The maternal microbiome has been getting a great deal of attention from researchers recently. It seems our personal microbes have a large impact on every aspect of our health, including pregnancy.
So what is the mysterious maternal microbiome, and what should you be doing about it?
What Exactly Is the Maternal Microbiome?
Microbiomes are communities of microorganisms. Within them trillions of bacteria, archaea (a kind of microbe), fungi, and viruses co-exist.
Human microbiomes are body areas with their own particular community of microbes. It’s become a hot topic recently because now we have the tools to study how microbiomes evolve, as well as the role they play in our health.
Maternal microbiomes are the micro-environments that affect gestation. These include the mouth, the vagina and the gut.
Health professionals used to believe that an amniotic sac was sterile, and that a developing foetus was not affected by any microorganisms. It now looks like this is not the case. A mother’s microbiome can in fact directly affect a foetus. This can happen via the umbilical cord and the placenta months before birth.
How Do Microbiomes Affect or Inform Us During Pregnancy?
We know that nutrients transferred via the placenta allow a baby to grow. Yet research shows that organisms from the microbiome are transferring too. This is how the immune system gets its first lessons. The microbiome essentially provides a baby’s very first inoculations.
As well as this, a new study shows that gut microbes change as pregnancy develops. They correspond with the natural increases in blood glucose and fat deposits that create a healthy baby. Researchers believe that further studies will provide more evidence of this, and may come to show that microbiomes are driving these changes.
Plus, remember the vaginal and oral microbiomes (as if you could forget)? Well, studies have recently found that the vaginal microbiome varies between women, and the microbiomes of pregnant women differ to non-pregnant women. Specifically, the predominating microbe is the Lactobacillus type. They may prevent harmful bacteria growth and help with digestion.
Other research has highlighted some of the bacteria species found in post-birth placentas. Results show that they resemble oral microbiomes rather than gut or vaginal biomes.
Simply put – if our microbiomes are poorly functioning then developing babies may not get what they need to thrive. A healthy gut microbiome might be the very first step towards having a healthy child.
Can Eating Differently Change My Maternal Microbiome?
You are what you eat when it comes to having a healthy mind and body, and it seems this applies to your microbiome too. Eating more of the right foods will lead to flourishing microbiomes.
In turn your microbes may help an unborn child to develop healthily, setting them up with an immune system that’s already learnt from the mother.
To feed a flourishing microbiome, food specialists recommend avoiding processed food. Avoid sugar, artificial sweeteners, yeast and dried fruit (as these contain sugars too). Excess fat and salt, and fibre-free foods are also ones to steer clear of.
The right types of microbiome friendly foods are plant-based fermentable fibres. These include starchy vegetables, fruit, healthy fats, sauerkraut and dietary probiotic foods.
Another tip is to avoid antibiotics if possible. This is due to the fact that they destroy all gut bacteria and create a sterile microbiome. Also on the avoid list are anti-bacterial hand gels and wipes. Bacteria, through contact with the soil and animals, exposes expectant mums to a wide variety of microbes which can strengthen their pregnancy.
At least, this is what researchers think – more research is needed before anyone is certain.
Can Microbiomes Inform a Personalised Nutrition Plan?
Yes, it’s possible to have your gut microbiome analysed by a private specialist to get your own personalised diet plan. It’s becoming more popular as people begin to realise that microbiomes are important. They could be key in discovering why we have such epidemics of bad health.
To have your gut microbiome analysed, you’ll need to send off a stool sample. In return you’ll receive a report recommending what kind of food you should eat depending on what your gut microorganisms are doing.
This sounds like a fairly sensible idea. However a personalised diet plan also raises issues around the social aspects of dining which we all enjoy. There’s concern that it can create an unhealthy relationship with food.
Perhaps a better route is to eat as many plants as possible and avoid processed foods – which is what a microbiome diet is based on. Whatever you choose, make sure you speak to your midwife or doctor before making major changes to your diet during pregnancy.