If you are preparing for pregnancy, you’ve undoubtedly come across multiple ads for pregnancy probiotics. But what are probiotics? How do they work? Which probiotic strains are most effective?
Read on to find out.
Probiotic supplements are becoming increasingly popular amongst pregnant women, and for good reason. Optimising the health of the gut and also the vaginal microbiome during pregnancy can not only support your digestive health, but research is suggesting there could be benefits to baby including reducing the risks of eczema, and of course, helping to establish their own gut microbiome as they travel through the vagina during birth.
However, it is important to take pregnancy probiotics that include the researched strains so both you and your baby experience the benefits. So, we are covering the 3 vital probiotic strains in pregnancy and the research behind each and how they can provide benefit to both mother and baby.
Why Are Certain Probiotic Strains More Important Than Others During Pregnancy?
Probiotics refers to the microorganisms such as bacteria, yeasts and other tiny living things that are introduced into the body through food such as yoghurt and other fermented foods or through oral capsule supplements.
However, probiotics encompasses a very broad group of various types of bacteria and other microbes. Which means each and every probiotic strain has its own unique profile of benefits.
Some probiotic strains have been more well-studied for their potential benefits in pregnancy compared to others, although, they are likely to still be present in the gut amongst those who are not pregnant too. That is, scientists do not think that specific microbes are populating the large intestine just during pregnancy, then disappearing.
What we do know is that are there are several specific probiotic strains that seem to have a particular set of researched benefits during pregnancy for both maternal and infant health outcomes.
The 3 Most Vital Probiotic Strains
The three most crucial being Lactobacillus rhamnosus HN001, Lactobacillus acidophilus, and Lactobacillus reuteri.
As you can see they all have something in common, they are all a part of the Lactobacillus family, which can help convert some nutrients like lactose, the naturally occurring carbohydrate found in dairy products into lactate, this then generates a slightly acidic environment, inhibiting potential pathogens (not so good bacteria that may cause disease or an imbalance of bacteria) from growing. Most of the vaginal microbiota – yes, there’s a whole microscopic world living in your underwear – are Lactobacilli as this helps to maintain a healthy vaginal pH.
Let’s take a look at each one of these in turn and review the research to date and the potential benefits to you and your baby.
#1 Lactobacillus rhamnosus HN001
Lactobacillus rhamnosus is one of the most well researched probiotic strains. It is well known for its ability to produce the enzyme lactase, which breaks down lactose found in milk and yoghurt and other dairy foods, and turns it into lactic acid. This in turn helps to reduce the pH and make the environment slightly more acidic, which can help prevent pathogens from populating the gut.
The HN001 strain has been very well-researched with benefits including:
- Shown to reduce the risk of eczema when taken in pregnancy and during post-partum for up to 6 months whilst breastfeeding, amongst those babies with an atopic family history (i.e. a close relative or sibling with a history of hayfever, eczema, asthma or allergies; Dotterud, Johnsen & Oien, 2010).
- Supporting the immune health of both pregnant mothers and babies. Given, much of our immune response is dependent on our gut microbiome, and its impact on your baby’s future risk of allergy-type conditions such as eczema, it is well understood that the probiotics can help regulate the immune response during pregnancy.
- Optimising digestive health and may help with irritable bowel syndrome symptoms such as bloating, gas, diarrhoea and constipation which has been studied in non-pregnant people to date (Vitellio et al., 2020).
- Supporting healthy mood during pregnancy and post-partum, with studies showing a lower depression and anxiety scores in the 6 months post-partum period (Slykerman et al., 2017).
- May also help support vaginal microbiome health and microflora balance, with research suggesting it may be helpful for bacterial vaginosis, particularly when taken in combination with Lactobacillus reuteri (Reid & Kirjaivanen, 2005).
Another bonus of Lactobacillus rhamnosus HN001 is that it may also support blood sugar balance in pregnancy too and reduce the risk of Gestational Diabetes according to some research conducted in New Zealand (Wickens et al., 2017).
During pregnancy, your body’s ability to handle dietary carbohydrates can change due to changes in how we respond to the hormone, insulin, for some pregnant women, the pancreas which is the organ that produces insulin, simply cannot keep up! Leading them to a diagnosis of Gestational Diabetes.
