Pregnancy, breastfeeding, and lifestyle

This column is written by Stig Bengmark – Professor Emeritus, scientist, lecturer and writer. Read more of Stig Bengmark’s columns here.

Every pregnant woman can give her baby a significant bonus in life by living a healthier life during her pregnancy and breastfeeding period, and also by breastfeeding longer than usual – long after the baby has started to eat solid foods. Breast milk is completely unique. Human milk literally contains a type of heath-giving fibre – oligosaccharides – that no one has been able to synthesise, and which cannot be found in milk from other animals, as well as specific lactobacilli that the child gladly accepts and keeps with them for the rest of their life.

Early sexual maturity and increased birth weight

Western lifestyles have brought significant negative health consequences with them for all of us, not least for our children. They cause most of us to have a significantly reduced and poorly functioning gut flora, which results in chronic inflammation with subsequent chronic illnesses, which often result in premature death. One example of the change in the human race is that sexual maturity in boys and girls is happening very much earlier today, and this brings with it a lot of negative consequences, both physical and mental.

As professors Jan Milsom (gynaecologist) at the Sahlgrenska Academy in Gothenburg and Ola Söder (paediatric endocrinologist) at Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm point out, the menstrual onset of young girls did not occur until the age of 17 in the middle of the 19th century – this is probably what, from a biological and genetic point of view, was normal for the human race – homo sapiens. Since 1850 and the transition to industrially manufactured and calorie-condensed food, the age of the menstrual onset has shrunk simultaneously to the point where it’s now, under 12 years of age – and often under 10.

It was in the middle of the 19th century that we began to dramatically change our eating habits and switch to processed food. In 1850, the average consumption of sugar, for example, was 0.5 kg per person per year – it’s now between 40-50 kg per person per year, i.e. 20,000 – 25,000 calories per year. Since then our consumption of animal fat in the form of meat and pork has doubled and the consumption of dairy products has actually grown by between 25 to 50 times, at the same time as our consumption of plant foods and nutritious fatty acids such as omega 3’s has shrunk dramatically.

Today’s mothers are becoming more and more overweight and giving birth to bigger and bigger babies. The paediatrician, Gunnar Meeuwisse, at the time working in Lund and later Karlskrona, once told me that in the last hundred years they’ve been forced to raise the figure they consider to be the normal birth weight no less than four times – birth weight is determined as the average weight and spread of weight of ‘all’ newborns that year. This is known as ‘normal birth weight’, but is naturally very misleading. It has been reported the number of obese women giving birth in Sweden at the end of the 20th century doubled in just ten years, and has continued at the same pace since then.

Overweight mothers have widespread chronic inflammation and give birth to overweight children

The recommended increase in weight during pregnancy should remain under 15 kg, and ideally lower. But this seems to be becoming more rare. Read more here and here.

Almost 75 percent of all overweight women state pregnancy as a contributing factor in their subsequent permanent obesity. A lot of women think of pregnancy as a free pass for them to be able to and to actually (take the opportunity to) eat a lot more than usual – ‘eating for two’ is an expression that’s often used. Some factors which are believed to affect weight gain most are low education/low income, heredity, ethnicity, and type of occupation (Mattsson LÅ, Ladfors L. Doctor’s Journal 2003;100:3959-3961)

In Great Britain and North America – probably also South America – much bigger babies are being born – they often weigh 8-10 kg. The heaviest birth weight registered was in Canada – a baby was born weighing 12.5 kg and had almost no immune system and died within 24 hours. You can be sure that overweight pregnant women have high inflammatory pressure. This manifests itself via the release of a wide range of pro-inflammatory factors which also affect and actually ‘stress’ the foetus, despite the fact that it is obviously protected in the mother’s womb. This gives overweight women a completely different gut flora, a much weaker immune system, and a poor metabolism.

