With women who are pregnant, the bacterial composition in the vagina changes. “We believe the female body prepares itself to pass on good bacteria to her child”, says dr. Jessica Younes, a researcher specializing in women’s health and microbiology. “Upon birth, the baby comes into contact with the microbiota in the vagina. Furthermore, after birth the mother passes on bacteria through breastfeeding. This helps the development of intestinal microbiota and the baby’s immune system, and therefore its overall health. The exact mechanisms behind this are currently still unknown. After all, this is a relatively new research field.”

 

Higher risk

 

Children who were not breastfed or were born via caesarean section have a higher risk of diabetes or cardiovascular diseases later in life. This also applies if the mother went through a lot of stress during pregnancy, which affected her own health and immunity. All this underlines the importance of women’s microbiota. According to Younes, more and more aspects of the relationship between women and the health of their children are coming to light. “Bacteria from the environment train the child’s immune system to distinguish between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ and how to react in different situations. This happens especially during the first three years of life, when the immune system is still developing. It is a very complex system, which we do not fully understand yet. However, the role of the mother - and her microbiota - in the child’s development is becoming increasingly apparent.”

 

DNA research

 

Dr. Karen Koning, a scientist specializing in side effects of antibiotics, says that roughly fifteen years ago relatively little was known about microbiota. It was not possible to cultivate research bacteria with the classic culture method, because most died due to oxygen. “Instead of cultivating bacteria, today’s research often involves the DNA of bacteria. For example, with this DNA method we are able to research which bacteria are located in the intestines or vagina. Because of this, more and more information about the relationship between microbiota and health has come to light. For example, there is a relationship between vaginal microbiota and the chance of a fungal or urinary tract infection in women. At the same time, there is also a relationship with fertility. By measuring certain bacteria in the urine or the vagina, we can now predict with 96% accuracy whether an IVF attempt will be successful or not.”

There are several factors that influence microbiota. Koning conducted research into the effects of antibiotics. Antibiotics are usually taken as medication for a specific problem, but disrupt the microbiota in the body. As it turns out, it takes a long time before the microbiota are restored: “We recognize a change in the intestine microbiota up to one and a half years after the antibiotics treatment. This is a lot longer than previously thought. With multiple treatments this only becomes longer. Recovery especially takes longer among children. Due to changes in microbiota, fungi have an increased chance to grow. Women with a urinary tract infection can thus get a yeast infection because of the use of antibiotics.”

 

Probiotics

 

Koning’s research also reveals that damage by antibiotics can be reduced if a mixture of good bacteria and probiotics are ingested at the same time. Probiotics are already available from pharmacists or health stores. However, there is currently a wide range of choice and little product information. Koning therefore wants to conduct more research into the properties of bacteria types and how these relate to patient characteristics. “Only then will we become more knowledgeable about which probiotics to use on specific people. With a combination of good bacteria, we may be able to increase effectiveness. In the future, we may move towards a world of personalized nutrition.”