Pregnancy: The Importance of Maternal Intestinal Flora to the Development of the Immune System of the Fetus

Researchers have compiled the latest findings on the importance of the maternal intestinal flora for the development of the child’s immune system. In their opinion, the effects of herbal substances ingested by pregnant women can pose a risk to the unborn child. Pregnancy

The intestinal flora or intestinal microbiota represents all the microorganisms found in the human digestive tract. These microorganisms are called commensals and they live in symbiosis with the human body. They are not pathogenic and contribute to the proper functioning of the body. The importance of the intestinal microbiota is so great that scientists often refer to it as the “second brain”. Therefore a healthy intestinal flora is essential for good health. In particular, it has been shown to affect the effectiveness of antidepressants, type 2 diabetes, and the growth of certain tumors. It is therefore not surprising that the intestinal flora of a pregnant woman has an influence on the development of her unborn child.

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In an article published this month in the journal Science, researchers have compiled the latest findings on the importance of maternal intestinal flora for the development of a child’s immune system. In their opinion, the effects of substances of plant origin (goji berries, chia seeds, etc.) consumed by pregnant women have been underestimated in research. However, these can pose a risk to the unborn child.

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Scientists have always assumed that the embryo and fetus in the womb develop in a completely sterile environment and that colonization by microbes does not occur until birth. “However, the fetus is not protected against microbial metabolites from the maternal intestinal flora,” notes Stephanie Ganal-Vonarburg, one of the authors of the study. In her opinion, the placenta only partially protects the child, and the transmission of microbial substances during pregnancy leads to the maturation of the innate immune system.

Questions about natural supplements

“It is common for pregnant women to take medicines very carefully and only after consulting their doctor, as many medicines can penetrate the placenta and affect the development of the child. However, much less is known about the natural substances in food that can be transmitted to the unborn child and to what extent this can be beneficial or harmful to the development of the child’s immune system,” says Stephanie Ganal-Vonarburg.

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She and her colleague Andrew Macpherson, co-author of the article, have also found evidence that metabolic products from food cannot directly reach the maternal body and thus the developing fetus. Most of this must pass through the intestinal flora. According to the researchers, this also applies to the consumption of plant products such as goji berries or chia seeds, which are considered very healthy foods.

“Although herbal products are “natural” substances, they are still so-called xenobiotic substances that are external to the body and must be handled very carefully,” Macpherson said. Especially when pregnant women take herbal products in large quantities”.

Further studies are needed on this topic

In summary, the researchers recommend the study of natural substances that can have a positive or negative influence on the development of the fetus and what influence differences in the maternal intestinal flora can have on this process.

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In February, a study was published in the BMJ also analyzed the intestinal flora of pregnant women. It showed that the consumption of low-calorie sweeteners such as aspartame during pregnancy, can increase the accumulation of body fat in the baby and interfere with the baby’s own intestinal microbiota.

“Understanding the influence of food ingredients on maternal metabolism and intestinal microbiota can help define the ideal maternal diet that promotes a healthier future for mother and child,” the researchers explained.


Microbial–host molecular exchange and its functional consequences in early mammalian life

Maternal low-dose aspartame and stevia consumption with an obesogenic diet alters metabolism, gut microbiota and mesolimbic reward system in rat dams and their offspring



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