We have long known that vaginal birth and breastfeeding are key factors in the development of a healthy immune system in infants. Passing through the vagina exposes the baby to an array of bacteria that help stimulate its unchallenged immune system. Breast-fed babies receive anti-bodies, proteins and other molecules that protect it from infection and teach the immune system to defend the infant.
Breastfeeding is key for long-term health.
Recent research at UC Davis has shown that a strain of the bifido bacteria – acquired from the mother – thrives on complex sugars (largely lactose) that were previously thought to be indigestible. The bacterium coats the lining of the immature digestive tract and protects it from noxious bacteria.
This combination of interactions affects the composition of bacteria in the infant gut as it matures. Another example of how evolution has “invented” the perfect nutrition for infants, this research contributes to the notion that evolution has selected for many genes that serve normal birth and breastfeeding by protecting the newborn. Intervening with the normal progression of birth and breastfeeding – while occasionally necessary – interrupts these beneficial adaptations and contributes to allergies and autoimmune disorders.
Back to work! Thank you for your forebearance while we wrote a chapter for a nursing textbook!
During the course of pregnancy, the mother/fetus dance is ongoing. The maternal immune system and the trophoblast cells continue to influence each other even beyond the implantation.
Because the mother’s immune response modulates near the start of each trimester, the fetus is affected to some degree and mounts a response, as well. For a long time it was thought that maternal and fetal DNA material was not exchanged across the placental membrane, however recent findings indicate that there is some exchange of material. Thus, we all carry some portion of our mother’s DNA and our mother carries some of ours.
What is the impact of this chimeric effect? It depends on how well our DNA gets along!
How does this affect the fetus in utero? The fetus may be affected by clotting issues. Depending on maternal health status s/he may be subject to a stronger or weaker immune system.
How does this affect the mother? Women are more likely than men to develop autoimmune disorders (pregnancy playing a role here), and those who bear male offspring are more likely than those who only have girls to have these disorders.
The mother's prior sperm exposure can affect her pregnancy.
Not every sperm is your friend! Sperm exposure – like so many exposures – affects our immune system. Women who have babies with more than one father may be at risk for disorders of pregnancy because the challenges to their immune system have been extensive. And, very young women who become pregnant are at increased risk of some disorders because they have had very little exposure to sperm.
In addition, women who have primarily and extensively used barrier methods of contraception may be at risk for disorders for reasons similar to young women with little exposure. Unlike women whose immune system has had too much challenge due to pregnancies by several men, women with little exposure may not have a strong defense against foreign DNA. Please do not take this as a reason to not use a condom – one of the barrier methods along with a diaphragm and cervical cap. Rather, if you use a barrier method of contraception, keep in mind that your body’s adjustment to pregnancy may take time.
Another way sperm can affect the pregnancy is that the combination of the mother’s and father’s natural immune responses may be strong against the trophoblast implantation. This is not something you can know ahead of time. Also, women are eight times more likely than men to develop autoimmune disorders. One reason may be the prenatal exposure to foreign DNA encountered in pregnancy.
Keep in mind that by getting good prenatal care, exercise, sufficient rest, stress managment and healthy nutrition, you do all within your power to have a healthy pregnancy. Your health care provider will determine your risk factors that may affect pregnancy outcome and treat you in an appropriate manner.
Moms and babies enjoy exercise together!
Once your baby comes, there will be time to maximize health for both of you. Exercising together is great fun!
Getting there may require some patience, but the reward is well worth it.
When you are looking around for sperm, use your head. The same behavior that protects you from infections you never want to get, protects you from sperm you don’t really want to meet. When the time comes to adopt some sperm, find out about it’s credentials!
Please refer to February 5 entry for entire graphic. Today: Environmental Preconditions to Pregnancy.
Our environment is with us all the time. Even if we think we are preventing or controlling environmental factors that impinge on our bodies and minds, they are lurking here, there, everywhere, and they are myriad. Our environmental influences are everything from the air we breathe to the persons who raise or teach us, from the food available to our housing, from our job stresses to cultural forces or even the weather in our part of the world. These things help shape who we are physically and mentally, over the long term and from moment to moment.
Are you prepared to become a parent? One way to tell is to look at your environment…is it healthy? Are you living in a situation that you can count on? What about clean air, safe paint or safe food? What about water? What about people around you? Are they supportive? Does your environment help you stay healthy?
What about your body? Factors in the environment that affect fertility (or lack of it) may determine if you can even become pregnant, or when you can become pregnant. Think about this: Women who work together often cycle together. What if you work alone, say at home…does this affect your ovulation? One factor identified in the lowering age of menstruation in girls is the increasing number of hormones in various meats. Another factor is the presence of non-biologically related older males in the household. If these things are known, imagine what is not known about situations, chemicals or people in our environment that affect our reproduction!
There is not an absolute separation of genetics, environment and behavior. If we are genetically predisposed to certain disorders, for example, we may or may not develop them, depending on environment. Some persons are inclined toward autoimmune disorders, but they may do well or poorly depending on the air pollution where they live. Some individuals may develop immune disorders. And, this situation may adversely impact inflammatory responses during implantation.
People who strive to take care of themselves even if they live in horrible conditions can use their behavior to improve their chances for success in everything from a healthy pregnancy to a meaningful existence. Even if genetics and the environment are against the process, behavior can sometimes overcome the odds. Granted, it’s not likely you can produce 6’5″ offspring (see last post on genetics!) if the egg person is 5’2″ and the sperm person is 5’7″, but much is possible beyond that.
So, what do you do about your environment if you are thinking about becoming pregnant? Take stock. Ask yourself what, if anything, might have to change. Ask what you can or can’t accept for your offspring, if you know there are environmental factors that aren’t perfect. Fetuses are amazing creatures; the placentas that supply and defend them are ruthless and will protect a fetus at all costs. But, you can give your body and potential baby a good chance to do well by providing a six month span of a healthy environment leading up to conception. And, healthy for mind as well as body.
When your baby comes into the world, a door opens in your heart to a room you didn’t even know was there. In that room is a certain kind of love and caring that cannot be described. It is love for this being who is and isn’t you. As a mother, you have been her/his environment for nine months or however long you have shared. The womb is a small, protected, organized environment, one that reflects your larger environment. So, take stock now, ahead of time.
Please refer to February 5 entry for complete graphic. Today we turn to the question of preconditions to pregnancy and how they might affect maternal and offspring health.
Pre-existing factors that can influence health outcomes include genetic factors (family risk for heart disease, for example), environmental factors (living in a building with mold, for example), and behavior (eating well and exercising, for example). In each category, factors will contribute to the health of the mother and eventually to offspring health.
It is important to understand what major genetic factors may affect your offspring and whether the environment or behavior can help offset negative factors. For example, there may be a history of preeclampsia during pregnancy in your family, but vigorous aerobic exercise in the six months prior to pregnancy provides a high degree of protection from this risk. Preeclampsia puts both mother and offspring at risk for complications.
Other genetic factors that may be of consequence include autoimmune disorders, allergies, and metabolic syndromes. For example, so-called “thrifty genes” may predispose you to a high weight gain in pregnancy. But, you may be able to offset health problems associated with this by staying active and eating well.