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The stakes are high. With all of the science supporting the idea that we can impact outcomes through simple and inexpensive measures, we cannot disregard the first and best options we have to address a disease. And especially where that prevention, aimed at reducing illness for the baby will also dramatically improve the health of the mother.
This is a long article y’all and way past the normal blog length acceptable in the blogosphere….however, you’ll find all of the background information, standards of care, reasoning for examining a new model and solutions for dramatically improving the health of mother and baby long after the relatively brief moment of pregnancy and birth have passed. This model is the real deal. It provides preventative, protective, and health sustaining treatment for all instead of treating a disease process when symptoms become present in some. I hope you enjoy the ideas and look forward to your thoughts and input.
If you are already worried I am going to recommend against treating GBS+ moms you can take a quick look at these important notes.
Looking for an upclose of those infographics?
Looking for a short-winded version of this article?
Over colonization of the bacteria Group B Streptococcus (GBS) can cause a life threatening infection in newborns. Most expecting families hear about this at the 36 week visit when they are asked to consent to a test for this bacteria. If found, antibiotics are delivered through an IV during labor which greatly reduces the baby’s chance of exposure. Many midwives share the fact that this bacterium is transient and can come and go so the test may be unreliable. They may offer alternative treatments and discuss the low odds of babies who are exposed actually getting sick in an effort to consider antibiotic over-exposure. Some providers might scare the living daylights out of their patients with images of weak, mewing infants suffering from high fevers and a very difficult disease to treat in an effort to ensure treatment is given. Neither is wrong. On one end the use of antibiotics reduces bacterial diversity in both mother and baby and can cause resistance to antibiotics later in life. On the other end is the prospect of a disease where the only option once infection sets in is antibiotics and sometimes they are not enough to save the life of a sick newborn. The cost to a newborn who experiences GBS disease is extraordinary. The cost to a family who has a seriously ill baby or who lose a baby is immeasurable. This disease starts with the presence of normal bacteria, progresses to an overgrowth of those bacteria, which progresses to exposure and then transfer and then a normal or a sick newborn. Every baby at the start of pregnancy is looking a road that might lead to a GBS infection. So one must ask, is there an answer that might keep babies safely at the start of that road with no progression on the continuum? This article seeks to look at one answer that gives each baby a high chance of avoiding the long walk towards infection.
I would like to reframe how we view testing and treatment of GBS and look at front-line prevention as first-line treatment. This is to say that medical providers are trained to diagnose and treat, but as the keeper of your and your baby’s body (or your client’s or patient’s for providers), prevention is actual medicine. The stakes are high. With all of the science supporting the idea that we can impact outcomes through simple and inexpensive measures, we cannot disregard the first and best options we have to address a disease process. And especially where that prevention, aimed at reducing illness for the baby will also dramatically improve the health of the mother. Our checklist for GBS management and testing in pregnancy should be:
There are hundreds of articles available that help explain and define the microbiome, but in short each of us has a unique microbial population that includes bacteria, archaea, fungi, and viruses. This whole system is referred to as the microbiota and is located in the mouth, gut, vagina, and placenta. It is responsible to:
(Kristensen et al. Genome Med. 2016; 8:52)
From this short list, one can easily see the massive importance of working right from the start of pregnancy (or long before, ideally) on balancing the microbiota in order to achieve optimal health in the mother. Additionally, the changes in a healthy microbiota that occur from the first to the third trimester are dramatic and much needed for the health of mother and baby. While the baby is often the focus of GBS discussions, the mother is a worthy and whole person, deserving of high regard for all that she is and does. She is far too often viewed merely as a vessel we must sustain until she delivers the human baby who is the real focus of pregnancy and birth. I have seen first-hand over and over again that when we take excellent physical and emotional care of the mother, the baby thrives. Even in high risk pregnancies, carrying a baby does not supersede a woman’s autonomy over her own body, her needs, or her desire to be heard, felt, and understood. It’s an archaic rite of passage that we feel compelled to remind her that, “it’s not about her anymore.” It is deeply, deeply about her. It is deeply, deeply about baby. It is deeply, deeply about how they are together, and how they are separate. The mother provides the building blocks of the placenta through her well-being. The baby relies on that placenta for his or her well-being. The baby experiences the hormones of the mother’s emotional states and learns from the patterns of stress and recovery she teaches during pregnancy. A mother’s mental health has long term effects on both her and baby. The question is, how can we promote the optimal physical and mental health of both? How can we prevent disease for both?
