By Joy Stephenson-Laws, JD, Founder
There is no denying that the bugs in our guts play a major role in our health. For example, they may be a contributing factor in whether we feel depressed or are able to lose those unwanted, stubborn pounds. They also aid in nutrient absorption and may have an impact on our risk of developing cancer.
There are trillions (more specifically about 100 trillion, representing as many as 5,000 different species) of microbes living in our intestines, and this massive group of organisms comprise the gut microbiome.
“Although they are microscopic, all together they weigh about three pounds which is more than the weight of the average human brain,” Psychology Today.
Some of these gut bugs are good, while others are bad. So the goal is to keep the good bacteria plentiful in your Microbiome with diversity. And you likely already know that consuming probiotics (or taking a probiotic supplement), is one way you may help maintain health and diversity in your gut. Two common probiotics are Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium.
If the harmful bacteria takes over, it can contribute to issues such as insulin resistance, weight gain, inflammatory bowel disease (IBS) and more.
And now, a new study found evidence that the health of an expectant mother’s gut microbiome may contribute to the risk of Autism and other neurodevelopmental disorders in her offspring.
This is a big deal because autism, a developmental disorder that usually becomes apparent in children between the ages of 2 and 3 (sometimes as early as 18 months), reportedly affects about 1 in 59 children in the United States. And to put this in perspective, this is a 15 percent increase from previous years.
The exact causes of autism are unknown, but some research suggests that increased risk factors could be genetic or environmental, like being born to older parents. So this means prevention is key, and the possibility that pregnant women may be able to help prevent autism in their children through Diet is great because diet is a controllable factor.
“The work raises the possibility that preventing forms of autism could be as simple as an expectant mom modifying her diet or taking custom probiotics,” according to this report about the study.
In addition to this, researchers of the study found that they could prevent autism-like neurodevelopmental disorders in mice if they blocked a specific anti-inflammatory molecule produced by the immune system called interleukin-17a.
“We determined that the microbiome is a key contributor in determining susceptibility [to autism-like disorders], so it suggests that you could target either the maternal microbiome or this inflammatory molecule, IL-17a," said the lead researcher of the study.
(It is, however, important to note that blocking this molecule is much more complicated and risky to do in humans. Many doctors are also hesitant to manipulate the immune system of a pregnant woman).
“You could also use this [IL-17a] as a biomarker for early diagnosis.”
Autism is also referred to as autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in order to reflect the differences or variation in challenges and strengths possessed by each person with autism. Diagnosing autism can be challenging, because there is no medical test to diagnose this disorder. And symptoms may not be obvious in all children and can vary from mild to severe.
The Microbiome & The Brain.
The lead researcher on the study said, “The microbiome can shape the developing brain in multiple ways. The microbiome is really important to the calibration of how the offspring's immune system is going to respond to an infection or injury or stress."
And remember, environmental factors such as infection, injury or stress may increase the chance of developing autism.
As mentioned, we can somewhat control our gut microbiomes through diet. And according to the report and other medical research, we can also influence the microbiome through taking probiotics and even fecal transplant, a procedure that can help replenish bacterial balance and is said to date back more than 1,000 years ago to Chinese practitioners.
So how can you be proactive about maintaining the health of your gut microbiome, especially as an expecting mother?
All pregnant women should consult their doctors about their diets, but the following foods are rich in probiotics:
- Yogurt and other fermented dairy products (such as kefir). There is also a probiotic-rich milk that may help with other pregnancy related problems such as preterm delivery and preeclampsia.
- Kombucha (but some medical professionals advice against drinking during pregnancy)
- Tempeh (made from soybeans. Appears to be fine to eat during pregnancy in moderation, but always speak with your doctor)
- Pickles (a common pregnancy craving!)
It is also recommended to eat a balanced diet consisting of plenty of fruits, vegetables and whole grains. The food you eat provides nutrients for the microbes in your gut. So you want to make sure you are eating a lot of whole, nutrient-dense foods. Some of these foods are considered prebiotics, which are essentially the food source for probiotics.
“A diet rich in whole foods provides your gut with a variety of nutrients that help promote the growth of different types of bacteria, resulting in a more diverse gut flora,” according to this source.
If you are eating nutrient-void processed foods, you will not have a healthy gut microbiome. Doing this may actually contribute to the growth of unhealthy microbes.
The more plants you eat, the better.
According to Psychology Today, “a recent study found that people who had a mostly plant-based diet had a richer, more diverse microbe population. A plant-based diet also increased the good bacteria that promote health.”
Is it Safe to Take a Probiotic Supplement During Pregnancy?
“Probiotics are probably safe during pregnancy. However, because there is a variety of probiotics and limited research, probiotics cannot be declared safe completely,” says the American Pregnancy Association.
As always, speak with your doctor. And if you are interested in taking a probiotic supplement after you have your baby, know that probiotics are unlikely to be transferred into breast milk, according to the NIH.
Prenatal Vitamins May Also be Key.
If you are pregnant, it is highly likely your doctor recommended you take a prenatal vitamin. And the NIH reports that mothers of children with autism were less likely than those of typically developing children to report having taken prenatal vitamins during the 3 months before pregnancy or the first month of pregnancy.
Get moving & Get Good Sleep.
You must be cleared by your doctor to workout while pregnant, but some research has shown that exercise may alter gut bacteria and improve gut health.
“Disrupting your body clock through a lack of sleep, shift work and eating late at night may have harmful effects on your gut bacteria,” according to one source.
Finally, Always Test.
Pregnant or not, if you want to have the best gut microbiome possible, you need to be nutritionally balanced. Taking a comprehensive nutrient test will let you know if you have any nutritional imbalances or deficiencies. If you do, you can work with a competent healthcare professional on possibly tweaking your diet and/or taking quality supplements.
It might also be a good idea to take a GI effects test, which provides insight into your gut flora.
Enjoy your healthy life!
The pH professional health care team includes recognized experts from a variety of health care and related disciplines, including physicians, attorneys, nutritionists, nurses and certified fitness instructors. This team also includes the members of the pH Medical Advisory Board, which constantly monitors all pH programs, products and services. To learn more about the pH Medical Advisory Board, click here.