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Whether a developing baby (the fetus) has a microbiome or whether it is sterile during pregnancy and only gets "seeded" by microbes from the mother during birth is still being hotly debated. For years it was thought that the fetus and placenta were sterile (no microbes), but then several studies said there is evidence for the fetus and placenta having a microbiome (community of microbes).

Recently an international group of researchers stated that NO, there is no fetal microbiome. They reviewed current evidence, and according to their opinion - a healthy fetus is sterile. Instead, they suggest that the  microbes some researchers found were due to contamination when the samples were taken or during analysis.

We'll see how this all develops. Science is always evolving, with new findings, and lots of debate and controversy.

From Medical Xpress: Expert analysis refutes claims that humans are colonized by bacteria before birth

Scientific claims that babies harbor live bacteria while still in the womb are inaccurate, and may have impeded research progress, according to University College Cork (UCC) researchers at APC Microbiome Ireland, a world-leading Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) Research Center, which led a perspective published today in the journal Nature. ...continue reading "Group of Researchers Claim That the Fetus Does Not Have A Microbiome"

A very interesting study found that some chemicals found in cosmetics and hygiene products are strongly associated with preterm birth. Specifically, when these chemicals are found in a pregnant woman's vagina during the second trimester - then there is a higher risk of preterm birth.

The study identified these chemicals (DEA, ethyl glucoside, tartrate, and EDTA), but did not pinpoint the exact products they came from. They are all ingredients in hygiene and cosmetic products. Tartrate and EDTA are also used as food additives.

It is unfortunate that the researchers did not identify exactly which products the pregnant women had used/were exposed to with these chemicals. They did find that the black women in the study were exposed to more of these chemicals. When the cosmetics and hygiene products are identified, then women need to be warned to avoid them to lower their odds of a premature birth.

Note: the researchers referred to these chemicals as xenobiotics, which means "substances that are foreign to the body". Yup, they definitely are.

From Medical Xpress: Preterm birth linked to chemicals found in the vagina

Chemicals that accumulate in the vagina, potentially originating from personal care products, may contribute to spontaneous preterm birth, according to a new study by researchers at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons. ...continue reading "Some Cosmetic and Hygiene Product Ingredients Linked to Preterm Birth"

Human male sperm Credit: Wikipedia

Oh no... Back in 2017 a large study found that male sperm counts had dropped over 50% since the 1970s in North America, Europe, and Australia. Declining every year, year after year, for over 40 years. This has serious implications for fertility - if sperm counts drop too low, it's very difficult to conceive a baby.

Now those same researchers have published data from 53 countries showing that the sperm count decline is also occurring in Asia, South America, and Africa. And that the decline in male sperm counts is actually accelerating in North America and Europe. Yikes!

Note that this is in men who weren't being screened for fertility problems issues. In other words, random healthy men. Some had already fathered a baby.

Globally, the decline was about 1.16% per year from 1973 to 2018 (resulting in a 52% decline). When the researchers reexamined the data and looked at many more studies, they realized that since 2000 the decline accelerated at 2.64% per year.

Average global sperm concentration was 49 million per milliliter of semen in 2018. The researcher Dr. Swan pointed out that when sperm count drops below roughly 45 million per milliliter, the ability to cause a pregnancy begins to plummet dramatically, and at 40 million and lower the chances of conception are very low without reproductive assistance (e.g., IVF).

Interestingly, sperm counts are not just a male fertility issue, but also an indicator of men's health. Low levels of sperm are associated with increased risk of chronic disease, testicular cancer, and a shorter lifespan. With a decline in sperm numbers there is also a decline in testosterone and male genital anomalies - thus a decline in male reproductive health.

Why is this happening? Several possibilities are probably contributing: mainly lifestyle and also all the chemicals and plastics in our lives (environmental chemical exposure). Endocrine disruptors, phthalates, pesticides! Yes, they are all around us - in the air, the water, consumer products, and our bodies.

Some examples: pesticides, flame retardants, stain and water resistant products. Plastics leach and outgas and we get them into us various ways (skin, inhale them, ingest them in our foods and water). List of ways to reduce exposure to harmful chemicals.

THINGS YOU CAN DO TO IMPROVE SPERM COUNT AND HEALTH:

Lifestyle: Don't smoke. Don't drink or drink very little. Don't do drugs. Don't sit in hot tubs or saunas. Get exercise or physical activity. Eat a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, seeds, nuts. Avoid canned foods, minimize fast food take-out. Eat as much organic as possible. Lose weight, if needed.

