During pregnancy, mothers-to-be can expect many changes to their bodies. For many women, cramps, nausea, vomiting, and soreness are all part and parcel of the pregnancy journey.
A more subtle but important change that a woman can expect during pregnancy is the one happening to her immune system. Read on to find out more about what happens to mothers’ immunity during pregnancy as well as ways to improve it.
What Happens to the Immune System During Pregnancy
Studies have found that immunity during pregnancy follows a complicated and intricate schedule1,2. For example, during the first trimester or the start of pregnancy, the mother’s immune system lowers so that the body doesn’t treat the fetus as a foreign entity and attack it3.
During the second trimester, immunity increases so that it can protect and support the baby’s development in the womb2. As the baby’s birth approaches, the body delivers more immune cells into the uterus, creating an environment of inflammation to encourage the exit of the baby from the mother’s womb2. In short, pregnancy and immunity share a very complex and deliberate relationship to ensure the wellbeing of the developing fetus.
What Are the Risks
The varied changes in a pregnant woman’s immunity come with risks for the mother and baby4. Because the body naturally amps down its immune system during parts of the pregnancy, illnesses, and complications from infection and viruses can be easier to catch. Flu, for example, can occur when immunity is low4. This increased risk can be a cause for concern since it may affect not only the mother but also the baby in the womb. Here are some of the complications that mothers should be wary of during pregnancy5:
- Chicken pox
- Cytomegalovirus (CMV)
- Group B Streptococcus
- Infections transmitted by animals
- Hepatitis B and C
- Rubella (German measles)
- Parvovirus (Slapped cheek syndrome)
- Zika virus (especially if you live in Southeast Asia)
It is advisable to consult your doctor to understand the risks and to evaluate your natural immunity.
How Can Soon-to-be Mothers Improve Their Natural Immunity
There are ways to boost natural immunity during pregnancy. Along with your doctor’s guidance and advice, you can also try the following to protect you and your baby from illness.
Research tells us that exercise is helpful in boosting the body’s natural response to fighting off infections6. During pregnancy, there can be a tendency towards toning down movement and exercise out of concerns for the baby, and while excessive strenuous movement is ill advised, regular walks can help increase natural immunity, mood, and overall health.
Prevention is always better than cure. Good hygiene reduces the risk of possible infections and complications that can arise from them. Practice good hygiene habits such as hand washing and refrain from biting nails as these are possible entry points for infections.
Sleep, sleep, sleep
Getting good sleep is vital to maintaining a healthy immune system. When you sleep, your body produces cytokines that can help protect against infections7. Lack of sleep can make pregnant women more susceptible to infection and can slow down recovery as well7.
Eating a healthy diet is essential for a smooth pregnancy. Aside from providing your child with proper nutrition, maintaining a balanced diet is also essential for keeping your immune system optimal and keeping your body strong.
Try Eating These to Boost Immunity
As mentioned above, having a healthy diet is vital to boosting immune response. Add these key nutrients to your diet to try and boost your immunity during pregnancy8.
Folic acid is important for the development of not only the baby’s brain and nervous system but also the immune system. Good sources of folic acid include dark green leafy vegetables, beans and nuts such as almonds, which contain natural chemicals that aid white blood cells in detecting viruses8. Folic acid supplements are usually recommended in the first trimester of pregnancy, so it is advisable to consult your doctor on this.
Known as the “sunshine vitamin,” Vitamin D is great for boosting the immune system. While you can get Vitamin D by basking about 10-15 mins in the sun daily, you can also find them in fish (eg. salmon, sardine)9, eggs, some breakfast cereals, and multi-vitamin supplements8.
Zinc is another important mineral in aiding the immune system. You can find zinc in a variety of foods such as dairy, shellfish, beans, nuts, bread, and cereals. However, be wary of your source of zinc. Oysters for example, contain high amounts of zinc but are not advisable for women to consume because of the mercury it might contain8.
