The importance of digestive health has been a hot topic in the wellness community for a number of years. Probiotics are one of the most widely sold supplements on the market today. There are countless books describing the gut-brain connection as well as what in the heck those billions of bacteria are doing in our stomachs anyway. All of this information is fascinating (at least to me) but its also backed by scores of medical studies. The question is, what does your digestion have to do with getting pregnant? One would think they are completely different systems in the body doing completely different tasks. However, once we take an integrative view, we can see that the health of your digestive system is integral to allowing the natural reproductive processes run at optimal levels.
THE DIGESTIVE SYSTEM 101
The health of your digestive system is essential to ensure proper digestion and absorption of nutrients, as well as to support the function of other body systems, such as the immune system. The health of the gastrointestinal system, particularly the gut microbiota, even impacts mental health through its connection with the central nervous system, often referred to as the gut-brain axis.
The digestive system is made up of digestive organs, such as the stomach, small intestine, and large intestine (colon), as well as accessory organs, such as the pancreas, liver, and gallbladder, and various chemical compounds, such as hormones, stomach acid, bile, and digestive enzymes. The gut microbiota, a community of live microorganisms found in high concentrations in the colon, are also essential to digestion and gut health. Several lifestyle choices, such as eating a healthy diet, exercising regularly, staying hydrated, managing stress, and supporting your health with dietary supplements, can help you maintain digestive wellness.
THE FERTILITY CONNECTION
Many integrative health physicians and wellness advocates summarize fertility in both men and women as SECONDARY. What they mean by that is that the number one function of the body, including the digestive system, is to keep YOU alive and thriving. The theory goes that if the body becomes stressed at one point, then pregnancy is only going to add more stress to the body. You can see examples of this in times of famine. The lack of food puts enough stress on a population that fertility rates plummet (Hasell, 2018). In physiological term, once there is a breakdown in one of the systems, the endocrine system will down-regulate hormones that facilitate and promote the chance of pregnancy.
While the SECONDARY theory makes a ton of sense, the oversimplification might have us missing out on a few important details. The gut is operating the main nutrient distribution system, if you will. It is absorbing nutrients via the stomach and intestinal linings as well as assimilating them for active use. Egg and sperm health are vastly dependent on a number of key micronutrients that we get from our foods. Hormone production and balance are also greatly affected by nutritional stores. In addition, the microbiome plays a major role in reproductive hormonal balance. Lastly, the implantation process and embryo development will not be optimized if lacking its nutrient factors and cofactors. Thus, when you influence digestive health, you impact egg & sperm quality, implantation and embryo development, and hormone balance as well as pregnancy and birth outcomes.
The GI system is not only integral in optimizing fertility, but it is also very important for keeping a baby healthy in the womb and outside of the womb. Research has shown that an unhealthy microbiome population has been correlated to higher risk factors for preterm birth, preeclampsia, gestational diabetes, and excess weight gain (Dunlop, 2015). Thus, a maternal stomach full of good bacteria can promote a smoother and safer pregnancy for mom and baby. Secondly, researchers have recently discovered that the placenta (the organ which provides all nourishment to baby) transfers its own microbiome (aka bacteria) to the baby (Aagaard, 2014). This means that a healthy bacteria population from mom is actually given to the baby during the baby’s 9 month stay. A baby with a well balanced microbiome inside of the womb will be well on his way to his own gut health outside of the womb. What more reason to keep eating those fermented pickles and whole milk yogurts.
The ideal scenario is to ensure the cellular function of the GI track and microbiome is working at tip top shape during the preconception stage. Once the baby moves in, he will thank you for all the prep work! Check out the bottom of the article for the Savage Solution for digestive health.
The Savage Solution for OPTIMIZING Fertility through Digestive Health:
Eat fermented, probiotic foods such as grass-fed cow-milk yogurt, goat’s milk yogurt, kefir, komucha tea, saucerkraut, pickles (check label for additives), or aged cheeses. Include a serving or two of these foods every day.
Eat prebiotic, fiber rich foods such as vegetables, nuts, seeds, coconut, beans, and berries. These superfoods should fuel you throughout the day and make up the majority of the diet.
Supplement with a quality probiotic. Look for a high number of probiotic stands (15 billion to 100 billion) and over 10 different strands. Also be sure to check the expiration date on the bottle. Be sure to research what strains are in each supplement: Lactobacillus and Bifidus are top picks.
