications, as have other types of serious infections as well.
These finding do not mean that the gut and vagina are not important for a healthy pregnancy and baby, just that they are not in the front row of interest anymore. It is important to remember that natural birth remains a major event in seeding a baby with beneficial bacteria and that gut and vaginal flora are closely related.
However, the new facts put an unexpected emphasis on the oral hygiene during pregnancy and also provide several ways to help pregnant women enrich their symbiotic bacteria with good guys.
Finally, we have learned that breast milk is yet another source of bacteria for the newborn baby. The mammary gland is an additional, newly found bacterial home that inevitably donates bacteria to breastfed infants.
The mother´s weight and pregnancy weight gain are shown to be important factors affecting the kind of bacteria passed on to the baby. According to a study published in the journal Pediatric Research, the breast milk of mothers with higher Body Mass Index (BMI), usually indicating obesity or overweight, has more potentially pathogenic bacterial strains, such as Staphylococcus, Clostridium, Bacteroides and Akkermansia muciniphila and less beneficial strains, like Bifidobacteria and Lactobacillus.
All these exciting scientific advances show us that seeding a baby with beneficial bacteria starts from the early stages of pregnancy, is reinforced during natural birth and hopefully with breastfeeding. It is a multi-step process that lasts several months and depends significantly on the mother´s diet and lifestyle.
Unfortunately, this is not a matter of simply taking a probiotic supplement, although this is a necessary step as well. In order to fully support the microbiome of pregnant women and new mothers, a more holistic and careful approach is necessary.
1. Practice good oral hygiene. Because the mouth is a source of bacteria for the uterus and placenta, keeping oral bacteria happy and balanced is essential. Harsh, alcohol-based, flavored mouthwashes or hydrogen peroxide washes may give a refreshing feeling, but at the same time kill indiscriminately good and bad bacteria and irritate mouth tissues.
An excellent natural alternative is oil pulling (using a natural oil as a mouthwash), which supports beneficial mouth bacteria, while being an effective detox method. Organic sesame oil and cold pressed, virgin coconut oil are the best options, because they are loaded with gentle, natural antimicrobials and numerous health-giving substances. Needless to say that keeping teeth clean is also a fundamental part of a good oral hygiene.
2. Increase probiotics. If there is no history of gut dysbiosis, you can take extra shots of beneficial bacteria with naturally fermented foods, such as yogurt, kefir and sauerkraut. The bacteria in these foods and drinks remain temporarily in the gut, encouraging the establishment of healthful microorganisms.
Alternatively, probiotic supplements rich in different Lactobacilli and Bifidobacteria species can also enrich the gut and vaginal flora with beneficial bacteria.
3. Limit antibiotics. Prescribed antibiotics inevitably mess up bacterial communities in the whole body, because they kill beneficial bacteria along with the bad. If you have to take antibiotics of any kind, make sure to replenish your good bacteria communities with fermented foods and drinks or by taking probiotic supplements at the same time until a week after the treatment is finished.
4. Pastured meat and dairy products. Unfortunately, the vast majority of animal products that are available come from industrially raised, confined animals, receiving large doses of antibiotic cocktails on a daily basis. Small quantities of these antibiotics are found in all types of animal products and, therefore, eating them can throw most bacterial communities out of balance.
It is much more sustainable, ethical and healthful to consume animal products coming from humanely raised, pastured animals. The products coming from such animals are of premium quality and superior nutritional value, while lacking harmful antibiotics and synthetic hormones.
The placenta harbors a unique microbiome. Science Translational Medicine. May 2014; 6(237):237ra65.
Probiotics and pregnancy. Current Diabetes Reports. January 2015; 15(1):567.
Microbiome of the placenta in pre-eclampsia supports the role of bacteria in the multifactorial cause of pre-eclampsia. The Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology Research. May 2015; 41(5):662-9.
Exploring preterm birth as a polymicrobial disease: an overview of the uterine microbiome. Frontiers in Immunology. November 2014; 5:595.
Placental Microbiome and Its Role in Preterm Birth. Neoreviews. December 2014; 15(12):e537-e545.
The Placental Microbiome Varies in Association with Low Birth Weight in Full-Term Neonates. Nutrients. August 2015; 7(8):6924-37.
The perinatal microbiome and pregnancy: moving beyond the vaginal microbiome. Cold Spring Harbor Perspectives in Medicine. March 2015; 5(6).
Collado MC, Laitinen K, Salminen S, Isolauri E. 2012. Maternal weight and excessive weight gain during pregnancy modify the immunomodulatory potential of breast milk. Pediatric Research. 72(1):77-85.
Eleni Roumeliotou is a fertility and pregnancy nutrition and lifestyle specialist. Through Primal Baby, she helps women from all over the world to restore their fertility naturally and have complication-free pregnancies and healthy babies. Find Eleni on Pinterest, Facebook, and Twitter.
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