Iron is an essential component of haemoglobin - the protein in your red blood cells that transports oxygen throughout your body and to your baby. It is especially important during pregnancy when the volume of blood increases. However, this increase in blood volume can put pregnant women at an increased risk of developing iron deficiency anaemia. As such, it is important for pregnant women to consume iron-rich foods, as this will ensure that their bodies receive an adequate intake of iron. This intake supports not only the immune system, but brain development as well. There are two forms of iron, heme iron (found in animal sources such as meat and fish) and non-heme iron (found in eggs, dark green leafy vegetables such as spinach, fruits such as watermelon and beans such as lentils and soy). Heme iron is better absorbed by the body, which means iron from animal sources is preferred. However, one practical way to enhance non-heme iron absorption is to consume Vitamin C rich foods (e.g. fruits like oranges) together with meals, and limit caffeine intake (e.g. coffee & tea) to between meals and not together with meals if necessary.
Containing different strains of live bacteria, probiotics help to support healthy digestive function. Approximately eighty percent of our immune systems consist of probiotics, which can be found in foods such as yoghurt10. In that regard, maintaining a healthy balance of good bacteria in the gut will help to prevent diseases and boost your immune system.
Necessary for healthy development, visual health and the enhancement of immune function, the nutrient known as Vitamin A can be found in foods such as carrots, dairy, butter, egg yolk, and oily fish like salmon, sardines, and herring. It is important to note that Vitamin A supplements should be avoided during pregnancy as high intakes of the form in supplements (retinol) can cause malformations of the foetus.
A precursor of Vitamin A from non-animal sources, carotenoids (beta-carotene) are known as an immunity booster. This is largely due to the fact that they contain high amounts of antioxidants, and can promote a healthy production of disease-fighting cells in the body10. Fruits and vegetables that are a rich source of carotenoids include carrots, green leafy vegetables, capsicums and oranges.
B vitamins, namely B1, B2, niacin, pantothenic acid, B6, biotin, B12 and folic acid, is necessary for positive red blood cell production. At the same time, these vitamins can also help to support a number of metabolic functions11. Foods that contain B vitamins include lean meats, poultry, fish, milk, eggs, and fortified bread and cereals.
Vitamin C is essential for a normal functioning of your immune system12. Some of the benefits of getting a sufficient Vitamin C intake include supporting the production of white blood cells - which protects the body against infections - and acting as an antioxidant that can strengthen your body’s natural defenses12. This nutrient can be absorbed by the body through the consumption of citrus fruits, strawberries, broccoli and spinach.
According to a number of studies, Vitamin E has been found to be able to improve your body’s immune response as you age, and reduce the oxidative damage that may contribute to cancer and asthma13. Foods which contain vitamin E include vegetable oils, nuts, seeds and green leafy vegetables.
One of the primary functions of prebiotics is to balance the amount of healthy and unhealthy bacteria in your body14. A healthy gut contributes to a strengthening of your immune system, as it is where 80% of your immune cells are located14. Healthy sources of prebiotics include leafy greens, tomatoes, and bananas.
Selenium plays a vital role in DNA production and boosting a child’s immune system. An essential component of a number of enzymes and selenoproteins, selenium can suppress the harmful effects of peroxides in the body, which include cell damage and an increased risk of severe infections in children16. Selenium can be found in foods such as lean meats, poultry, seafood and eggs.
Iodine supports a number of biochemical reactions in the body. It is also necessary for boosting your immunity17. Iodine is present in dairy products, fish and certain types of seafood.
There are several aspects of pregnancy to upkeep during this special journey towards motherhood. However, immunity remains one of the top priorities seeing as we are living in the new normal as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Keeping all the aforementioned tips in mind and rolling them into practice can ensure that you and your baby continue to stay in the pink of health throughout.
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Dr. Raymond Choy Wai Mun
MBChB (UK), Aviation Medicine (Singapore)
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- Infections in Pregnancy That May Affect Your Baby ( 2018 ) retrieved September 25, 2020 from https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/pregnancy-and-baby/pregnancy-infections/
- Immune System Function, Stress, Exercise, and Nutrition Profile can Affect Pregnancy Outcome: Lessons from a Mediterranean Cohort ( 2012 ) retrieved September 25, 2020 from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3570113/
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- 7 Impressive Ways Vitamin C Benefits Your Body. Retrieved November 5, 2020 from https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/vitamin-c-benefits
- 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
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- 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/