How Mom's Vaginal Microbiome Impacts Baby's Immune Health, According to a New Study
You may be familiar with gut microbiome – the ecosystem of bacteria in our gastrointestinal tracts that affects our GI Health. Did you know that there is another important microbiome in women’s bodies – the vaginal microbiome. Scientists have linked a healthy vaginal microbiome to various aspects of women’s health, including reproductive and prenatal health.
Now, a new study suggests that a mom’s vaginal microbiome can influence her baby’s risks toward certain health conditions, even after birth. Let’s take a look at the science.
What is vaginal microbiome?
Just like in the intestines, bacteria and other microbes live in the vagina. Don’t worry – this is perfectly normal, and even healthy. We call this vaginal microbiome. Some women have mostly beneficial bacteria, like the lactobacillus, that maintain the vaginal pH at healthy low levels to keep out pathogens.
Others have an imbalance of vaginal microbiome, where beneficial bacteria is outnumbered by harmful ones. This imbalance is called bacterial vaginosis (BV), and is quite common. Scientists estimate that up to 1 in 3 women in the US may have a suboptimal vaginal microbiome. You may not know that you have BV, as it can be without noticeable symptoms.
Vaginal microbiome is not static. It can change over time, in response to changes in diet, your stress levels, sleep patterns, medications, sexual partners and so on.
How does vaginal microbiome affect your health?
A healthy vaginal microbiome helps keep the vagina healthy and protect it – and the nearby organs like the uterus – from pathogens. Some protective bacteria can even secrete natural antibiotics to combat invaders.
More recent studies have suggested that vaginal microbiome’s role may expand into female reproductive health, going beyond the health of the vagina. For example, women with a healthy balance of bacteria in the vagina have been found to be at lower risk of developing pelvic inflammatory disease, which can negatively affect your chance of pregnancy.
Scientists have also found evidence that a healthy vaginal microbiome may contribute to the process of natural conception and potentially protect pregnancies, once established.
Can vaginal microbiome impact your baby’s health?
Newborns inherit most of their microbiomes from the mom. Bacteria on the mom’s skin, in the gut and in the vagina have all been found in newborns.
Because the babies inherit the mom’s microbiome, doctors have suggested that the mom’s vaginal microbiome may influence the baby’s health. This hypothesis is partly based on the observation that babies born via C-sections (which don’t expose them to the moms’ vaginal microbiomes) have microbiomes different from babies from a normal vaginal birth, and are at higher risk of allergies and asthma.
What did the new study find?
To understand the mechanism behind this observation, Kathryn McCauley and her group compared samples of 184 mom’s vaginal microbiome and 172 baby’s gut microbiome, and found 4 distinct types, each dominated by a specific species of lactobacillus.
The study reports on several interesting observations: Whether the mom has asthma (which causes the immune system to be active) may influence which of the bacteria that colonize the mom’s vagina are passed onto the baby. Different lactobacillus species have been known to encode different gene functions, influencing what type of molecules they produce, which, in turn, impacts how the baby’s immune system develops and functions.
The authors hypothesized that these differences in the microbiome, expressed through genetics and immunology, may partly explain how the baby’s risk of developing asthma and atopy is determined.
In short – your vaginal microbiome’s impact goes beyond reproductive health, and possibly influence the baby’s health in the early days.
How do I know if my vaginal microbiome is healthy?
If vaginal microbiome is another key to your – and your baby’s – health, how do you know yours is healthy? You may have some signs when your vaginal microbiome is in an imbalance. Signs include unusual vaginal discharge, soreness, itching and irritation. However, many women have suboptimal vaginal microbiome without any symptoms.
When you don’t have any symptoms, taking a vaginal microbiome test can give you the answer you are looking for. There are several at-home test providers in this area, and Ovaterra’s science team recommends one: Evvy Vaginal Microbiome Test. With a quick vaginal swab in the comfort of your own home, you’ll receive the result from a CLIA-certified lab in about 2 weeks, with recommendations customized to you and your results.
Is it possible to influence your vaginal microbiome?
If you find out that your vaginal microbiome is in an imbalance, you may want to find ways to help the beneficial bacteria thrive and drive out the harmful ones. There are many theories on how to do just that, such as:
- Eating yogurt, sauerkraut and other probiotic foods to reintroduce lactobacilli, the group of bacteria that’s at the top of the list when it comes to vaginal health;
- Refraining from douches, vaginal creams and other personal care products that can make it harder for the beneficial bacteria to survive in the vagina;
- Taking probiotic supplements orally or vaginally to increase the amount of lactobacilli in the vagina; and
- Other steps, like eating low-glycemic foods, wearing cotton-only underwear and staying away from “synthetic chemicals” in general.
That said, while avoiding douches and other personal care products is a good step to take to protect your vaginal microbiome, for many of the other ideas, the scientific evidence is not conclusive. For example, studies haven’t been able to link increased yogurt intake or oral probiotics to any positive changes in what bacteria colonizes the vagina (unlike in the gut).
So, if you find out or suspect that your vaginal microbiome may need support, talk to your doctor to understand where you stand, and what steps to take. And please reach out if we can answer any questions about vaginal microbiome, your reproductive health and your baby's postnatal health.
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