Whilst this can be very well managed with an expert pregnancy dietitian, diabetes educator and your doctor using diet, lifestyle and sometimes medications too, trying to eat a well-balanced diet of healthy fats, proteins and slow-release (or low glycaemic index) carbohydrates and plenty of fruit and veggies is key to help with blood glucose balance throughout pregnancy.
So, it’s safe to say, Lactobacillus rhamnosus HN001 is a must-have probiotic strain in a pregnancy probiotic for its range of benefits and potential benefits for both you and your baby.
#2 Lactobacillus acidophilus
Lactobacillus acidophilus is a common probiotic strain, and is found widely in fermented foods and yoghurt, which is where you may have heard of it before.
Again, being in the Lactobacillus family, this bacteria can convert lactose into lactic acid, creating a more acidic environment, ideal to prevent pathogens growing, and also promoting optimal vaginal pH balance. It is known that oral supplementation of Lactobacillus acidophilus can influence the health of the vaginal microbiota, which is important to take care of particularly during pregnancy.
Research to date in the pregnancy health domain shows that is can help promote immune health of both you and your baby when combined with a mixture of other probiotic strains (Baldassarre et al., 2018).
Lactobacillus acidophilus when combined with other common probiotic strains has also been found to reduce the symptoms of depression in the postpartum period (Slykerman et al., 2017) .
Another bonus of Lactobacillus acidophilus, that it too may also support blood sugar balance in pregnancy too.
#3 Lactobacillus reuteri
Lactobacillus reuteri our final vital strain is a well-researched probiotic with benefits surrounding digestive health being shown in studies. It is found naturally in the breastmilk of about 15% of breastfeeding women (Sinkiewicz & Ljunggren, 2009).
The benefits of Lactobacillus reuteri for both mother and baby are continuing to be studied, however, to date it has been shown that, L. reuteri may help:
- Babies to digest breastmilk and solids better, and it can be transmitted via breastmilk, so that means if you’re supplementing with this probiotic strain that it will reach your baby’s tummy via your breastmilk(Sinkiewicz & Ljunggren, 2009).
- Managing colic in breastfed babies, when taken by mothers (Sung et al., 2018 & Sung et al., 2014, Szajewska, Gyrczuk & Horvath, 2013).
- When taken with Lactobacillus rhamnosus HN001, it can help promote normal healthy vaginal microflora and acid balance as well as reduce the risk of bacterial vaginosis (BV), a condition that affects up to 36% of pregnant women in parts of Australia (Smith et al., 2005). With BV being associated with an increase risk of pre-term birth, appropriate measures to prevent BV prior to and during pregnancy is important, and a probiotic containing a combination of both Lactobacillus reuteri and Lactobacillus rhamnosus HN001, can be a safe way to potentially reduce your risk of developing BV.
Taking care of the vaginal microbiome is important at all times, but particularly in pregnancy, and a probiotic that contains Lactobacillus reuteri in combination with Lactobacillus rhamnosus, is a key part of that.
Pregnancy Probiotics: A Summary
Probiotic supplementation in pregnancy can help reduce the colonisation of Group B Streptococcus (GBS), which can naturally colonise the vagina during pregnancy impeding on how the rest of your pregnancy and birth progresses (Ho et al., 2016).
Typically, the finding of GBS in pregnancy leads to the requirement of antibiotic treatment to prevent it from contributing to an increased risk of pre-term birth, requiring the use of antibiotics to clear it, and in some circumstances, if it cannot be cleared and it can effect your birthing options too. (Farr et al., 2020).
For more tips on what to look for in a pregnancy probiotic supplement, check out our previous article on the topic here.
Thinking of getting supplementing with pregnancy probiotics? Read about Pregnancy Probiotic 360° with vitamin D.
Not only is having the right strains present in your pregnancy probiotic, but ensuring they actually make it to your large intestine where they can get to work is crucial.
Enteric coated capsules is one way that probiotics can help survive the acid bath that is your stomach and actually reach the large intestine so they can support you and your growing baby. So be sure to look out for this when selecting your pregnancy probiotic.
Please speak to your health care professional if you are considering starting a new supplement to ensure it is right for you and your circumstances.
If you are struggling with pregnancy or post-partum depression or anxiety, reach out to PANDA for support resources and speak with your health care provider.