Most experts agree: gut health is important for a healthy pregnancy. What we’ve learned in recent years, however, is just how important that connection is. Research is increasingly showing that the gut microbiome during pregnancy plays a pivotal role in a baby’s early health trajectory.
What is Gut Health Anyway?
Gut health is about fostering a healthy community of bacteria in the microbiome. Factors like diet, exercise, medication, and genetics can all play a role.
Different aspects of gut health—i.e., inflammation, immune responses, and barrier strength of the intestinal tract—are largely driven by a person’s microbiome. The bacteria, fungi, and viruses that populate the intestinal tract—from your mouth to the other end 💩—determine how inflamed the tract is, what kind of immune responses happen, and the strength of the intestinal barrier wall.
The Far-Reaching Effects of Gut Health On Other Microbiomes
The gut microbiome can also influence other microbiomes, like the skin and vaginal tract.
While the vaginal and skin microbiomes can be altered directly—i.e., by applying lactobacillus (“good” bacteria) or antifungal medications—one of the best ways to improve the skin and vaginal microbiomes is through diet. By improving gut health, you can positively influence vaginal and skin health as well.
How Gut Health Can Affect Pregnancy
Vaginal dysbiosis—a bacterial imbalance—has been long associated with late-term fetal loss and preterm birth. Now, several studies show vaginosis is also a leading cause of infertility. Up to 40% of patients undergoing in vitro fertilization (IVF) cycles have abnormal vaginal microbiomes. Studies showed that in the presence of streptococcus—and other bacteria that failed to produce hydrogen peroxide—IVF success was cut in half. A healthy vaginal microflora at the time of embryo transfer is an important factor in the success of IVF, and a vaginal microbiome composed solely of lactobacillus is most likely to be successful.
In the same way an unbalanced or dysbiotic gut may be felt when experiencing GI symptoms, vaginal dysbiosis is most often seen with frequent and persistent yeast infections, vaginosis (bacterial overgrowth), and urinary tract infections.
Proper diet, which improves gut health, can also prevent and treat vaginal dysbiosis, and improve pregnancy outcomes. In this twisty way, gut health becomes pregnancy health!
The Parent’s Microbiome Becomes the Child’s Microbiome
The effect of gut health doesn’t end in utero. There are a number of ways gut health during pregnancy can affect the baby’s microbiome and health after they’re born.
From their first moments out of the placenta, a baby begins transferring their parent’s microbiome to themselves. For example, during the birthing process, the baby swallows both vaginal and fecal bacteria and is smothered head to toe in vaginal fluids. The baby will also take skin microbes during skin-to-skin contact, and then re-up on bacteria daily from breastfeeding (and kisses 💕 ).
This bacterial transfer is why it’s suggested that babies born via C-section compared to those born vaginally are more likely to develop immune-related disorders. In one study, researchers compared the microbiomes of newborns born vaginally, via C-section, and via C-section swabbed with the parent’s vaginal fluids two minutes after birth. The study found C-section babies who were swabbed had gut, oral, and skin microbiomes more similar to vaginally born babies than to babies born by C-section at one month post-birth. Other studies have explored the effects of C-sections on the incidence of allergies.
During breastfeeding, colostrum (early breastmilk), provides essential ingredients that protect the newborn infant from infection, and help train the newborn’s emerging immune system. Colostrum also provides beneficial bacteria in a baby’s gut. After colostrum, breastmilk provides a continuous transfer to the baby. Using DNA analysis, scientists were able to estimate babies who were primarily breastfed get 18.5% of their microbes from breastmilk, and an additional 5% from areolar (nipple) skin. Because of these helpful bacteria, breastfed infants have lower incidence rates of immune diseases.
What To Do About Gut Health
Thankfully, because gut health is largely controlled by diet, it can be altered!
Here are some tips for creating a happy and healthy microbiome:
Lose the refined sugars: Eliminate sodas, refined carbohydrates, and high fructose corn syrup.
Eat primarily plants: Most of our diet, up to 90%, should be vegetables and fruit.
Avoid chemicals: Steer clear of pesticide-heavy vegetables, and products with antibiotics or hormones.
Mix in fermented foods: Yogurt, sauerkraut, sorghum, kimchi, and pickles contain loads of natural probiotics that can help repopulate your gut with healthy bacteria.
We know all this microbiome stuff can be a punch to the gut! 😉 We hope it’s supportive on your way to better gut health.
— Meenal Lele
Meenal Lele is the author of The Baby and the Biome. She is also the founder & CEO of Lil Mixins and Hanimune Therapeutics. Meenal has been a medical researcher for 20 years and has a chemical engineering and business degree from the University of Pennsylvania.