Pregnant mom practicing healthy lifestyle
 

A pregnant woman’s immunity, or immune response, is a crucial factor in ensuring good health throughout the pregnancy and a safe delivery.

Throughout pregnancy, a mother’s body undergoes immunological as well as physical changes, which may increase their susceptibility to certain diseases such as influenza virus, hepatitis E virus (HEV), herpes simplex virus (HSV), and malaria parasites1.  

This underlines the importance for pregnant women to achieve and maintain an optimum level of immunity. In addition, in the latter stages of pregnancy, the mother passes antibodies to her child through the placenta. This, in effect, helps boost the immunity of the baby2.

How does the immune system protect a pregnant womans health?

Your immune system is the body’s natural defense against foreign threats, such as bacteria, viruses, and other harmful substances. These can cause illnesses which can affect both mother and child.

A person’s immune system is made up of two parts: innate and adaptive/acquired immune systems3. Together, these address foreign threats and aim to prevent illness.

The first system refers to the immune system you were born with and serves as the first line of defense. It is composed of barriers that prevent harmful substances from entering the body. This system encompasses the skin, membranes, chemical substances, and acids, among others, that prevent the spread of infection3.

Should germs and viruses survive your innate immunity, the adaptive immune system comes into play. Compared to the general immune system, adaptive immunity directly targets these foreign threats3.

However, even with these two immune systems, there are still infections that can affect a pregnant mother. In fact, pregnant women are considered more susceptible to infectious diseases because of their unique immunological condition due to pregnancy. This underlines the importance for pregnant women to achieve and maintain an optimum level of immunity.

How to strengthen your immunity during pregnancy

During your pregnancy you can undertake the following measures to avoid illness and reduce the risk of infection:

Maintain good hygiene

Observe proper hygiene and practice basic hand-washing with soap and water. Certain viruses like the cytomegalovirus (CMV) can be transferred via saliva or urine. If the mother becomes infected, it can cause microcephaly and hearing loss in the developing child4.

Aside from washing your hands, you can reduce the risk of transmitting viruses by not sharing food or utensils with your children. Washing your hands often, especially after changing dirty clothes4, is highly encouraged.

Get vaccinated

For pregnant women, vaccinations that use inactivated viruses are considered safe and can help boost your immunity against harmful diseases. Two of the most common vaccinations recommended for pregnant women are the flu (influenza) shot and the Tdap vaccine5 that prevents whooping cough. Talk to your doctor regarding safe and appropriate vaccinations during pregnancy.  

Exercise

Even though you may experience limited mobility due to your growing belly, doctors still recommend that women stay active during their pregnancy. Exercise not only helps boost immunity, it also strengthens muscles that can help in childbirth6. When exercising, pregnant mothers are encouraged to do so with reduced intensity.

Avoid stress

Stress has a direct effect on a mother’s health during pregnancy and can lead to health problems such as heart disease and hypertension7. In addition, chronic stress also affects important immune functions such as wound healing and the ability of the mother to fight off infections, among others8.

To avoid stress, you can try prenatal yoga, meditation, and gentle exercise6.

Eat well

Pregnant women can boost their natural immunity by maintaining a healthy diet. There is no one-size-fits-all diet for pregnancy, but there are known nutrients that are beneficial especially during pregnancy. These include B vitamins, Vitamins A, C, D and E, carotenoids, iodine, iron, prebiotics, selenium and zinc9.

B vitamins - B1, B2, niacin, pantothenic acid, B6, biotin, B12 and folic acid - are essential for a healthy production of red blood cells. This group of vitamins can also help to support a number of metabolic functions10. Foods which contain B vitamins include lean meats, poultry, fish, milk, eggs, and fortified bread and cereals.

Vitamin A is an integral component of your child’s development and visual health. An adequate intake of this vitamin is also necessary for boosting your child’s immune function. Food sources of Vitamin A include carrots, dairy, butter, egg yolk, and oily fish like salmon, sardines, and herring. Do note that you should avoid taking Vitamin A supplements during pregnancy as high intakes of the form in supplements (retinol) can cause malformations of the foetus.

A precursor to Vitamin A, beta-carotene is an abundant source of antioxidants, which can help to fortify your immune system and support the production of disease-fighting cells in your body15. Healthy sources of beta-carotene include multi-coloured vegetables such as capsicums, carrots and leafy greens, and oranges.

Vitamin C encourages the production of white blood cells, which help shore up the immune system’s defenses against infections11. Types of food that contain Vitamin C include oranges, strawberries, broccoli, and spinach.

Vitamin D deficiency is associated with greater susceptibility to infection and increased autoimmune disorders12. This is when a person’s immune system attacks their own body. To address a Vitamin D deficiency, you can eat eggs, red meat, and oily fish such as salmon, herring, sardines and mackerels12.

At the same time, numerous studies have exhibited that Vitamin E is able to improve your body’s immune response as you grow older, whilst suppressing the oxidative damage that can cause cancer or asthma13. Nuts, seeds and leafy vegetables are some of the foods that contain Vitamin E.

Iodine is a type of nutrient that can support a number of biochemical reactions in your body, whilst also helping to boost your immunity16. It can be found in dairy products, and foods such as fish and certain types of seafood.

