When Professor Leonie Callaway and her team launched a study on probiotics last year, they expected the supplements would help prevent a form of diabetes that affects pregnant women.
Instead, they came across some surprising results.
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Her research did not support studies, including a report from 2017who found that taking probiotics helped prevent gestational diabetes.
But even more disturbing, it suggested that pregnant women taking the supplements are twice as likely to develop a potentially dangerous complication known as preeclampsia — a condition that can lead to serious, even fatal, complications for both mother and father. baby.
“We thought, wait a minute, we need to investigate this,” Callaway told 7NEWS.com.au.
Health companies are marketing the supplements — which are readily available at pharmacies across Australia — as a way to improve gut health and immunity. Some research even suggests that the supplements may prevent gestational diabetes, a type of diabetes that affects pregnant women.
But Callaway’s peer reviewed findings — published earlier this year — raise questions about whether women should take probiotic supplements at all during pregnancy.
Callaway and her team analyzed evidence from randomized controlled trials to help understand possible links between gestational diabetes and probiotics.
She became interested in research because gestational diabetes is a common problem – about 41,000 women in Australia were diagnosed with the year 2019.
What they found, however, was an increased risk of hypertension — or high blood pressure — in pregnant women who took the supplements in powder or tablet form, Callaway says.
“We had conversations with our colleagues who were doing similar research in New Zealand, and they found similar findings,” she said.
The study by Callaway’s team at the Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital Foundation (RBWH) involved 955 women.
Of those, 6.5 percent who received probiotics developed preeclampsia, compared with 3.5 percent of women who received a placebo.
In light of their results, Callaway and her team have raised concerns about probiotics, which are often marketed to pregnant women.
“Given the risk of harm and little perceived benefit, we urge caution when taking probiotics during pregnancy,” the research paper said.
But the researchers said they saw no problems with pregnant women receiving probiotics through food, meaning items like yogurt and kimchi are still on the menu.
While none of the women involved in the study wanted to talk, other women who have had preeclampsia have described how terrifying the condition can be.
Australian woman Melinda Ikituelagi was diagnosed with preeclampsia, although it is unclear whether she took any probiotics during her pregnancy.
Her baby Aurelio was born three months premature and had a rough start to life.
After giving birth weighing just over a kilogram, Aurelio spent the first 76 days in intensive care at RBWH.
“Those first few days and weeks it really felt touch and go,” Melinda told 7NEWS†
“There were a lot of tears, and we just thought, are we going to lose our baby?
“I had had a miscarriage before, so I was afraid I would lose another child.”
Doctors were able to stabilize Aurelio, who is now a healthy baby.
But Melinda says she is grateful for the support from RBWH and wants to see more research in this area.
Next steps and advice
While Callaway’s study is a start, she says more research is needed to better understand how preeclampsia occurs — and how probiotics might cause it.
Callaway added that she spoke with the Therapeutic Goods Administration to discuss the matter further.
Meanwhile, 7NEWS.com.au has also reached out to the TGA for further comment.
“Overall, we really need to explore and investigate these issues more to learn more about women’s health and how these conditions affect pregnant women,” she said.
“It’s not for me to decide on bottle warning labels — that’s for regulators to decide,” she said.
“But my advice for women is to always consult your GP before taking anything new.”
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