How Having a Top-Notch Immune System Can Affect Risk of Preterm Birth

Dec 9, 2017 at 10:00 a.m. ET
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While we know that the health of a pregnant person directly affects the well-being of their baby, there may be a link between a healthy immune system and preterm birth. While it isn’t new knowledge that the immune system and healthy pregnancies are connected, scientists recently released new research that explains how the immune system is in flux as a pregnancy progresses. In order to prevent miscarriages and preterm births, the study explains that fetal cells and the mother’s immune system are required for a healthy and successful pregnancy.

The new research in Science Immunology looks at how immune cells react during a normal pregnancy and how any changes can affect preterm birth or miscarriages.

Since a pregnant person’s immune system may be compromised during pregnancy, becoming sick with a cold or flu can be more likely. Immune system changes occur while a person is pregnant in order to protect both the expectant person and baby.

More: Easy Ways to Eat the Best Pregnancy Foods

According to the World Health Organization, preterm births are the leading cause of death in children under the age of 5 with nearly 1 million preterm deaths in 2015 and an estimated 15 million babies born preterm every year. Babies that do survive can face a “lifetime of disabilities, including learning disabilities, and visual and hearing problems,” WHO says.

The study found that immune cells allow a successful pregnancy to occur — all the way down to whether the mother will go into labor or not. According to the study, immune cells play an integral part in every part of a pregnancy.

“During the final stage of pregnancy, the immune system switches back to a pro-inflammatory state,” Dr. writes at Medical News Today. “Without this, the mother cannot go into labor. Preterm labor, in turn, may be associated with abnormal immune responses. A host of factors influence how the immune system behaves during pregnancy, and increasingly, scientists believe that the mother’s microbiome has a part to play.”

The link between pregnancy & a healthy immune system

If a pregnant person were to get a virus or their immune system is a little rocked during their pregnancy, doctors believe the benefits of normal microbiomes are at risk because the virus may “deactivate signaling processes that are crucial for the interaction between the immune system and bacteria.”

Dr. Gil Mor, professor of obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive sciences at Yale School of Medicine in New Haven, Connecticut, studied a mouse who was exposed to a common bacterial toxin and also a viral infection.

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The results? Preterm birth.

Furthermore, Mor found that bacterial and viral infections during pregnancy could possibly lead to schizophreniaautism spectrum disorder and allergies. This news is huge as it means researchers could possibly find a way to prevent irreversible damage to the fetus by way of the immune system.

Another study led by Dr. Brice Gaudilliere, an assistant professor of anesthesiology, perioperative and pain medicine at the March of Dimes Prematurity Research Center at Stanford University in California, hopes to understand how the immune system adapts throughout a pregnancy. Their goal is to develop a blood test where they can see if a mother is at risk for going into preterm labor.

For now, researchers have found that a Western diet is detrimental to microbial passengers. Preterm births and miscarriages are a factor of risks associated with our modern lifestyle choices, but a host of medical conditions are also the result.

Meanwhile, scientists are still figuring out the links between the immune system and microbial diversity and how they influence pregnancy and a child’s health later in life.

Pregnancy & the flu

A new study found that when it comes to the flu, a pregnant person’s immune system is overcharged. That doesn’t sound so bad, does it? In fact, it means that the immune system's reaction is too strong, not too weak. To paraphrase the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, when a pregnant person gets sick with the flu, “they really get the flu.” According to Science News, the “pregnant women’s blood showed a more vigorous response to the virus than cells in blood of non-pregnant women.”

Now that the winter months are hanging over us, how can you be better equipped to stay healthy during the cold and flu season?

  • Exercising for at least 30 minutes a day can boost immunity through the rise of temperature and antibodies and acts as a natural stress reliever.
  • Staying hydrated every day can help support a healthy immune system — aim for eight glasses a day.
  • Vitamin C is typically included in prenatal vitamins, but you should also eat foods like strawberries and bell peppers and drink orange juice for an extra supplement.
  • Garlic is another great way to fight off colds and boost your immune system. Eat one clove of raw garlic each day.

Always remember to wash your hands and avoid people with colds or the flu. Unfortunately, sometimes you get sick no matter what precautions you take. There are various ways to fight off a virus or a cold during the winter months — taking vitamins and keeping up a healthy diet are the best ways to stay in tune with your body and your baby.

More: What Is Preeclampsia, & What Does It Mean for Your Pregnancy?

There is still a lot to learn about the immune system and cells and how they affect pregnancy, the expectant parent and the child.

By S. Nicole Lane

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