Addressing gut-flora health will absolutely improve the fundamental health of the mother and therefore the health of the placenta and the baby. During the third trimester levels of lactobacilli naturally rise and even over-grow to ensure exposure for the baby while protecting against bacterial and viral infections in the vaginal tract. This entire system is its own natural pharmacy when supported correctly.
Several studies suggest that impaired levels of probiotics in the vagina correlate with preterm birth. This is because of the cellular damage that an abundance of harmful bacteria can cause to the strength and integrity of the cervix. This includes yeast infections and GBS infections as well as STI’s. Babies born too early or too small are at risk for a number of poor outcomes, including being three times as likely to die within the first year of life than a baby born at term. You can read more about the effects of preterm birth here.
In her talk entitled “No Guts, No Glory: The Microbiome in Diabetes,” Meghan Jardine, M.S., M.B.A., R.D., L.D., D.D.E. notes that the critical shapers of gut biology are:
A well designed 2012 study showed that taking probiotics during pregnancy affected the placenta and fetal gut and even the regulation of the infant’s microbiota. (Rautava S, Collado MC, Salminen S, Isolauri E. Neonatology. 2012; 102(3):178-84.) Exposure also seems to correlate with reduced allergic diseases like eczema.
Mode of Birth and Feeding
Exposure to probiotics taken orally by the mother can be seen in the placenta and meconium of the fetus during pregnancy. That said, the two most important factors found to shape the infant gut microbiota are mode of birth (vaginal vs cesarean) and feeding (breastmilk vs formula).
The overgrowth of lactobacilli in the vagina provides essential exposure for the baby to lactobacilli during vaginal births. Babies do not get this exposure during a cesarean birth. Many hospitals are swabbing mom’s vaginal area prior to cesarean birth in order to be able to transfer lactobacilli from the mom to the baby. (Dominguez-Bello MG, et al. JC Nat Med. 2016 Mar; 22(3):250-3.) Be sure to swab well before the administration of any antibiotics given prior to surgery. Exposing baby to the skin of the mother under her breasts and armpits during skin to skin time and breastfeeding over the first months of life help increase exposure. Additionally, babies born by cesarean who are breastfed should receive oral probiotics for the first four months of life.
The most abundant organisms in breast-fed infant guts are not the same as those found in formula-fed babies (Balmer SE, Wharton BA. Arch Dis Child. 1989 Dec; 64(12):1672-7.) Breastmilk has elements which promote and nourish healthy bacteria in the baby’s gut. Breastmilk feeds both the baby and the bacteria. Babies who are formula fed should receive probiotics orally to help promote the growth of a healthy microbiota.
As noted in the beginning of this article, prevention of GBS over-colonization should be seen as the first and best method to stop the long walk to full blown GBS disease. In addition to preventing GBS exposure for babies, we can help maintain healthy microbiota and all of the benefits for mother, placenta, and baby that are the natural outcomes of that system. In our day-to-day healthcare regimens, we should all be taking probiotics. Every provider should be recommending probiotics along with a high quality prenatal vitamin at the first visit. In an early release of data comparing midwifery care to OB care there was a very large difference in the number of patients who tested GBS positive between the two groups. The numbers are still being teased out but one theory is the normalcy of midwives recommending probiotics to all patients. (will update when final numbers are published)
Microbiota/Microbiome and Pregnancy/Birth/Breastfeeding
Group B Strep Disease
…Our health is the launching pad which allows us to reach our full potential. Healthcare that actually improves health, protects access to the opportunity to participate in the economic, social, political, and personal lives of an individual’s community and world…
If you are new to the idea that health, healthcare, and justice are linked: here is the fundamental reason we all need access to high quality healthcare:
Our health is the launching pad which allows us to reach our full potential. Healthcare that actually improves health, protects access to the opportunity to participate in the economic, social, political, and personal lives of an individual’s community and world.
Beyond this, there are of course complicated, systemic and overt drivers that prevent communities from participating in the political, social, economic, and personal lives of their community and world. I am not here to say that those aren’t real, impactful and destabilizing for the individual. But without health, those determinants play second fiddle. With health, the engagement of identifying problems and solutions becomes a discussion and a possibility from within a community.
In today’s world where inflammation, insulin resistance and adrenal dysfunction are deeply tied to each other and the way we–or whether or not we manage to–integrate and recover from stress, this is more true than ever before.
