Probiotics during pregnancy may reduce obesity in mother and child

Posted by Josette Dunn on 19th February 2010

An ongoing study by scientists at the University of Turku in Finland suggests that taking probiotics during pregnancy may reduce the risk of adiposity – the most unhealthy form of obesity – after giving birth; may lead to less diabetes during pregnancy; and reduce the risk of obesity later in a baby’s life.

Probiotics are ‘good’ bacteria that help to maintain a bacterial balance in the digestive tract by reducing the growth of harmful ‘bad’ bacteria. They are a natural part of the digestive system and help to control inflammation.

For years researchers have been studying the use of probiotic supplements in addressing a variety of intestinal diseases.  More recently, researchers have looked into the possible contribution of bacteria balance in the gut towards obesity and diabetes.

Kirsi Laitinen, a nutritionist and senior lecturer at the University of Turku, said that results of the study presented at the European Congress on Obesity last May were an encouraging sign of the impact on adiposity of a diet supplemented with probiotics. Adiposity, or central obesity, is a form of obesity associated with fat bellies that is particularly unhealthy due to its strong positive correlation with heart disease.
“The women who got the probiotics fared best,” she said. “One year after childbirth, they had the lowest levels of central obesity as well as the lowest body fat percentage.”

In the eight months since these results were made public, Laitinen and her colleagues have continued to follow the women and their babies to see whether giving probiotics during pregnancy had any influence on the health of the women’s children.

“The advantage of studying pregnant women to investigate the potential link between probiotics and obesity is that it allows us to see the effects not only in the women, but also in their children,” said Laitinen.

“Particularly during pregnancy, the impacts of obesity can be immense, with the effects seen both in the mother and the child. Bacteria are passed from mother to child through the birth canal, as well as through breast milk, and research indicates that early nutrition may influence the risk of obesity later in life. There is growing evidence that this approach might open a new angle on the fight against obesity, either through prevention or treatment.”

The development of high blood sugar levels in pregnant women, called gestational diabetes, is known to boost a woman’s risk of subsequently developing type-2 diabetes, in addition to increasing the risk of childhood obesity and diabetes as the baby gets older.

The researchers at Turku University are now reporting that probiotic supplements may reduce the frequency of gestational diabetes by 20 per cent, according to data published in the British Journal of Nutrition.

As well as the above mentioned benefits to the mother, the study’s findings may also have benefits for the baby, with fewer births of larger babies.

“Taken together, long-term health benefits for mothers and children may be conferred by balanced maternal nutrition during pregnancy and lactation and by promoting the healthy gut microbiota in the mother and the child,” wrote the researchers.

They went on to say “The results of the present study show that probiotic-supplemented perinatal dietary counselling could be a safe and cost-effective tool in addressing the metabolic epidemic.

“In view of the fact that birth size is a risk marker for later obesity, the present results are of significance for public health in demonstrating that this risk is modifiable.”

Further Benefits

In addition to the benefits of probiotic supplements for preventing obesity and diabetes, a 2007 study at Linköping University in Sweden found that probiotics taken during pregnancy and early in life reduce the incidence of IgE associated eczema in children. (IgE associated eczema is the short lived, quick onset reaction from foods, moulds, animals etc.)

This trial involved 188 families with a history of allergic disease. Lactobacillus reuteri was given orally to the women during pregnancy, and to their infants from birth through 12 months of age. The probiotic was found to reduce the incidence of IgE-associated eczema during the children’s second year of life (8% of those treated with probiotics, compared to 20% of those untreated). Furthermore, reactivity to a skin prick test was less common in children treated with probiotics than those who received the placebo, especially among infants whose mothers had allergies.