When bad bugs go good

By John Pastor • Published: December 12th, 2012
Category: Health in a Heartbeat

Bad bacteria may turn good … if there’s a baby on board.

New studies of the microbial communities in our stomachs show it truly takes a village to provide healthy conditions for a developing child.

And in this village, even ne’er-do-well bacteria can be helpful little engines.

Researchers at Cornell University discovered that symptoms associated with metabolic syndrome, Type 2 diabetes, obesity, heart disease and stroke may be driven by nasty bacteria that are doing expectant mothers a good turn.

By driving weight gain and energy storage, the germs are helping the mother and developing baby meet energy and nutritional requirements, perhaps even preparing them for future breastfeeding.

The scientists studied 91 moms-to-be. During the first trimester, the bacterial communities in the pregnant women’s stomachs and intestines were normal. But by the third trimester, tummies were starting to get rumbly.

Healthy bacteria moved out while populations of inflammation-causing bacteria started painting the proverbial nursery.

To understand what was occurring, researchers inoculated special germ-free mice with gut microbes taken from the women during their first and third trimesters.

Mice with third-trimester bacteria gained more weight, were less sensitive to insulin and displayed greater stomach inflammation — symptoms that outside of pregnancy would be a sign of a health problem called metabolic syndrome.

Researchers say the host-microbe relationship’s influence on insulin sensitivity may have actually gotten its start in reproductive biology.

In the meantime, the causes of the bacterial changes during pregnancy are mysterious. Diet, health, previous births or medicine don’t seem to be involved.

Scientific sleuths suspect hormones or the immune system might be influencing the microbial community.

Whatever the cause, it seems to be just what the baby ordered.