Thinking about starting a family?
If so, now is a very important time to consider your own digestive health — it has a much bigger impact on your baby’s health than you might think!
Gut Bacteria is Passed to Your Baby
For decades, conventional wisdom told us that the womb is a sterile environment, devoid of any microbes to protect your baby and its growing immune system. It was thought that your baby doesn’t get exposed to any bacteria until during birth when it passes through the vaginal canal. (1)
But recently, researchers have been able to detect some bacteria in the placenta and even in the intestines of a fetus. (2,3) They posit that this bacteria is derived from your (mom’s) gut microbiome, meaning your gut bacteria can travel via the placenta to reach your baby and affect its development.
So, your baby’s microbiome begins developing and acquiring bacteria from you far earlier than we previously thought.
That makes it even more important that you have the healthiest gut you can prior to getting pregnant — If you have a healthy gut, chances are that your baby will have a healthy gut and a healthy start to life too.
Imbalanced Gut Bacteria Can Complicate Pregnancy
During pregnancy, a woman’s gut microbiome goes through many dramatic changes.
One of these is how a woman’s gut will naturally become dysbiotic (or imbalanced) in her third trimester: certain bacterial colonies become fewer and less diverse, and more bad bacteria are temporarily present.
Specifically, researchers observe increases in the abundance of Proteobacteria and Actinobacteria, which are strains commonly seen in inflammatory bowel disease. (5) It’s thought that this temporary dysbiosis somehow helps prepare mom for birthing, although it’s still not exactly known.
However, what happens if you already have gut dysbiosis before pregnancy? Does this affect the course of your pregnancy?
It’s possible for your gut bacteria to become too dysbiotic by the third trimester if you’re already starting off imbalanced. This imbalance can complicate other essential pregnancy adaptations (i.e. increase in blood volume, altered immune response) and result in gestational diabetes, hypertension, or excess weight gain. (6)
Imbalanced flora is also associated with obesity, increased growth of pathobionts (good bacteria that turn bad), and increased inflammation. (7, 8, 9, 10) These can complicate pregnancies and lead to preterm births or pre-eclampsia, a dangerous condition of high blood pressure during pregnancy. (11)
Furthermore, recall how your gut bacteria can reach the baby via the placenta — dysbiosis and too much of the ‘wrong’ bacteria have been linked to premature rupture of membranes and premature birth, and babies who are born prematurely are more likely to have health issues. (12, 13)
Therefore, it’s important to make sure your gut is well-balanced before pregnancy to set yourself and your baby up for the best possible outcomes!
Weight and its Impact on Gut Bacteria and Metabolic Outcomes for Babies
Being at a healthy weight before becoming pregnant is a great way to help ensure better metabolic health for your baby. (Not sure if you’re a healthy weight? You can use a BMI calculator to gauge where you are).
Dysbiosis is a big problem when it comes to metabolic health (which I’ve discussed before here). When you have dysbiosis, you develop intestinal permeability and chronic, low-grade inflammation that is highly associated with metabolic health issues, such as obesity, insulin resistance, and diabetes.
And not only does obesity impact your own health, but it also has both short- and long-term consequences for your baby. For instance, one study found that the infants of obese mothers had greater percent body fat and had already developed insulin resistance in the womb.
Obese women also have a higher risk of developing pregnancy complications and metabolic diseases, such as increased risk of miscarriage, increased risk of C-section delivery, gestational diabetes, hypertension, and preeclampsia. (16, 17, 18) All of these can greatly compromise infant health outcomes.
Furthermore, starting off with a balanced gut can ensure that your infant will have a healthy metabolic outcome and a normal body weight. To illustrate this point, let’s look at this diagram below:
Source: Gohir, W., Ratcliffe, E. M., & Sloboda, D. M. (2014). Of the bugs that shape us: maternal obesity, the gut microbiome, and long-term disease risk. Pediatric research, 77(1-2), 196-204.
- (A) depicts a woman with a normal body weight that possesses a stable, healthy gut microbiota which changes over the course of pregnancy.
Women with a normal body weight are more likely to have balanced gut bacteria. It is proposed that this balance helps facilitate normal gut development and function in the baby, and helps the baby regulate a healthy body weight.
- (B) depicts an obese woman, who is more likely to present with disrupted gut microbiota already before pregnancy. This imbalance is further amplified through the course of her pregnancy.
This imbalance could also lead to poor or altered gut development, adverse metabolic health outcomes, and mediated increased chronic disease risk for the baby.
As you can see, managing your body weight by developing a balanced gut before becoming pregnant is essential to make sure you’re passing down a healthy gut to your baby.
A Healthy Gut Makes For a Healthy Pregnancy
By now, you understand that it is important to start your pregnancy off by having balanced gut bacteria and being at a healthy body weight, both of which go hand in hand.
Here are some steps you can take to make sure you’re passing on a healthy gut microbiome to your baby:
- Get your gut tested. Especially if you already feel like you have symptoms of gut dysbiosis, it’s important to start dealing with this before pregnancy! But even if you don’t have any digestive symptoms, you can still have dysbiosis, and it’s important to get tested before becoming pregnant. Check out the last section in my article for more information about testing.
- Consume probiotics and prebiotic-rich foods regularly. Probiotics can influence the immune system in a way that weeds out “bad” bugs and makes more room for good bugs, while prebiotics can increase counts of good bacteria that colonize the gut. Doing both can help improve your overall balance of gut flora, some of which will then be passed onto the placenta to affect your baby’s development. Probiotic supplementation can also help regulate the unbalanced microflora composition observed in obesity and diabetes. (19)
- Eat a diet with plenty of plant matter, high-quality meats, and fat. Eating lots of fruits and vegetables that contain polyphenols and fibers can help you get those prebiotics into your diet. Healthy fats include olive oil, avocado oil, pastured animal fats, and coconut oil.
- Exercise. Recent studies suggest that exercise can increase the number of beneficial microbial species, enrich the microflora diversity, and improve the development of commensal bacteria. All of these effects are beneficial for preparing a healthy, balanced gut for your and your baby. (20, 21)
I discuss all of this (and more) in my 8-week digestive health program, Build Your Biome. If you’re thinking about starting (or expanding) your family soon, BYB is a great way to go through all the steps to take care of any gut bacteria imbalances before you become pregnant.
Or, if you want to just dive a bit deeper into all things gut-health, check out my free 60-minute training on digestive issues!
For those of you who are preparing to get pregnant or have had kids — did you consider your gut health? Tell me in the comments!