Preparing for a child is a special time in a woman’s life. Once she becomes pregnant, many changes occur in her body. Each change, from the increased blood circulating in her body to the hormonal changes creating food cravings and aversions, has significance in preparing her for the growth of her baby.
Along with these changes, significant changes occur in the microbiome of her gut. Bacterial changes fluctuate throughout her pregnancy, and the health of her gut has an impact on her growing baby, both in the womb and potentially throughout the child’s lifetime.
Today, women are encouraged to carefully prepare for pregnancy. Current studies reveal that proper gut health in just as important as a healthy weight and good nutrition. What if you already have compromised gut health due to a chronic gut condition? Will that impact the baby’s growth in utero and will it affect the child’s microbiome? The short answer is “yes,” but there are lots of variables and considerations.
As most people are learning, the health of the bacterial flora in our digestive system – a microbiome – has a major impact on the rest of the body’s functioning and health. The bacteria living in gut are responsible for many processes, like regulating metabolism, which influences nutrient supply, energy balance, and body weight. The gut microbiota is also a critical factor for the proper development of the immune system, which contributes to reducing infections and irregular immune responses.
The gastrointestinal tract is extremely sensitive to emotion, and the relationship between the brain and gut is quite intimate. When we feel anger, sadness, excitement, or stress, our stomachs feel them equally and respond, sometimes resulting in discomfort or emergency trips to the restroom.
For these reasons, the gut is sometimes referred to as our “second brain.” Over 100 million nerve cells, which are part of an intricate system called the enteric nervous system, line the gastrointestinal tract.. This very specialized system affects the blood flow and the acidic secretions that aid in digestion. But these nerves also signal our brain when we feel hungry or full or when we may have eaten something that doesn’t agree with us.
When a woman is pregnant, the bacteria in her gut fluctuates during each trimester; however, the greatest changes occur during the third trimester. For reasons not quite understood at this time, the microbiata during the third trimester of pregnancy resemble those of a very unhealthy, obese individual. Specifically, the bacteria associated with good health decrease, and the bacteria associated with poor health and inflammation increase.
Furthermore, these changes are not related to diet; the gut flora change regardless of a woman’s diet. The belief is that these changes to the gut flora are essential for fetal growth and provide additional sources of energy for the mother, processes of great importance during this trimester.
For women suffering from any form of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) or chronic gut illness, some complications may arise since gut health is already compromised. Crohn’s disease presents the greatest hurdle and can raise the risk of both miscarriage and premature delivery.
Women with IBD also have difficulty getting sufficient nutrients from what they eat. The best time for a woman with IBD to become pregnant is when her IBD has been in remission for at least three to six months and she is off steroids. It is also important to maintain a state of remission and prevent IBD flare-ups during pregnancy, so continuation of prescribed medications is highly recommended.
Many IBD medications have been shown to cause minimal risk to a pregnancy, but this is a topic to discuss with your doctor long before you intend to get pregnant. Most women who get pregnant during a state of remission remain in remission for the duration of their pregnancy. Only about one-third experience a flare-up while pregnant, most commonly during the first trimester.
The mother’s gut health is also important to the newborn baby’s microbiata development. At the time of birth, babies traveling through the birth canal receive their first dose of the mother’s bacteria. These bacteria rapidly colonize the baby’s upper and lower intestine.
The first steps in immune system development take place at the same time the microbiota is developing. Just after birth, the newborn gut bacteria begin to stimulate the production of white blood cells and antibodies directed at unwelcome, disease-causing microorganisms. The bacteria of the microbiota also teach the newborn’s immune system to recognize the difference between good and bad bacteria.
As science advances and we learn more about the benefits of a balanced microbiata, the bacteria living in the gut, we have learned that a mother’s gut health directly influences the health of her baby at birth and throughout life.
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