World-first RBWH research links probiotics to premature birth risk

Thursday 16 June 2022

RBWH Foundation-funded research, led by Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital (RBWH) Women’s and Newborn Services Director of Research, Professor Leonie Callaway, has linked a popular health supplement to a potentially dangerous complication during pregnancy.

RBWH researchers are urging women to seek medical advice before taking tablet and powder probiotics while pregnant, following their world-first study which has linked oral probiotics to an increased risk of preeclampsia, a condition which affects about 15-thousand women in Australia every year.

Probiotics are live bacteria that improve health. In high enough quantities, these “good” bacteria can aid in food digestion, immunity, and inflammation. Professor Callaway stressed there was no suggestion low-dose probiotics found in yoghurts, kombucha or kimchi products were a risk.

“Preeclampsia impacts every part of the body which means it also affects the placenta and can sometimes result in babies being born small and also preterm,” said Professor Callaway.

“Babies born prematurely have a risk of a range of complications throughout their adult lives.”

The signs and symptoms of preeclampsia include high blood pressure, excess protein in urine, kidney failure, severe headaches, blurry vision, severe stomachache, fits and shortness of breath.

“The huge advantage of our research was that it was funded by the Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital Foundation. Independently funded research is very important in pregnancy research because we have no commercial interests, and also, because pregnancy research is of little interest to “for profit” companies.”

Professor Callaway said the probiotic study’s findings initially took her team by surprise as it long been thought that probiotics were beneficial during pregnancy.

“It goes to show that natural things we assume to be safe need to be carefully examined for pregnant woman.

“Pregnancy is a very special case that requires extra caution.”

A full copy of the Cochrane review can be read here.

To support life-saving research, such as this, please donate at www.rbwhfoundation.com.au.