Avoid the overuse of antibiotics in both medicine and food supply (ie antibiotics in meats).
Avoid the overuse of such medications as antacids, steroids, acid blockers, and birth control.
Avoid excess processed sugar in your diet.
I have teamed up with FULLSCRIPT to provide my catalog of supplements relating to gut health. As always, I have to point out, REAL FOODS should be the number one way to keep the system running in top condition, but if needed, supplements can help fill any gaps. Also, supplements should be discussed with medical providers once becoming pregnant.
Probiotics are fermented food products or dietary supplements that contain beneficial microbes, including bacteria, bacterial spores, or fungi (yeasts). When consumed, they offer health benefits to the host, both by colonizing the gastrointestinal tract and by transient activity when passing through the body. Probiotics have been studied for their therapeutic benefits in a number of health conditions, including inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), autoimmune diseases, obesity, and mental-emotional disorders. The health benefits of probiotics can vary significantly depending on the specific strain or strains included.
Read more about probiotic supplements here.
Top probiotic supplements on Fullscript:
Enzymes are substances that increase the rate of chemical reactions in the body (catalysts). Specifically, digestive enzymes are secreted by the digestive tract to aid in digesting fats, proteins, and carbohydrates consumed through the diet. Enzyme supplementation may be beneficial for individuals with food sensitivities, such as lactose intolerance, and certain gastrointestinal disorders. Enzyme supplements may include a variety of enzymes from different sources, such as pancreatic enzymes (e.g., porcine or bovine sources), plant-based enzymes (e.g., bromelain from pineapple, papain from papaya), and microbe-derived enzymes. Each enzyme breaks down a specific component of food, for example, lipase aids in the digestion of lipids and protease aids in the digestion of proteins.
Top digestive enzyme supplements on Fullscript:
Fiber is an umbrella term for the carbohydrates found in plant foods that resist digestion and absorption in the human small intestine. High-fiber foods include vegetables, fruit, legumes, nuts, seeds, and whole grains.
The two main forms of fiber are soluble fibers, which dissolve in water and slow transit time in the human digestive tract, and insoluble fibers, which do not dissolve in water, speed up transit time in the human digestive tract, and increase fecal bulk. In addition to supporting digestion, research has shown that a high-fiber diet may reduce the risk of cancer, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, and obesity.
Prebiotics, one type of soluble fiber, possess unique characteristics and health effects. Prebiotics act as a source of fuel for beneficial microbes, promoting a healthy microbial profile, and providing a number of associated health benefits. Research is increasingly confirming the numerous health benefits of prebiotics.
Read more about the difference between probiotics and prebiotics here.
Top fiber supplements on Fullscript:
L-glutamine is the most abundant amino acid in the human body. The small and large intestines use l-glutamine as a substrate (material) for energy production. L-glutamine also plays a role in liver cell reproduction and energy metabolism in the liver. L-glutamine supplementation may reduce intestinal cell death that normally occurs with exposure to stress, such as intense heat and exercise. It may also benefit individuals with certain digestive conditions, such as Crohn’s disease and short bowel syndrome.
Research has shown that the health benefits of L-glutamine may be attributed to its ability to modulate inflammation, protect against cellular stress and death, and regulate the reproduction of intestinal cells.
Top L-glutamine supplements on Fullscript:
NOTE: L-glutamine should not be continued during pregnancy as evidence of its safety is lacking.
NOTE: THE ABOVE SUPPLEMENTS ARE RECOMMENDED FOR PRECONCEPTION PERIODS ONLY. PLEASE DISCUSS ANY SUPPLEMENTS WITH HEALTHCARE PROVIDER BEFORE CONTINUING DURING PREGNANCY.
Aagaard, K. e. (2014). The placenta harbors a unique microbiome. Science Translational Medicine, 237.
Dunlop, A. L. (2015). The maternal microbiome and pregnancy outcomes that impact infant health: A review. Advance in Neonatal Care: Official Journal of the National Association of Neonatal Nurses, 377.
Hasell, J. (2018, April 03). Do Famines Check Population Growth. Retrieved from Our World In Data: http://www.ourworldindata.org.https://ourworldindata.org/do-famines-check-population-growth
Nichols, L. (2018). Real Food for Pregnancy.USA: Lily Nicholas.