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.

Good Cheer and The Pregnancy Diet

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It’s that time of year. The time when we bake cookies and fudge and tasty pies. The time when the workplace break room is littered with holiday candy and plenty of chocolate. It’s a time when it feels almost obligatory to feed the sweet tooth. But what if you’re pregnant? Does pregnancy give you an eat-all-you-want pass with the holiday sweets? The short answer is no. But then again, as with most anything, it’s all about balance.

We as midwives make nutrition an important part of the care we offer pregnant clients. It’s the hallmark of good prenatal care. To help pregnant women navigate this holiday season, we asked a seasoned midwife/educator/author to share her tried and true pregnancy diet, a diet based on a modified American Diabetes Association (ADA) diet, with specific portion sizes and an accompanying chart. The best part? Desserts are not off-limit, although one piece of pie could blow a lot of the small, allowed portions.

Juliana Van Olphen-Fehr, CNM, PdD, retired director of the Shenandoah University nurse-midwifery program and author of Diary of a Midwife, spent an entire prenatal visit on nutrition when she had a combination home/hospital practice. Clients often joked that subsequent prenatal visits were diet confessionals; some tried to hide ice cream cones from her view when running into her outside of appointments. The nutrition prenatal session left its indelible mark on the pregnant women she served and the Fehr pregnancy diet was a hallmark of her successful practice.

Recently, we asked her if her opinion on the optimal pregnancy diet had changed all these years later: “No. Not one bit…. You are what you eat, so when you’re pregnant, so is the baby [what you eat]. What your job is, when you’re pregnant, is to nourish that body and really make sure that the body inside you will grow up to be an incredible and productive human being.”

Dr. Fehr frames the pregnancy diet in both biological and historical perspectives. Our brain requires glucose. “It doesn’t use protein and vitamins. Glucose is it. And now the pregnant woman has two brains and one is really changing fast. It’s growing and it’s interested in getting all the nutrition it needs.” Yet, historically, humans’ access to sugar was seasonal and typically fruit, or at the very least, lactose, another sugar, from a cow’s milk.

“Humans were designed to survive despite the lack of access to sugar. That’s what we were meant to do, because [historically] we didn’t have it. The problem is that evolution takes thousands of years to develop. We now have so much access to sugar; we are inundated with it. We need it. We crave it.”

But at some point the pancreas won’t keep up with a contemporary intake of sugar. And that creates problems for both the baby and the mother.

Every day a pregnant woman needs grains and carbohydrates to offer the brain the sugar it needs. But the trick is to keep track of serving sizes and amounts. A pregnant woman and her growing baby needs:

  • 9 servings of carbohydrates
  • 9 servings of protein
  • 3 servings of milk
  • 3 servings of vegetables
  • 6 servings of fruit
  • 5 servings of fat

And the serving sizes are small: 1 ounce of meet or cheese, 1 egg, or 2 tablespoons of nut butter meet the protein serving requirement. And nut butters also count for 2 of the fat exchanges. Vegetable serving sizes are ½ cup cooked or 1 cup raw. One half of a bagel, 1/3 cup cooked lentils, 1 small potato, or 2 cups cooked pasta meet the carbohydrate serving size requirement.

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So where does that leave a pregnant woman during the holidays? A little bit of good math, planning, and awareness go a long way. Enjoy that pie, but be mindful of the carb, dairy, fruit, and fat exchanges. Enjoy that piece of fudge, but pull back on your dairy and fat servings for the remainder of the day. And be sure to fill the rest of your day with all of the nutrients that are most important for you and your growing baby. You’re eating for two. Two brains, two pancreases, one of each that are still growing and developing. A good diet is an investment in your own health and in the long-term health of your baby. Cheers!

Eat the rainbow!

Did y’all know that June is “National Fresh Fruit & Vegetable Month?” Lucky us! In Virginia, we are blessed with a bountiful assortment of local farms and farmers’ markets, making it easy to find delicious fresh produce. This chart can help you see at a glance which foods are best at certain times of year. It looks like right now, beets, blueberries, green beans, and squash (and others) are at their best. Some of my personal favorites are on that list!

Beets

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Beets are so good for you. They’re high in carbs, so if you’re watching your carb intake, you want to be careful about that, but they’re so good for you in so many ways. According to Dr. Mercola, beets can lower blood pressure, boost your stamina, have anti-cancer properties, and help your body detox. They are high in vitamin C, fiber, potassium, manganese, and folate (important for pregnant moms to help prevent neural tube development issues).

If you want a truly amazing super food, beet greens are it. Dr. Mercola has a blog post devoted entirely to beet greens. They’re high in vitamin C and iron and extremely high in vitamin A. He says the vitamin K works with the calcium in the beet greens to help prevent osteoporosis.

Beets were never one of my favorites when I was a child. When I was growing up, I remember eating canned beets, and I thought they were absolutely disgusting. Now, as an adult, after trying them prepared differently, I’m getting over my aversion to beets. Here’s a great list of recipes for beets that just might help us all to open our minds to new possibilities. I’m thinking the Beet, Carrot, and Pomegranate Salad is looking mighty tasty!

Blueberries

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Berries are so good for you. They’re low in sugar and full of vitamins. They’re low in calories and high in vitamin C, vitamin K, and fiber. They’re full of antioxidants and may lower blood pressure and reduce your risk of heart disease. The health benefits of blueberries are quite extensive. This delicious recipe would be quite festive at picnics this year. You could substitute greek yogurt for the coconut cream for an added protein boost. And any combination of berries (blueberries, blackberries, strawberries, etc.) would be quite tasty!

Green Beans

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Green beans are so quick and easy to prepare, and they’re so good for you. They’re full of fiber, which helps your digestive tract and helps you feel full. They’re a great source of folic acid, vitamin A, vitamin B6, vitamin C, and vitamin K. My favorite way to prepare green beens is to quickly saute them for a few minutes in a little bit of olive oil and sliced fresh garlic. I squeeze fresh lemon juice over the top add some fresh ground pink Himalayan salt and black pepper. So simple and so good.

Squash

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The health benefits of squash are numerous. My absolute favorite vegetables are squash, so seeing that infographic makes me feel pretty good about that! I love zucchini and I can’t get enough butternut squash. There are so many ways to prepare squash … grilled, baked, sauteed. Of course, butternut squash soup is delicious. Then, there’s the squash desserts. Who doesn’t like zucchini bread and pumpkin pie? OK, maybe zucchini bread and pumpkin pie aren’t as healthy as roasted butternut squash, but still…

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Vegetables and fruit add variety to your diet. Eating the rainbow of fruits and vegetables every day will help ensure you will get all of the vitamins and minerals you need to grow a healthy baby and have a healthy pregnancy. A lot of times, we get into ruts with foods, and we think of only one way to prepare a particular vegetable. By experimenting with new recipes, you can really broaden your diet, and you can learn to like vegetables you thought you didn’t like before, because what you really didn’t like was how they were prepared. Keep experimenting! This is the season to try new treats from the garden! Your local farmers’ market will have a lot of choices and ideas to help you on your way.