With big babies comes an increase in the number of caesarean sections and increased frequency of birth defects

Among women with high BMI, the need for operative delivery increases, and the frequency of complications among these women is increased in operative as well as normal deliveries. For the foetus, the chances of stillbirth, deformities, and macrosomia (birth weight >4500 g) are increased. For reasons which can’t be explained, mothers with another autoimmune disease, celiac, have similar pregnancy problems but instead they give birth to underweight babies. A newly published Swedish study found that obesity, planned c-section, and repeat urinary tract infections during pregnancy could be connected to an increased risk of the child developing celiac disease later in life – a process which is not as common among older mothers with higher incomes (Namatovu F et al. BMC Pediatr. 2016;16:77)

Women with celiac disease constitute a specific risk group. A recently published study from the USA reports that these women have a significantly increased risk of developing obstetric complications – shortened gestation period/higher frequency of premature birth, poor foetal growth, higher frequency of stillbirths, and often children born with low birth weight. In particular they point out that it’s important ‘that these women are monitored carefully’ and that they’re kept on a very strict diet. (Saccone G et al Am J Obstet Gynecol. 2016;214:225-234.)

It influences the child’s health throughout their life

How the mother lives before and during pregnancy as well as while breastfeeding has a huge influence on the child’s health, not just during childhood but throughout their lives. It’s mainly during the last months of pregnancy, but also to some extent during the breastfeeding period, that the baby’s immune system is constructed and fine-tuned – the mother’s lifestyle plays a crucial role in the quality of this as well as in the baby’s health throughout their life. It’s actually not just a question of giving up alcohol and tobacco – much bigger efforts are required here for optimal results – certainly a way of life similar to the one I describe in my TWELVE COMMANDMENTS.

It was the English professor of paediatrics, David JP Barker, who made the observation in the early 1990’s that chronic diseases later in life such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes and cancer do not only occur through the interplay between one’s adult lifestyle and a genetic predisposition, but that also the environment in the womb and the mother’s body plays a significant role. He reported that even short periods of ‘stress’ to the foetus in the womb could permanently change, impair and reprogram the baby’s immune system, leading to permanent changes in blood pressure, cholesterol metabolism, insulin response to the supply of sugar as well as in a number of other metabolic, endocrine and immune parameters, for example. (The thrifty epigenotype hypothesis: Barker, D.J.P. Maternal Nutrition, Fetal Nutrition, and Disease in Later Life”. Nutrition, 1992;13:807-813, Curr Opin Nephrol Hypertens 1997; 6:106-110)

Later studies have confirmed Barker’s findings. It’s also been estimated that this influence corresponds to around 25 percent, while around 70 percent depends on the individual’s lifestyle as an adult.

Among the important findings made in recent years is a Norwegian study that describes how children with a heavy birth weight have a tendency to develop immune diseases such as type 1 diabetes that is twice as high as for those with normal weight. (Stene LC et al BMJ. 2001 Apr 14; 322(7291): 889–892).

It’s safe to say this also applies to several other serious illnesses, too.

Allergies, ADHD, and Asperger’s

These diseases are among those associated with modern lifestyles in relation to pregnancy and breastfeeding. The Finnish researchers, Erika Isolauri and Seppo Salminen, and their colleagues stated in a 2003 study how, by giving lactobacilli to the mother during her final months of pregnancy and to the child during its first 6 months of life, they could almost halve the incidence of allergies in children who were born into especially allergy-prone families.

They returned to carry out a new study when the children reached puberty and this study actually showed that with this simple treatment they managed to completely eliminate both ADHD and Asperger’s syndrome, while the children who did not have access to this treatment developed these diseases in 17 percent of cases.

Since I’ve spent many years working on my own synbiotics and know about their amazing anti-inflammatory properties, I want all expectant mothers to have access to Synbiotics, at least during the mother’s final months of pregnancy and during the first months of the baby’s life by the mother rubbing them into her nipples both before and after breastfeeding and ideally giving a little extra Synbiotics to their newborn.

I also hope they do everything they can to improve their lifestyles. If they’re not able to completely follow the TWELVE COMMANDMENTS, they can at least try to eat a lot of greens (preferably raw) and ideally refrain from alcohol and smoking, as well as food with recognised obesity-causing properties such as: the three obesity-causing P’s (pasta, pizza, pastries – and for that matter also cakes), butter, cheese and preferably also milk, crisps, salted nuts, fast food and soft drinks, jams and marmalades, hot cooked root vegetables such as potatoes (but not if they’ve been allowed to cool), beef, pork, and tomato ketchup.

Good luck to ALL THE MUMS with the efforts you make for your own and your children’s health. Also, don’t forget to get some exercise and avoid stress.

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