Let’s look together at a dramatic example: Before I knew to offer education for this, I watched immigrant women who had arrived in America in the year prior to their pregnancy, continue to eat the same diet they had in their home country with one exception. The ingredients were American. The flour refined and void of the fiber naturally found in the food they grew up eating. These women disintegrated before my eyes and their health became
almost exactly like the health of most women coming from whole lifetimes of American poverty and the “typical” American diet. In fact, the occurrence of maternal child outcomes taking a nosedive within the first generation of arrival in America has been well documented, though not well explained. How is it possible that women arrive from developing, or even war-torn nations and their health declines?!
The women I saw developed persistent fatigue which made work a complete drag and engaging with their family a lost art. Mostly, when asked, they ascribed it to the difficulty of being away from family. But their sense of their vigor and their actual blood glucose levels told a different story. Interestingly no one blamed pregnancy–they had all grown up where pregnancy was viewed as a normal, active, and healthy time in a woman’s life.
During a home visit, one of the families cooked us dinner and it was there that as I chatted in the kitchen with the mom while she prepared the food that I saw what I came to demonstrate in my practice as the one of the Real Culprits. With guidance to find imported flours–and to eliminate the processed American foods–blood glucose levels returned to normal. The extra belly fat melted away as the muscles could once again absorb the insulin being delivered by the pancreas instead of creating a toxic and hostile environment from which each woman was supposed to work full time, care for her family, establish herself in a new home with all of the stress that moving brings, and support the activities at her church or community center (or both). This food was not so slowly and ever so surely poisoning these women and their babies, who often grew so big that despite well supported labor and best practices, were born by cesarean section at alarming rates. This was true for first time moms who naturally carry a higher risk of cesarean birth, but also for 2nd, 3rd, and 4th time moms who had healthy vaginal births as part of their health history.
I combine catered education about nutrition with stress reduction strategies at each prenatal visit for every family. Have a mom bring in a picture of her pantry if you can’t do a home visit. Frame it is a starting point, not a place to drip shame, fear, and humiliation into her life. Let’s learn together–have her teach you about her life, her stress, her nutrition, her loves. Rich or poor, immigrant or 4th generation American. Everyone receives education that meets them where they are at and responds to their life in that moment.
One of the more important maternal/child health results of addressing these deep needs of mothers is that babies grew to be the right size for their mother’s body. That is a reduction in healthcare costs in the tens of thousands per mother/baby. It reduces so many immeasurable personal costs and so very many short and long term healthcare costs. A healthcare actuary could have some good solid fun with seeing the numbers all the way through. It lends to the potential for each baby to be born to a mom ready to mother physically and engage mentally, because they feel good, they feel energized, they feel like themselves. Even in a foreign country. Even with a minimum wage job when they are actually qualified mathematicians, accountants, doctors, or teachers. Even when they miss their family and are learning a new language. Even when they want to somehow muster the capacity to attend night school to learn a new trade or earn a new certificate so that they can move into a life of opportunity for themselves and their children.
**an interlude for all of you now fuming advocates from the world of the threat of a big baby = cesarean birth. Let me save you from skipping the rest of this article so you can leave an inflamed comment. This is not that. These babies are at real risk–their pancreas having been tested and pushed beyond its limits while en utero, they develop a lot of brown fat around the cheeks and shoulders, and are usually 1-4 pounds heavier than mom’s other babies. These are not the robust babies who could have been born vaginally if mom had providers who knew to use positioning and time to aid in a healthy birth. They look very, very different than a baby who is just born a big healthy baby. None of those babies are included in this observation** [also, I love you for the work you do educating mothers about how to use their bodies to birth their babies and demanding that providers get with the program written so many thousands of years ago]
Back to the blog…
The model of healthcare delivery I offer is wrapped in listening and free from standard time constraints. And still, I almost missed it. It took listening, observing, and participation in the lives of the families I serve to find this connection. It took nothing at all for me to apply the lesson to every pregnant woman who came through the door.
If we want to use our privilege as healthcare providers to launch families onto a platform where they can begin to see that opportunity funded by energy, vitality, and good health is different than opportunity funded by the massive domino effects of refined foods and stress without recovery–the disability of diabetes, cardiovascular failure, endocrine implosions, adrenal fatigue–well, we are in the perfect position to do so.
What do you do to offer healthcare that promotes justice? Do you want to learn more about offering this kind of healthcare? Are you a healthcare consumer who has or has not received personalized care? Share your story!