When Professor Leonie Callaway and her team launched a study into probiotics last year, they expected to find the supplements helped prevent a type of diabetes that affects pregnant women.
Instead, they stumbled upon some startling results.
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Her research didn’t support studies, including a 2017 report, that found taking probiotics helped prevent gestational diabetes.
But even more alarmingly, it suggested pregnant women who take the supplements could be 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 baby.
“We thought: Hang on, we need to look into this,” Callaway told 7NEWS.com.au.
Health companies market the supplements – which are readily available at pharmacies around Australia – as a way to improve gut health and immunity. Some research even suggests the supplements can prevent gestational diabetes, a type of diabetes that affects pregnant women.
But Callaway’s peer-reviewed findings – which were published earlier this year – raise questions over whether women should be using probiotic supplements during pregnancy at all.
Callaway and her team analysed evidence from randomised controlled trials to help understand potential links between gestational diabetes and probiotics.
She became interested in investigating because gestational diabetes is a common issue – about 41,000 women in Australia were diagnosed with it in 2019.
What they found, however, was an increased risk of hypertension – or high blood pressure – in pregnant women taking the supplements in powder or tablet form, Callaway says.
“We had talks with our counterparts conducting similar research in New Zealand, and they found similar findings,” she said.
The research by Callaway’s team at the Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital Foundation (RBWH) involved 955 women.
Of them, 6.5 per cent who were given probiotics developed preeclampsia, compared with 3.5 per cent of women who were given a placebo.
In light of their results, Callaway and her team raised concerns over probiotics, which are commonly marketed towards pregnant women.
“Given the risk of harm and little observed benefit, we urge caution in using probiotics during pregnancy,” the research paper read.
But the researchers said they saw no issues with pregnant woman getting probiotics through food, meaning items such as yoghurt and kimchi are still on the menu.
While none of the women involved in the study wanted to talk, other women who have experienced preeclampsia have described just how terrifying the condition can be.
Australian woman Melinda Ikitoelagi was diagnosed with preeclampsia, although it’s unclear whether she took probiotics during her pregnancy.
Her baby Aurelio was born three months premature and had a rocky start to life.
After being born weighing just over one kilogram, Aurelio’s first 76 days were spent in intensive care at RBWH.
Preeclampsia sufferer Melinda Ikitoelagi is warning other mums-to-be. Credit: 7NEWSMelinda’s baby Aurelio was born three months premature. Credit: 7NEWS
“Those first few days and weeks it felt really touch and go,” Melinda told 7NEWS.
“There were a lot of tears, and we just thought: are we going to lose our baby?
“I’d had a miscarriage before, so I was scared I was going to lose another child.”
Doctors were able to stabilise Aurelio, who now is a healthy baby.
Aurelio spent 76 days in intensive care. Credit: 7NEWS
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 both how preeclampsia occurs – and how probiotics could trigger it.
Callaway added that she was speaking with the Therapeutic Goods Administration to discuss the issue further.
Meanwhile, 7NEWS.com.au has also reached out to the TGA for further comment.
“In general, we really need to be looking into these issues more and researching to find out more about women’s health and how these conditions are impacting pregnant women,” she said.
“It’s not up to me to decide about warning labels on bottles – that’s for the regulators to decide,” she said.
“But my advice is for women is to always check with your GP before taking something new.”