Probiotics shield pregnant women from poisons

New research suggests probiotics can reduce the level of environmental toxins absorbed by pregnant women.

They soothe our guts. They cheer our brains. Really, what more could we ask of probiotics? How about if they act as a shield against poison for pregnant women?
New research suggests that probiotic yogurt can reduce how much heavy metals and environmental toxins pregnant women absorb into their bodies by 78 percent. It’s the first clinical evidence that a probiotic yogurt can be used to reduce the deadly health risks associated with mercury and arsenic, according to a release from Lawson Health Research Institute in Canada, where the research originated.

Environmental toxins like mercury and arsenic are found in water and food, especially fish. Levels are particularly high in developing countries, but even in Canada, 15 percent of reproductive-aged women have mercury levels that pose a high risk for neurodevelopmental abnormalities in their children. Even at low levels, chronic exposure to heavy metals has been linked to certain cancers and delayed neurological and cognitive development in children.

Lawson researchers studied 44 school-aged children and 60 pregnant women in Mwanza, Tanzania, an area known for high environmental pollution. For the children, mercury and lead levels were up to seven times higher than what is typically found in Canadian children.

After eating probiotic-supplemented yogurt for 25 days, the children showed positive, but not statistically effective, results. Outcomes for pregnant women, who ate the yogurt during their last two trimesters, were far more dramatic. The probiotics yogurt seemed to protect them from further uptake of mercury by up to 36 percent and arsenic by up to 78 percent.

“The findings are exciting for many reasons,” says Dr. Gregor Reid, a scientists at Lawson and Western University, and senior author of the study, in the release. “First, they show a simple fermented food, easily made by resource disadvantaged communities, can provide benefits in addition to nutrition and immunity. Second, the results are relevant for many parts of the world, including Canada, where exposure to these toxins occurs daily.”

The research was funded in part by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. It was published in mBio the journal of the American Society for Microbiology, and noted on

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