In a global pandemic many have lost their steady incomes, parents have become educators, health care appointments can feel overwhelming without the support of partners, and with quarantine in place, it can feel like there is no escape. After months of quarantine, many have been minimizing trips to the grocery store, resorting to more frequent take-out meals and indulging in comfort food, while bodily movement has become less frequent. Being pregnant, on top of all of this, can feel unnerving. With flu season fast approaching and COVID-19 persisting, one of the biggest questions pregnant women ask is, “what can I do to improve my immune system to protect myself and my baby?”
The immune system is your body’s defense system against unwanted bacteria, viruses, and toxins. It requires adequate vitamins and minerals to function properly; therefore being deficient in important nutrients can suppress the immune system and increase susceptibility to infection. Pregnant women are at an increased risk of micronutrient deficiency due to higher nutrient demands to support growing a baby, and the physiological changes of pregnancy suppress the immune system, which can result in a compromised immune function. So, what nutrients should we focus on in using whole foods to prepare for our pregnancy during this pandemic?
There are many nutrients essential to maintain immunocompetence including vitamin B6, folate, vitamin B12, selenium, zinc, and iron. Eating a varied diet consisting of animal proteins, eggs, dairy, fatty fish, beans and legumes, and nuts and seeds will ensure a nutrient dense diet. Lastly, antioxidants, probiotics, and Vitamin D are additional nutrients of importance for immune support highlighted below.
Antioxidants including Vitamin A (beta-carotene), Vitamin C, and Vitamin E play a vital role in protection against oxidative stress and support the functions of the immune system.
Vitamin A is crucial for pregnant women and required for building the developing baby’s immune system. Vitamin A beta-carotene is abundant in orange and yellow fruits and vegetables such as sweet potatoes, bell peppers, butternut squash, carrots, and cantaloupe, and dark, green leafy vegetables such as spinach and broccoli.
Vitamin C has been shown to reduce the duration of the common cold, while low blood levels may compromise the protection against infection. Foods high in Vitamin C to include in a regular diet are bell peppers, strawberries, oranges, kiwi, mango, broccoli, guava, kale, and tomatoes.
Vitamin E protects healthy cells from damage and helps strengthen the body’s immune system. Vitamin E is found in plant-based oils like olive, sunflower and rapeseed oils, hazelnuts, almonds, sunflower seeds, spinach, avocado, and broccoli.
Probiotics are live bacteria found in fermented foods that may have a positive effect on the health of a growing baby. During pregnancy, alterations in the mom’s gastrointestinal tract occurs and may not only influence the immune health of the baby, but may help prevent pregnancy complications. Foods that contain probiotics and are healthy to include in a pregnancy diet are Greek yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, pickles, miso, tempeh, kimchi, and sourdough bread.
Vitamin D deficiency is associated with increased susceptibility to infection. Worldwide it is estimated about 50% of pregnant women are deficient in Vitamin D, which is not only beneficial for immune function but is necessary for skeletal and bone development in utero. 80% percent of Vitamin D supply is produced by the body when directly exposed to sunlight. If you have a darker complexion, do not regularly expose your skin to sunlight without the use of sunscreen, or live in a climate where sun exposure is limited for a portion of the year, you may be at risk for Vitamin D deficiency. The remaining 20% comes from food sources such as fatty fish, fortified dairy, and egg yolk. The general supplementation guidelines of 600 international units may not be adequate for every pregnant woman. To ensure your supplementation is right for you, consider consulting your care providers to test your Vitamin D levels and supplement accordingly.
To Sum Up
If you focus on including a variety of colorful fruits and vegetables, you’ll be able to provide your body with the antioxidant properties to fend off stress and support your immune system. Include Greek yogurt and other fermented foods that contain live bacteria, aka probiotics, that will encourage“good” bacteria in your gut. Include fatty fish and eggs (including the yolk), and enjoy daily sunlight to support your body with Vitamin D. The goal is to concentrate on adding these whole foods into your diet to boost your immune system and stay healthy throughout pregnancy.