Chemical exposure: We can't totally avoid all the chemicals, but we can minimize our exposure. For starters, stop using non-stick cookware, avoid pesticides in the home and yard (look for nontoxic alternatives and view weeds as wildflowers), don't use dryer sheets, buy unscented products (and avoid fragrances). List of ways to reduce exposure to harmful chemicals.

From Science Daily: Significant decline in sperm counts globally, including Latin America, Asia and Africa, follow-up study shows

An international team led by Professor Hagai Levine of Hebrew University of Jerusalem's Hadassah Braun School of Public Health, with Prof. Shanna Swan at the Icahn School of Medicine, Mount Sinai, New York, along with researchers in Denmark, Brazil, Spain, Israel and the USA, published the first meta-analysis to demonstrate declining sperm counts among men from South and Central America, Asia and Africa. ...continue reading "Sperm Counts Are Still Dropping Throughout the World"

Pesticides causing health problems are appearing in study after study. A recent study found that higher glyphosate levels in pregnant women is associated with lower birthweight in the babies and higher risk of admission to neonatal intensive care units.

Studies find that almost all pregnant women have detectable levels of glyphosate in their bodies - which of course reaches the fetus. In this study by Univ. of Indiana researchers it was detected in 99% of the women during the first trimester! Higher levels resulted in reduced fetal growth. This is very concerning.

Glyphosate is found in the popular herbicide (weed-killer) Roundup. The use of glyphosate has increased substantially with genetically modified crops (e.g., Roundup resistant crops such as corn and soybeans) and with its preharvest use in conventionally raised crops (preharvest guide). It's found on many regular oats, wheat, soybeans, canola, lentils flax, etc.

This is why with each new study higher levels are found in people. It's in our food.

What else is glyphosate doing to us? It has been linked to a number of human health effects, such as cancer, endocrine (hormone) disruption, liver and kidney damage, preterm birth, and even having a negative effect on our gut microbiome - by killing off certain important species of gut microbes. There is much we still don't know about chronic exposure to low levels of the pesticide.

By the way, the United States FDA allows higher levels of glyphosate residues in food and humans than other countries, including European countries. Of course this is due to the pesticide industry lobbying the FDA real hard, political interference, and then think of all those cushy pesticide industry jobs government workers eventually get as a reward. (Yes, it's revolving door from the government to industry jobs...)

Organic farmers are not allowed to use glyphosate. So if you want to avoid the pesticide - eat as many organically grown foods as possible.

From Science Daily: High exposure to glyphosate in pregnancy could cause lower birth weights in babies

Indiana University School of Medicine researchers are learning more about the effects of herbicide exposure during pregnancy, finding glyphosate in 99 percent of the pregnant women they observed in the Midwest. In the study, published recently in Environmental Health, higher glyphosate levels were associated with lower birth weight and may also lead to higher neonatal intensive care unit admission risk. ...continue reading "Almost All Pregnant Women Have This Pesticide In Their Body"

Male sperm Credit: Wikipedia

Currently there is incredible concern over what the group of toxic chemicals called PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) are doing to humans. PFAS are commonly known as "forever chemicals" because of their persistence in our bodies and environment. They are all around us (e.g., in personal care products, cosmetics, food packaging, nonstick cookware, textiles, carpets), and as a consequence almost all of us have them in our bodies.

Why be concerned over PFAS chemicals? They are endocrine (hormone) disruptors and have numerous harmful health effects, including all sorts of reproductive effects (e.g., decreases in sperm numbers, increased rates of infertility), decreases in testosterone, increased risk of cancer, and immune effects. Studies also find that they cross the placenta and accumulate in the fetus.

Now another worrisome large study (864 young men, 18.9 to 21.2 years old) has been published. Danish researchers found that those men who had been exposed to higher levels of PFAS during pregnancy had lower levels of sperm (both sperm concentration and sperm count), and a higher proportion of not swimming correctly and nonmoving sperm in the adult sons. This means that prenatal exposure has an effect on both quantity and quality of sperm in adulthood.

The PFAS levels were first measured during pregnancy (in the mother's plasma) during the first trimester, when the male reproductive system is developing. Sperm counts have been dropping rapidly in the past 40 years throughout the developed world, and these chemicals may be one of the reasons.

Bottom line: We can't totally avoid these chemicals, but the good news is that we can lower by a lot how much we are exposed to. And your levels can go down within weeks.

PFAS are commonly used because they have water, dirt, stain, and oil repellent properties. For example, they are used in water-resistant and long-lasting cosmetics, and in rugs and upholstery with added stain-resistance. This means that there are many simple ways to lower your exposure, mainly by some lifestyle changes (e.g., by using regular stainless steel pots and not non-stick pots).

