Microbes that help, microbes that hurt: both may be harbored in the afterbirth during your pregnancy, according to a recent study.
Bacteria from STDs, severe gum disease and bladder infections that occur in early pregnancy may end up in the placenta, possibly resulting in preterm birth – while a healthy mix of microorganisms can jumpstart your baby’s immune system.
Proper Balance Is The Key to Safeguarding Health
We all need colonies of beneficial bacteria, or probiotics, that compete with viruses, fungi and other pathogenic organisms for space and nutrients inside our bodies. Probiotics can protect us from infections and help our immune cells to function. Such microorganisms are present at birth.
Scientists used to think babies acquired them during passage through the birth canal, leaving babies born by cesarean section at a disadvantage. But some new research on the origin of microorganisms in infants has yielded surprising results.
What Is A Microbiome?
Scientists call the community of bacteria, viruses, and fungi that cohabit our human bodies a “microbiome.” Body parts such as the skin, nose, mouth, genitals, and especially the gut, support different types of microbiomes. In looking at the unique microbiome found in a newborn’s intestines, scientists were surprised to discover they didn’t match microbes found in the vagina. The babies’ microbiomes also didn’t vary by how they were delivered; natural or cesarean birth made no difference. What the babies did have in common was that each was born with a placenta, or afterbirth.
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The Microbiome of the Placenta Closely Resembles Microbes Found in the Mouth
You probably already know that severe gum disease, or periodontitis, in pregnancy may be associated with preterm birth and low birth weight babies. That’s why your doctor or midwife recommends a visit to the dentist, if needed, in early pregnancy. But researchers in this study point out that a single dental treatment during pregnancy has not been shown effective to improve pregnancy outcomes. This could be because harmful germs in the mother’s mouth may be migrating to the placenta by way of her bloodstream long before treatment takes place.
Placenta Microbiomes of Preterm Babies and Term Infants
In the study of tissue samples taken from 320 placentas, the microbiomes for babies born at less than 37 weeks gestation were distinct from those delivered at term. Researchers noted markers in the placentas of preterm babies indicating maternal infections that occurred months earlier, as far back as the first weeks of pregnancy. Specifically, there were signs that the mothers received treatment with antibiotics for urinary tract infections during the pregnancy, events that documentation in the women’s prenatal records confirmed.
Some harmful germs found in the placentas of premature infants may have originated from gum infections or sexually transmitted diseases in early pregnancy. In animal studies, such pathogens have been associated with preterm labor or stillbirth.
Protect Your Baby With These Sensible Strategies
When we asked, the researchers declined to make recommendations on the basis of this study alone – but the opinion of Decoded Pregnancy’s own expert is that regular consumption of foods with active probiotic cultures, such as kefir, yogurt and cultured vegetables, or taking a daily dose of probiotic supplement, may help the placenta’s microbiome remain healthy.
Kefir is a cultured milk drink that is richer in active probiotics than yogurt.
You can easily make cultured vegetables at home from recipes available on the Internet, or you can purchase the veggies from healthfood stores. Fresh (not canned) sauerkraut, relish or pickles and probiotic drinks made with coconut water are available in the refrigerated section, usually placed alongside a wide selection of probiotic supplements.
Probiotics Are Fed on Pre-biotics
Insoluble fibers from a diet of fresh fruits, vegetables and whole grains provide a supportive environment for friendly microorganisms. Providing a continuous supply of plant-based roughage can help good probiotics take hold and thrive in your body.
A High-Potency Multi-Organism Probiotic Supplement May Boost Immune Function
If you are currently fighting an infection or being treated with antibiotics, a probiotic supplement is often a good idea, along with adequate rest, extra vitamin C with bioflavanoids, food-based zinc and vitamin D. Vitamins sourced from foods have the advantage of being recognized and utilized more easily by your body, while synthetic preparations, which may contain non-food ingredients, are sometimes poorly absorbed. (In other words – it’s better to get your nutrients from food than from pills.)
Plan a Healthy Pregnancy
In a perfect world, you’d get regular dental check-ups and cleanings to prevent advanced gum disease prior to pregnancy. You’d practice safe sex and ask your partner to undergo testing before you committed to starting a family. You would strive to avoid bladder infections by getting enough rest, taking regular bathroom breaks when working and by drinking plenty of fluids. And, when the long-awaited birth of your baby takes place, she would be immediately placed skin to skin with your body, providing an important additional source of protective microbes, followed by early breastfeedings to confer natural immunization.
The Placenta as Preparation for Life
Science has recently learned that your baby’s placenta may be playing a larger role than previously thought in preparation for life outside the womb. The afterbirth is not a sterile organ; possibly it provides a microbiome to babies before birth. The placenta may even harbor some microbes that are thought to cause preterm birth. These pathogens may take hold when infection invades the mother’s body in early pregnancy.
The microbiome of the placenta closely resembles microbiomes found inside the mouth. Recent research findings on the nature of placental microbiomes ought to serve as motivation for good health measures such as regular dental care, a diet that is rich in plant fibers and probiotics, adequate fluids and rest during pregnancy.
Editor’s Note: This article does not constitute medical advice. Decoded Pregnancy suggests speaking with your physician before beginning any dietary or medical changes during or before pregnancy.
Aagaard, Kjersti, et al. The Placenta Harbors a Unique Microbiome. (2014). Science Translational Medicine. Accessed on June 13, 2014© Copyright 2014 Mary Earhart: Pregnancy, Childbirth, All rights Reserved. Written For: Decoded Pregnancy