Probiotics tied to lower risk of pregnancy problem

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Pregnant women who regularly have milk or yogurt with “good” bacteria may be less likely to suffer the late-pregnancy complication known as pre-eclampsia, a new study finds.

Pre-eclampsia occurs when a woman has a sudden increase in blood pressure after the 20th week of pregnancy. Other signs include protein in the urine and swelling in the face and hands.

The disorder, which affects about five percent of all pregnant women, can be dangerous if unrecognized: it may progress to the rare condition eclampsia, which can cause the mother to have seizures or fall into a coma.

In the new study, researchers found that of more than 33,000 Norwegian women who gave birth over six years, those who consumed probiotic milk or yogurt every day during pregnancy were less likely to develop pre-eclampsia.

Of those women, 4.1 percent developed pre-eclampsia, compared with 5.6 percent of women who did not consume probiotic food.

When the researchers factored in other differences -- like the women’s weight, education and smoking habits -- probiotic consumers still had a 20 percent lower risk of pre-eclampsia.

There is no proven way to prevent pre-eclampsia. And the new findings do not mean that probiotics do the trick either, according to Dr. Bo Jacobsson, a researcher at the Institute of Public Health in Oslo who worked on the study.

The results point only to a correlation between higher probiotic intake and lower pre-eclampsia risk. And that link should be tested in future studies, Jacobsson told Reuters Health in an email.

Many pregnant women consume probiotics, he noted, and there is evidence that it’s safe. So clinical trials could test whether giving women probiotics reduces pre-eclampsia risk.

That, Jacobsson said, should be done with probiotic capsules -- containing a controlled amount of specific good bacteria -- rather than food.

Probiotics are friendly bacteria added to cultured dairy products; they are marketed as having health benefits such as improved digestion. In theory, probiotics might affect pre-eclampsia development through effects on the immune system and body-wide inflammation. But that remains to be proven.

The current findings, reported in the American Journal of Epidemiology, are based on 33,399 women taking part in a larger Norwegian study of mother and child health.

During pregnancy, the women filled out questionnaires on diet and lifestyle; that included questions on how often they had probiotic milk or yogurt.

Daily probiotic consumers showed a 20 percent lower risk of developing pre-eclampsia. That’s a modest difference, Jacobsson said.

He added, though, that it’s “important” because it points to a new area of research: the question of whether probiotics can make a difference in pre-eclampsia risk.

For now, Jacobsson said, pregnant women should not “change their food habits” and add probiotic products in the hopes of preventing pre-eclampsia.

No one knows how to prevent pre-eclampsia, but certain factors put women at a greater risk. Those include obesity, having high blood pressure before pregnancy, being pregnant with more than one baby and a history of pre-eclampsia in past pregnancies.

Catching pre-eclampsia is key, so experts urge all women to have regular pre-natal care visits. If the condition develops, the doctor can more closely monitor the pregnancy and, if necessary, deliver the baby early -- which is the only cure for pre-eclampsia.

SOURCE: American Journal of Epidemiology, online August 5, 2011.