Your immune system changes during pregnancy, so making it stronger is a logical goal.
Unfortunately, there’s a lot of bad advice out there. A magic supplement won’t protect you from the flu and there is no surefire way to prevent getting sick. But there are some lifestyle changes you can make that reduces your chances.
In this post, we’re sharing 5 science-backed ways you can balance your immune system during pregnancy.
Immune System Changes During Pregnancy
One reason you may be looking to boost your immune system is that you know it’s already weakened during pregnancy. When you’re expecting, your body goes through a variety of changes, some of which can affect your ability to fight off viruses.
Women who are pregnant are more likely to experience severe flu complications as they take longer to recover. Although this is a con, there’s many benefits to your changing immune system. In fact, researchers found that your immune system changes during pregnancy are precisely timed so that mom and baby get the healthiest outcome.
The TRUTH About Boosting Immune System During Pregnancy
Many expecting women want to protect themselves against COVID-19 or flus and colds in general. In an effort to do that, they look for ways they can “boost” their immune system during pregnancy. The theory is that if you can make your immune system stronger, it can fight off viruses easier, making you less likely to get sick. If you do get sick, it should be less severe and take less time to get better.
Contrary to popular belief, a “strong” immune system isn’t a good goal; however, a “balanced” one is.
A “strong” immune system can cause your body to overreact—sometimes to non-threats. For example, autoimmune diseases, such as multiple sclerosis and rheumatoid arthritis, could be a side effect of a strong immune system. Some experts believe that some people evolved to better fight off infections, making them live longer. But unfortunately, the reaction also makes them more susceptible to diseases.
In a blog post, Dr. Suzanne Cassel of Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles said, “You actually don’t want your immune system to be stronger, you want it to be balanced.”
“Too much of an immune response is just as bad as too little response.”
A balanced immune system is one that has the ability to fight off viruses but not overreact.
How to Boost Immune System When Pregnant
If you’re researching how to boost your immune system during pregnancy, you’ll probably come across a wide variety of herbs and supplements claiming to protect your body. Unfortunately, there’s a lack of evidence surrounding those products. The good news is that there’s a few natural ways you can balance your immune system—and they’re all free!
Exercising at your normal intensity is usually safe during pregnancy and it has a ton of benefits, one being that it can help balance your immune.
Exercise contributes to your overall health, which dictates your immune response. Physical activity also reduces the chances of obesity, which can affect your ability to fight off viruses.
There may be another benefit too: moving increases circulation, allowing cells in the immune system to move easily and effectively.
Even if you don’t like exercise, you can find an activity that you enjoy. Need ideas? Read: 11 Easy and Super Fun Pregnancy Exercise Ideas That You’ll Actually Do.
#2 Eating Well
The advice on how to eat to boost your immune system is the same advice for eating healthy:
- Emphasize fruits, vegetables and whole grains
- Eat lean protein
- Limit salty, sugary and processed foods
- Try to eat smaller amounts of unhealthy foods
- Try to eat a variety of foods to get a variety of nutrients
There’s no special advice for immune system diets because being healthy overall will help your immune function properly. There’s also some evidence that micronutrient deficiencies (ex. zinc, iron, B6, etc.) can affect immune response in animals in lab studies. However, the combination of your diet and prenatal vitamin should protect you from this.
Some people claim that specific foods can boost the immune system, but many don’t have enough evidence to back it up. One of the most promising foods may be mushrooms. In one study, volunteers who ate shiitake mushrooms every day for four weeks had better-functioning gamma delta T-cells and reductions in inflammatory proteins. However, more research needs to be done to see if that translates into overall immunity.
Being sleep deprived can negatively affect your immune system when you get sick. When you sleep, your body produces cytokines. When you’re sick, your body needs more of some cytokines to fight off the infection. If you’re not getting enough shut-eye, your body may not produce enough of what it needs to. To make matters worse, you have a lower amount of antibodies and cells when there’s a lack of sleep.
Being deprived can hurt your immune in another way: It can increase your risk of obesity and diabetes. As discussed above, these factors can also weaken your immune.
#4 Manage Stress + Social Support
There’s evidence to suggest that high stress levels may weaken immune system response. For example, a 2015 study concluded that people exposed to chronic stress can show immune dysregulation that may be long-term and severe. Although people perceive stressful events and moods differently, research shows it can have a negative impact on the immune system.
Other factors may affect your stress levels too. In one study, college students received a flu shot and researchers evaluated their immune response. They found that those who were lonely with small social networks had their immune response weakened the most.
From this research, we can take away 2 main points: Less stress and better social networks may help balance our immune response.
How people manage stress is individual. One actionable step is to block out 1 or 2 times every day to do something that you enjoy and that relaxes you. Ideas include:
- Spending time with your pet
- Having a bubble bath
There’s also many science-backed ways of dealing with stress, including:
- Practice mindfulness
- Getting out in nature
- Therapy or counseling
To learn more, read: How Does Stress Affect Pregnancy? Or check out 10 Proven Ways to Lower Cortisol for a Healthier Fetus.
Another important takeaway is to grow your social supports to strengthen your immune system. This has another benefit too: it may improve pregnancy outcomes, making you more likely to have a healthy baby.
To learn more about how to expand your social circle and friendships during pregnancy, read: Social Support During Pregnancy: Why It’s Critical & 10 Ways To Get It.
#5 Get Vaccinated
Vaccines are designed to protect your immune system against specific viruses. It does this by exposing you to a weakened or inactive virus. This causes your immune system to react, making you immune to it. Although the shot doesn’t give you an illness, it makes your body produce antibodies to fight it if you come into contact with it. This makes vaccines the #1 way to strengthen your immune against specific viruses.
Read: 7 Reasons to Get the Flu Shot During Pregnancy According to Science
Do Supplements Boost Immune System?
When many people talk about boosting their immune system, they’re looking for vitamins or supplements they can add to their routine. Although some supplements have their place (like folic acid and your daily prenatal!), many are useless unless you’re malnourished.
Since COVID-19, even more supplements have been popping up claiming to protect you against viral illnesses. Instead of reading labels and taking their claims as advice, start looking at them as simply marketing copy.
Michael Starnbach, a professor of microbiology at Harvard Medical School, told Harvard Health Publishing that there’s no evidence these supplements work.
“Unfortunately, the reality is that those kinds of products aren’t really offering you any benefit,” he says.
With that being said, there’s some evidence that probiotics in your gut may play a role in health. However, experts say there’s not enough research to know which microbes affect what. In the future, the suggestions for taking probiotics will likely become clearer.
If you still decide to take a supplement, make sure it’s safe during pregnancy. Some herbs and ingredients thought of as “natural” may have negative impacts on expecting women. For example, some people wonder “can you take elderberry when pregnant?” but there isn’t enough research to say it’s safe during pregnancy, so many providers won’t recommend the supplement.
Summary: How to Boost Immune System When Pregnant
If you’re looking to strengthen your immune system when expecting, you can disregard any claims made about special supplements. There’s not enough evidence they help and many may contain herbs that haven’t been proven safe during pregnancy.
Instead, you can balance your immune system by improving your overall health. This includes eating healthy, getting exercise, getting enough sleep and finding ways to manage stress. The only (almost) surefire way to boost your immune system against a virus is to get a vaccine for it.
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