Iron is an integral component of haemoglobin, which is responsible for transporting oxygen and nutrients to different parts of the body17. Due to this, it is considered as an essential part of your child’s immune system development17. Sources of iron include dark green leafy vegetables, dry fruits, peanut butter, and lean meats.

The main function of prebiotics is to ensure a healthy balance of bacteria in your body18. In doing so, it enables a strengthening of your immune system, as the gut is where approximately 80% of your immune cells are located18. Healthy sources of prebiotics include leafy green vegetables, tomatoes, and bananas.

Probiotics, on the other hand, can help to ensure the health of your digestive system19. Consisting of different strains of live bacteria, probiotics make up roughly 80% of your immune system, and can be found in foods such as yoghurt.

Selenium is an essential component of various enzymes and selenoproteins, and plays a particularly important role in DNA production20. It can also strengthen your immune system by fighting against the harmful effects of peroxides in the body, which include cell damage and an increased risk of severe infections in children20. Foods that contain selenium include lean meats, poultry, seafood and eggs.

Zinc is an important mineral that provides support for the function of the immune system. Types of food that contain zinc include dairy, shellfish, beans, nuts, bread, and cereals. Despite containing high amounts of zinc, it is not advisable for women to consume raw oysters due to their high mercury content21.

You can consume the aforementioned nutrients through a balanced diet. Should supplements be required, it is recommended to consult your doctor or nutritionist who can tailor the best diet plan for you during pregnancy.

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Expert Resource:
Dr. Raymond Choy Wai Mun
(MCR 18097A)
MBChB (UK), Aviation Medicine (Singapore)


References:
 
  1. Pregnancy and infection. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4459512/.  Retrieved October 9, 2020
  2. How long do babies carry their mother’s immunity? https://www.nhs.uk/common-health-questions/childrens-health/how-long-do-babies-carry-their-mothers-immunity/ Retrieved October 9, 2020
  3. The innate and adaptive immune systems. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK279396/ Accessed October 9, 2020
  4. 10 Tips for Preventing Infections Before and During Pregnancy. https://www.cdc.gov/pregnancy/infections.html. Retrieved 24 Sept. 2020
  5. Vaccines during pregnancy: Are they Safe? https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/pregnancy-week-by-week/expert-answers/vaccines-during-pregnancy/faq-20057799. Retrieved October 9, 2020
  6. Boost your immunity during pregnancy, https://www.medicoverhospitals.in/boost-your-immunity-during-pregnancy/ Retrieved October 9, 2020
  7. Stress and pregnancy, https://www.marchofdimes.org/complications/stress-and-pregnancy.aspx Retrieved October 9, 2020
  8. Stress and Immune Function during Pregnancy: An Emerging Focus in Mind-Body Medicine, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4346221/ Retrieved October 9, 2020
  9. Pregnancy diet: Focus on these essential nutrients. https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/pregnancy-week-by-week/in-depth/pregnancy-nutrition/art-20045082. Retrieved 24 Sept. 2020
  10. Vitamins (July, 2014) Retrieved Oct. 9, 2020 from https://kidshealth.org/en/kids/vitamin.html
  11. 7 Impressive Ways Vitamin C Benefits Your Body. https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/vitamin-c-benefits. Accessed 5 Nov. 2020
  12. Vitamin D and the Immune System, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3166406/. Retrieved October 9, 2020
  13. Vitamin E, Vitamin C, and Immune Response: Recent Advances. Retrieved November November 5, 2020 from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK230984/#:~:text=Most%20studies%20show%20that%20vitamin,that%20may%20occur%20during%20exercise
  14. Yeast beta-glucan: An immunomodulator or just a food supplement? (n.d). Retrieved on November 27, 2020 from https://www.bhecentre.com/2019/10/29/yeast-beta-glucan-an-immunomodulator-or-just-a-food-supplement/
  15. Foods To Boost the Immune System (2020). Retrieved September 25, 2020 from https://www.pcrm.org/news/blog/foods-boost-immune-system
  16. 10 Iron-Rich Foods Your Toddler Needs (n.d). Retrieved November 27, 2020 from https://www.healthline.com/health/parenting/iron-rich-foods-for-toddlers
  17. A Role for Iodide and Thyroglobulin in Modulating the Function of Human Immune Cells (November 15 2017) Retrieved November 5, 2020 from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5694785/
  18. Prebiotics are an easy way to prime kids’ immune systems to fight viruses (July 3, 2017). Retrieved November 27, 2020 from ttps://www.kidspot.com.au/health/wellbeing/vitamins-and-minerals/prebiotics-and-kids-health/news-story/4e02aa5befc61e3fa92bad49fa652a90
  19. Foods To Boost the Immune System (2020). Retrieved September 25, 2020 from https://www.pcrm.org/news/blog/foods-boost-immune-system
  20. Selenium (N.D) Retrieved November 5, 2020 from https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/selenium
  21. The Top Foods to Boost Your Pregnancy Immune System ( n.d. ) retrieved September 25, 2020 from https://www.motherandbaby.co.uk/pregnancy-and-birth/pregnancy/healthy-eating-in-pregnancy/the-top-foods-to-boost-your-pregnancy-immune-system