Natural Ways to Boost the Pregnant Immune System

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Pregnant women are more at risk for acquiring infection or viruses given the altered immune state that accompanies pregnancy. Most care providers and health agencies agree that the flu is a risk in late pregnancy and recommend certain types of flu vaccines. But there are also natural ways to aid the pregnant immune system.

Habits


Regular Exercise

Gentle exercise cleanses the lymph system and flushes bacteria out of the lungs. When the body heats up with exercise, it helps the body to fight infection. Breathwalking, yoga, swimming, and Tai Chi are gentle forms of exercise that are beneficial for pregnant women.

Sleep

The importance of sleep cannot be stressed enough. The body resets with sleep and a healthy immune system relies upon its restorative aspects. It can be hard to get comfortable in the third trimester when the baby gains the most weight just before birth. Sleeping on your side with a pillow between the legs is one of the most comfortable positions for sleep for the pregnant woman. Heartburn can also be a problem late in pregnancy. Be sure to eat small meals in the evening or drink tea with cinnamon or ginger or peppermint. If you find your sleep is interrupted at night, try to fit in a nap during the day.

Diet

A strong diet during pregnancy helps not only with immunity, but also with the size of the baby, which in the end can ensure an easier delivery. Check out our post on the optimal pregnancy diet and tips for eating healthy.

Hydration

Most midwives will tell you that hydration is key to a healthy pregnancy. Taking in enough fluids helps to flush your lymph system and keep your kidneys and bladder healthy, and water helps to form the placenta and the amniotic sac. Dehydration during pregnancy can lead to serious pregnancy complications, including neural tube defects, low amniotic fluid, inadequate breast milk production, and even premature labor. These risks, in turn, can lead to birth defects due to lack of water and nutritional support for the baby. Aim for at least eight 8-ounce glasses of water a day.

Hand washing

Be sure to wash your hands regularly. Anti-bacterial soaps are not recommended, but washing with regular soap is a good habit to develop while pregnant and when handling your newborn, postpartum. The most effective hand washing method involves lathering the backs of your hands, between your fingers and under your nails. Be sure to wash your hands after attending a group gathering or playing with young children.

Immune Boosters


Vitamin C

A master immune booster, Vitamin C helps immune cells mature; has an antihistamine effect; controls excesses of stress hormones, which suppress immunity; is antiviral and antibacterial; and raises interferon levels, an antibody that coats cell surfaces. In addition to Vitamin C supplements, the following foods contain the vitamin: papaya, bell peppers, strawberries, oranges, grapefruit, broccoli, pineapple, kale, kiwi, or Brussels sprouts.

Tumeric

Tumeric is the food that keeps on giving. Research has shown that it’s a better inflammatory than many OTC anti-inflammatory medications and equal to low dose steroids. High in antioxidants, anti-cancer by nature, good for digestion, and excellent at controlling inflammation, turmeric offers many immune benefits. You can add turmeric to smoothies, drink turmeric tea, or add turmeric to your favorite dishes.

Garlic

Garlic is a powerful natural antibiotic. One clove is powerful enough to combat infection, with its five milligrams of calcium, 12 milligrams of potassium, and more than 100 sulfuric compounds. It’s most powerful raw. If you feel a cold coming on or feel flu-like, try a raw garlic “shot:” one minced garlic clove in a small amount of water, chased by more water. Or, if you’re really ambitious, consider a shot of raw garlic, ginger, carrots, and lemon for a quick immune boost. Raw pesto is a wonderful way to get your raw garlic – toss on pasta or slather on a piece of toast or use in place of tomato sauce on pizza.

Healthy Fats

It’s important to obtain adequate essential fatty acids (EFAs) from the diet during pregnancy and lactation. DHA supplements, an Omega-3 fatty acid, based on cultured microalgae are available in many natural food stores. EFAs boost the pregnant woman’s immune system, support endocrine function and normal function in tissues, and lessen inflammation.

