Pregnancy & the Microbiome
written by Hannah Renzi a certified nurse midwife who has been practicing at the St. Charles Center for Women’s Health since it’s opening in 2015. She is very happy to work in a collaborative practice with a group of exceptional providers. Hannah specializes in healthy pregnancy, well-woman care, teen health, birth control and common women’s health issues. She values women-centered, accessible, holistic care. Hannah’s focus is on empowering and educating women. She wrote Pregnancy & the Microbiome & Ask a Gardening Midwife.
Pregnancy is an amazingly transformative time when the potential for growth is witnessed by the mother and all those supporting her. It is a time when a woman discovers her true strength and faces challenges and possible fears. Pregnancy often motivates women and couples to evaluate their lifestyles and move toward more healthy choices. One of the first areas that expecting women look at for improving health in pregnancy is their diet. When it comes to how we eat, healthy food is medicine. Everyone benefits from eating a diet rich in fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, high quality fats, and clean water. Recently, growing attention is being placed on the value of fermented foods as part of a healthy diet.
Cultures around the world have been fermenting foods for thousands of years. Without having the science to understand how and why, humans have utilized this technique for preserving the harvest that simultaneously preserved their health. The first probiotics humans ingested were from foods like yogurt, kefir, kimchi, and sauerkraut all of which are known to contain billions to trillions of bacteria. These bacteria help to keep our intestinal tract healthy and support the resident bacteria that already live there. The resident bacteria that live in our intestinal tract are part of what is referred to as our microbiome. Our microbiomes are specialized and inhabit our mouths, intestines, vaginas, and nose. Ideally, these bacteria are composed of a wide diversity of bacteria. Our gut microbiome assists with the breakdown of food and help to maintain the health of our tissues. Initially we inherit bacteria that make up our microbiomes from whomever we first come in contact with at birth.
It is thought that the best inheritance of microbiome diversity is passed from a woman to her newborn via vaginal delivery and breastfeeding. There are however, additional ways to boost the health of a newborn’s microbiome and yours. One of the ways is by eating a diet that is high in probiotics because they provide transient bacteria that support the resident bacteria. Another is to consume plenty of prebiotics. Prebiotics are the nondigestible fiber in our foods that the bacteria within our microbiome need to survive and thrive. Prebiotics are supplied by foods such as whole grains, beans, fruits such as bananas and berries, and vegetables such as artichokes, onions, and garlic. Eating a diet rich in the fiber that makes up prebiotics, not only aids in the health of the microbiome but also slows the metabolism of sugars and aids in the transit of foods, especially when combined with high quality fats and proteins. Diets high in refined sugar, poor quality fat, and processed foods do not support the microbiome and over time can contribute to less bacterial diversity and damage the tissue in the intestinal tract.
Here is a short list of ways to boost the health of your microbiome:
Eat a diet focused on fresh, local, organic food
Eat fermented foods regularly
Avoid processed food (anything that comes in a package)
Intimacy with loved ones
Consider getting a dog
Explore stress management techniques like exercise and meditation
Spend time in nature
There is much we do not yet understand about the connection between a healthy microbiome and a healthy body, but what we have established is that there is a strong connection between the two. There is evidence to indicate that a healthy microbiome decreases a person’s risk for chronic diseases like asthma and diabetes, and mental health disorders like anxiety and bipolar (Hemarajata, et al. 2013). Researches are currently studying the connections between pregnancy related disorders, such as preeclampsia and gestational diabetes, and the health of the microbiome. Preeclampsia is a multi-systems disorder that is related to how the mother’s immune system reacts to the placenta. Preeclampsia can have serious implications for expecting mothers such as increasing the risk of high blood pressure, compromised liver and kidney dysfunction, and seizures. A study from the Netherlands found that first time mothers who consumed fermented milk products such as yogurt had a 20-30% decreased risk of developing preeclampsia depending on how often they were consumed. (Brantsaeter, et al. 2011).
Our fermented friends that I would like to encourage are the sour ones: yogurt, kefir, kimchi, beet kavass, and sauerkraut. I would challenge you to add, instead of eliminate like in fad diets, one fermented food of your choice to your daily diet. A variety of options can be found at your local grocery store, or you may choose to make your own. Excellent sources of recipes include Sandor Ellix Katz’s The Art of Fermentation, blogs, and a quick online search. The craft of fermentation is really quite simple, all you really need is a few empty jars and some counter space. When it comes to choosing a supplement or a high quality food, the current research supports choosing food as a natural source of probiotics. Invest in what you put inside your body. There are a multitude of way to get great produce into your diet: visit a local farm, join a CSA, buy local, buy organic, plant a garden (get your hands in the dirt and walk barefoot), plant kale or herbs in pot on your counter (water it and watch it grow). Cook at home. Eat slowly with friends and people you love. Create peace in your belly, in your home, and in your world one meal at a time. Nourish yourself in order to nourish those powerful bacteria we call our microbiome.
Brantsaeter, A.L., R., Haugen, M., Myking, S., Sengpiel, V., Magnus, P., Jacobsson, B., and Meltzer, H.M. (2011). Intake of Probiotic Food and Risk of Preeclampsia in Primiparous Women: The Norwegian Mother and Child Cohort Study. American Journal of Epidemiology. DOI: 10.1093/aje/kwr168
Deans, E. (2014). The Gut-Brain Connection, Mental Illness, and Disease. Psychology Today.
Heinman, M.L., and Greenway, F.L. (2016). A healthy gastrointestinal microbiome is dependent on dietary diversity. Molecular Metabolism. DOI: 10.1016/j.molmet.2016.02.005
Hemarajata, P., and Versalovic, J. (2013). Effect of probiotics on gut microbiota: mechanisms of intestinal immunomodulation and neuromodulation. Gastroenterology. DOI: 10.1177/1756283X12459294