A good list of ways to lower your exposure to PFAS and other harmful chemicals, especially if you are pregnant or thinking of pregnancy, or have children. Can also go to ewg.org for lists of personal care products that are PFAS and toxin free.

Nice, short article from The Guardian: Study links in utero ‘forever chemical’ exposure to low sperm count and mobility

A new peer-reviewed Danish study finds that a mother’s exposure to toxic PFAS “forever chemicals” during early pregnancy can lead to lower sperm count and quality later in her child’s life.  ...continue reading "Study Finds “Forever Chemical” Exposure Early in Life Has Effects On Sperm In Adulthood"

Babies in the womb react to the taste of food that their mother eats. Yes, it's true. A study conducted in England found that babies (the fetus) during 32 to 36 weeks development generally smiled or laughed after their mother ate carrots, but grimaced after she ate kale.

The fetus can smell and taste the food that the mother eats. Researchers of the study said that the diet of the pregnant woman exposes the baby to all sorts of flavors and smells, and say that "prenatal flavor exposure" has an effect on "chemosensory development".

Fetus grimaces after tasting kale. Credit: B. Ustun et al.

Other studies had found that babies are more willing to eat foods that their mother had eaten during pregnancy, but this latest study actually had photographic evidence of the baby's responses. [The study has some good photos.] Some other earlier studies found that the  amniotic fluid is flavored by the foods a mother eats during pregnancy.

Excerpts from Science Daily: Babies react to taste and smell in the womb

Scientists have recorded the first direct evidence that babies react differently to various smells and tastes while in the womb by looking at their facial expressions.
...continue reading "The Developing Fetus Can Taste Foods the Mother Eats"

Credit: Wikipedia

Another study with concerning results for children and pregnant women has been published. This time researchers found a commonly used fungicide in a majority of children and all pregnant women studied. Some children had chronic exposure. A small study, but still...

The fungicide is azoxystrobin, and is commonly used on crops (e.g., cereals, grapevines, potatoes, fruits, nuts, and vegetable crops), lawns, and in mildew and mold-resistant wallboard used in home construction. The fungicide migrates out of the wallboard (sheetrock) and is found in house dust. Thus, humans can have chronic exposure to it.

And yes, this fungicide has worrisome health effects in animal studies - for example, toxic to embryos, neurotoxicity, brain inflammation. Studies in pregnant mice found that the fungicide went from the mother to the developing babies by crossing the placenta and then entered the developing brain. Much is unknown and studies need to be done!

The problem is that in the USA chemicals are easily approved by the government for use, and it is up to consumers and researchers later to prove harm. But typically that is not enough to get any changes and the chemicals in question keep on being produced and used and causing harm.

What to do? Eat organically grown food. The fungicide is not allowed on organic crops. Don't use pesticides on your lawn. If renovating or constructing a home - avoid mold and mildew-resistant wallboard brands.

From Medical Xpress: Scientists detect common fungicide in pregnant women and children

For the first time, UNC-Chapel Hill researchers have measured the concentration of a biomarker of the commonly used fungicide azoxystrobin (AZ) in the urine of pregnant women and children ranging from 40–84 months of age. They also documented maternal transfer of AZ to mouse embryos and weaning-age mice.  ...continue reading "Commonly Used Fungicide Detected In Pregnant Women and Children"

Some depressing news for pregnant women - they are exposed to and contaminated with more harmful industrial chemicals than ever before.

Thousands of chemicals are used in numerous consumer products and in food production (on farms, and in packaging). Not only can we get exposed to industrial chemicals from foods and products, but also from contaminated water, air, and dust.

Researchers looked for the presence of 103 industrial chemicals in the urine of pregnant women across the Unites States. The chemicals included plastics, pesticides, parabens, PAHs, as well as some of the "replacement chemicals" for BPA and phthalates. They found that most women had some of the chemicals in their bodies. Some chemicals were found in almost or ALL of them, including 3 insecticides, 2 parabens, 10 phthalates, and 1 PAH. Yikes!

Keep in mind that replacement chemicals (e.g., BPS for BPA) can be the same or even worse to health than the original chemicals.

Also, the researchers did NOT look for the presence of some commonly used chemicals (and which are linked to health harms) such as 2,4-D, pyrethroids, chlorpyrifos, and glyphosate. These are pesticides commonly used on (non-organic) farms, but also in our homes and yards. Other studies find the amounts of these pesticides are increasing in humans over the last 2 decades, and that some of these pesticides can be detected in the majority of humans.