Linoleic and alpha-linolenic, key components of EFAs, cannot be synthesized in the body and must be obtained from food. Omega-6 fats are derived from linoleic acid and are found in leafy vegetables, seeds, nuts, grains, and vegetable oils (corn, safflower, soybean, cottonseed, sesame, sunflower). Most diets provide adequate amounts of this fatty acid, and therefore planning is rarely required to ensure proper amounts of omega-6 fatty acids. A less common omega-6 fatty acid, gamma-linolenic acid (GLA), has been shown to have anti-inflammatory effects along with other disease-fighting powers. GLA can be found in rare oils such as black currant, borage, and hemp oils.

Research suggests that fatty acids are needed for fetal growth and fetal brain development. The EFAs are important for infants as they ensure proper growth and development and normal functioning of body tissues. Increased omega-3 fatty acid intake in the immediate post-natal period is associated with improved cognitive outcomes. It’s important that the mother’s diet contain a good supply of omega-3s because infants receive essential fatty acids through breast milk.

Zinc

The body requires zinc for production, repair, and functioning of DNA – the basic building blocks of cells. Beans, nuts, breads, seeds, dairy, and some cereals provide zinc. Too much zinc is not beneficial, so if you consider taking zinc supplements, be sure to talk to your midwife or doctor first.

Vitamin D

Vitamin D supplementation during pregnancy and breastfeeding is generally recommended. Vitamin D plays a key role in the process of priming T cells to be ready to attack invaders and to fight infection. Sunshine, oily fish, and eggs are good sources of Vitamin D. If eating fish, it’s recommended to limit the servings to 12 ounces a week because of the exposure to methylmercury in most fish.

Almonds

Almond skin contains naturally occurring chemicals that help white blood cells detect viruses and even help to keep them from spreading. Almonds contain healthy fats, fiber, iron, protein, and magnesium. Almond butter is high in protein and good fats. It’s a good substitute for peanut butter and can be served on apples, crackers, or bread.

Chicken Soup

The old adage is true: eating chicken soup boosts the immune system. The broth and vegetables combine to provide anti-inflammatory benefits. Chicken soup decreases the duration and intensity of colds and flu by inhibiting the migration of white blood cells across the mucous membrane, which, in turn, can reduce congestion and ease cold symptoms.

Yogurt or Kefir

A healthy gut is an important building block of a healthy immune system. Yogurt and even better, Kefir, are full of probiotic benefits. Buy plain yogurt or kefir and add fruit-juice sweetened jam or fresh fruit and honey to avoid the high sugar content of commercial flavored brands.

Hot Lemon Water with Honey

Fresh lemon juice is an immune powerhouse, filled with Vitamin C, vitamin B6, vitamin E, folate, niacin thiamin, riboflavin, pantothenic acid, copper, calcium, iron, magnesium, potassium, zinc, phosphorus and protein. Squeeze the juice of one fresh lemon into a teacup, fill the rest of the cup with hot tea water, and sweeten with raw honey. This drink is especially soothing when you have a sore throat, cold, or sinus issues.

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Proper hydration, healthy diet, moderate exercise, and sleep are the building blocks of a healthy pregnancy. The basic prenatal multi-vitamin offers a lot of immune enhancing properties (don’t take a generic multi-vitamin as they often contain Vitamin A, which is contraindicated for pregnancy.) Experiment with some of these immune boosting tips, but most of all enjoy your pregnancy and let your midwife or physician know if you have any questions about immunity in pregnancy.

The Immunological Paradox of Pregnancy

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photo credit: Carmen Hibbins

For most women, navigating pregnancy is difficult. There are decisions to be made: maternity care, labor preferences, place of birth, newborn care, breastfeeding, etc. Not to mention vaccines. Currently the CDC recommends the influenza vaccine for all pregnant women. When making the decision to accept or decline the flu vaccine, it’s important to first understand a pregnant woman’s immune system, as well as the ingredients in different kinds of flu vaccines.

The immune system is a complicated system of cells, tissues, and lymphoid organs—a giant communication network. When cells receive alarms about antigens in the body (viruses, bacteria, parasites, fungi), they produce chemicals that seek to destroy the antigens ability to invade the body. Recently research has shown the importance of a healthy gut for a strong immune system – and for brain health. Really, we are only just beginning to understand the complexity of human immunity.

What we do know is that a woman’s immune system changes significantly from the moment of conception. The innate immune system, the immediate response part, is activated, which results in an increase in white blood cells (monocytes and granulocytes) and the pregnant woman’s production of natural killer (NK) cells decreases. Research has shown that a critical balance of immune cells as well the factors they produce are vital to a healthy pregnancy. Interfering with a pregnant woman’s immune responses is thought to have a negative effect, in particular in the early stages of the pregnancy. The decreased immunity and increase in white blood cells ensures implantation and the development of the placenta. Without it, the fetus can be rejected. Thus, the vast majority of vaccines aren’t indicated for pregnant women and they are generally avoided if possible.

The immunological paradox of pregnancy is complicated, delicate, and beautiful in the way only nature can be.

So what exactly are the risks and benefits of the flu vaccine? The benefit is easy to define: influenza poses a substantial risk for the pregnant woman, in particular during the later months of pregnancy. The woman’s altered immune state can leave her susceptible to certain infections and viruses, and when she contracts the flu it can be hard for her fight it. The CDC states:

Flu is more likely to cause severe illness in pregnant women than in women who are not pregnant. Changes in the immune system, heart, and lungs during pregnancy make pregnant women (and women up to two weeks postpartum) more prone to severe illness from flu, as well as to hospitalizations and even death. Pregnant women with flu also have a greater chance for serious problems for their developing baby, including premature labor and delivery.

The risks of influenza are real, despite the large number of women who have healthy, safe pregnancies without contracting the flu. So what about risks associated with the vaccine? Most of the research on vaccines is conducted on non-pregnant subjects, so researchers are careful to qualify results. The consensus tends to be: less vaccines overall for pregnant women, but the flu vaccine is indicated given the risks associated with the flu.

Current research focuses on the type of flu vaccines. Most flu vaccines are considered “non-adjuvanted.” An adjuvant is an additive used to increase the immune response to a vaccine. Adjuvant vaccines are important during pandemic times, as adjuvants allow more vaccines to be produced using less antigens and are therefore more cost effective. But adjuvants are pro-inflammatory and can aggravate other immune issues. Given the altered immune system of a pregnant woman, most researchers suggest that only non-adjuvanted flu vaccines be administered.

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The WHO organization issued the Safety of Immunization during Pregnancy report in 2014. The research is far from conclusive, but the WHO takes a careful look at results from studies around the world. In terms of the flu vaccine, they conclude:

Pregnant women and infants suffer disproportionately from severe outcomes of influenza. The effectiveness of influenza vaccine in pregnant women has been demonstrated, with transfer of maternally derived antibodies to the infant providing additional protection. The excellent and robust safety profile of multiple inactivated influenza vaccine preparations over many decades, and the potential complications of influenza disease during pregnancy, support WHO recommendations that pregnant women should be vaccinated. Ongoing clinical studies of the effectiveness, safety, and benefits of influenza vaccination in pregnant women in diverse settings will provide additional data that will aid countries in assessing influenza vaccine use for their own population.

If you’re pregnant, weigh the risks and benefits, and take into account any specific immunity issues. Is your immune system weakened for any reason? What is the risk of exposure? Do you tend to contract the flu? What is your family history in terms of vaccine reactions? Are you high risk for any other reason? Talk over the risks and benefits with your care provider. Ultimately, the decision is yours. Your pregnancy is your pregnancy, and a mother’s intuition is often the best guide.

If you choose to have the flu vaccine administered during your pregnancy, be sure that the vaccine is non-adjuvanted/inactivated. In the next blog post on Birth Outside the Box, we’ll discuss ways to naturally boost your immunity during pregnancy – ways to help you counteract the altered immune state that nature has carefully designed to ensure a successful pregnancy. Garlic? Diet? Sleep? Exercise? We’ll cover it all!