Pregnancy is an especially important time in the life of the developing baby, and many chemicals are much more harmful then than at any other time in life. Chemicals to which pregnant women are exposed to cross the placenta - thus getting to the fetus. So it is really important to lower the amount and number of chemicals that a pregnant woman is exposed to.

How to lower your exposure to harmful chemicals: [From list of quick tips]

1) Eat as many organic foods as possible.

2) Avoid using pesticides in your home and garden, and instead look for nontoxic, organic, or least toxic IPM (Integrated Pest Management) solutions.

3) Read labels to avoid phthalates, parabens, "antimicrobial", anti-odor in personal care items.

4) Don't use dryer sheets (not needed!) or detergents or other products with fragrances.  [ Complete list of quick tips.]

Two good, but different write-ups of the research: 1) From Medical Xpress: Study of pregnant women finds increasing exposure to chemicals from plastics and pesticides

A national study that enrolled a highly diverse group of pregnant women over 12 years found rising exposure to chemicals from plastics and pesticides that may be harmful to development. ...continue reading "Pregnant Women Are Exposed To More Chemicals and Pesticides"

Pregnancy should last 9 months, but sometimes it doesn't. With medical advances some babies born as early as 22 or 23 weeks can now survive. Truly miraculous! But how are these extremely preterm babies doing long-term?

A University of Gothenburg study examined this issue by following up on all 383 Swedish children born before 24 weeks (most at 23 weeks) between 2007 to 2018 and who survived. At follow-up the children were between 2 to 13 years of age. The researchers found that almost all of the children had serious long-term problems, whether health or developmental problems.

75% of children born before 24 weeks of gestation had neurodevelopmental disorders, including intellectual disabilities (40%), autism (24%), and 55% required habilitation services. 88% of the group had other physical problems - for example, 63% had asthma and 39% failed to thrive and/or were short for their age. Boys were more likely to have intellectual disabilities and visual impairment than girls.

Looking at the results in the study (see Table 1), it is clear that babies born at 23 weeks had significantly fewer serious problems than at 22 weeks. Every extra week is important!

From Science Daily: Wide-ranging problems in children born before 24 weeks gestation

In a study of children born after a pregnancy of less than 24 weeks, nearly all (96 percent) proved to have any of the diagnoses studied. According to the study, lead from the University of Gothenburg, neuropsychiatric and somatic diagnoses are prevalent as these extremely preterm infants grow into adulthood. ...continue reading "Babies Born Much Too Early May Have Long-term Problems"

Pregnant women turn to the internet for pregnancy information. There are some good sites out there, but also some pregnancy apps loaded with all sorts of false pregnancy information. This is because many of them primarily view pregnant women as customers to be advertised to and sold products. Beware!

A good article about the problems with many pregnancy apps (written by disinformation researcher Nina Jankowicz) sums it up. From Wired: The Internet Is Failing Moms-to-Be

"Pregnancy apps, I quickly learned, aren’t in the business of providing comfort; they are a fantasy-land-cum-horror-show, providing little realistic information about the journey to parenthood. They capitalize on the excitement and anxiety of moms-to-be, peddling unrealistic expectations and even outright disinformation to sell ads and keep users engaged. They foster negative repercussions on the physical and mental health of both mothers and their unborn children, generating profit from the onslaught of emotions brought on by pregnancy."

Studies find that the majority (over 50%) of pregnant women do internet searches (e.g. Google), and then download apps (an average of 3 apps) focused on pregnancy. The overwhelmingly main reason (83%) is to monitor fetal development (e.g. how big is the fetus now? what can it do?). In a distant second and third place are prenatal nutrition and prenatal care. Researchers found that more free apps are downloaded, rather than apps that have to be paid for. (Of course!)

This is why good information pregnancy sites are important. The Wired article mentions that a Forbes article has a list of Best Pregnancy Apps of 2022, but that accuracy of information of the apps is not part of the ranking. Too bad, but at least this list is a start.

Human fetus attached by umbilical cord to placenta, 3 months. Credit: National Museum of Health and Medicine

Unfortunately, while the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) has a pregnancy site, it doesn't have a fetal development (e.g. what occurs week by week) page. It needs lots and lots of photos of how the baby (fetus) looks at each stage of development.

Decades ago the Swedish photographer Lennart Nilsson published a book A Child Is Born with photographs of what the developing fetus looks like throughout pregnancy. Pregnant women loved the photos, and this is what women still want to see - What does the baby look like week by week during pregnancy? What is happening each week? There is now a 5th edition of the book, and while it is still a great book, it should contain more photos which are organized chronologically.