One of the most important times to focus on boosting immune-health for expectant moms is during pregnancy. A mother’s immune system is suppressed to protect the growing baby during pregnancy—the absence of this process would trigger the body to identify the growing baby as an intruder and defend itself. The downside, however, is that pregnant women are more susceptible to food-borne illness and infections during pregnancy. Fortunately, with the right diet, enough sleep and adequate exercise, the risk of contracting an illness during pregnancy is greatly reduced- making for a healthier mom and baby. Follow the five top nutrition-strategies below to minimize sick days and maximize energy levels for a healthy, illness-free pregnancy.
Think zinc (and a few other vitamins and minerals…)
Zinc, along with selenium, iron, copper, vitamins A, C, E and B-6, and folic acid are all very important when it comes to optimal immune system functioning. You will likely meet your needs for these immune-boosting nutrients by taking a daily prenatal vitamin along with consuming a varied diet rich in many different colored fruits and vegetables, low mercury fish, whole grains and low-fat dairy products. To get an extra boost of these important immunity-boosting nutrients, you can find many of them in mushrooms, citrus fruits, seafood, Swiss chard, and fortified cereals and bread. Try to include at least one of these nutrient-dense foods in your diet every day to promote optimal immune function.
Avoid pesticides and toxins
Pesticides and toxins can decrease immune system function. Choose organic versions of foods on the Environmental Working Group’s “Dirty Dozen List.” While it is optimal to choose organic over non-organic, it’s safe to say that concerns over pesticides should not prevent you from consuming nutritious fruits and vegetables that can do so much to promote a healthy immune system. If you can’t go organic, ‘spray away’ by filling a spray bottle with three cups of water and one cup of white vinegar. Squirt the produce about six times to coat the surface, then rinse under cold water to wash the residual vinegar (and worries of contamination) away! Avoid mercury from large fish such as white albacore tuna, tilefish, swordfish, and king mackerel. Low mercury fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, herring, lake trout, and sardines are high in omega-3 fatty acids and the immune-boosting nutrients, selenium, vitamin B-6, and vitamin E.
Boost gut health
The gut contains 60% of the body’s entire immune system, so keeping it healthy is important when it comes to preventing sickness. Getting enough vitamin A is important to support the cells that line the walls of the intestinal tract, and fatty acids such as those found in cold-water fish and olive oil help promote healthy gastrointestinal cell membranes as well.
Fiber is also an important nutrient to promote gut health as it is fermented by the friendly bacteria in the colon into short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs), which are used as a fuel by gastrointestinal (GI) tract cells and promotes a healthy gastrointestinal barrier. Additionally, fiber from fresh fruits, vegetables, and whole grains promotes the removal of toxins that can adversely affect GI cells.
Probiotics- healthy bacteria found in cultured dairy foods such as kefir and yogurt- are also very important in maintaining healthy gut function by preventing harmful bacteria from colonizing in the body and by assisting in the gut’s synthesis of essential vitamins including B-12 and vitamin K. Probiotic supplements may be helpful for some people who suffer from GI problems such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and Crohn’s Disease.
Consumption of probiotic supplements along with foods including milk, yogurt, and other dairy products buffers stomach acid and can increase the chance that the bacteria will survive into the intestine. Refrigerated storage of dairy products helps promote probiotic stability. The lactic acid content of yogurt can be a barrier to culture stability, but short-term refrigeration also helps promote stability.
Eat your phytonutrients
A diet rich in disease-fighting antioxidants and phytonutrients such as carotenoids, ellagic acid, flavonoids, and resveratrol, is another important aspect when it comes to boosting the immune system. These compounds are found in plant foods and can be obtained by including a variety of colorful fruits and vegetables in the diet- especially those that can provide a big “bang for your buck“ such as kale, which contains just 36 calories yet more than 100% of the daily value for vitamins A and K, and 89% of the daily value for vitamin C in one cooked cup. Striving to consume foods as close to their original form as possible will ensure that nutrients are abundant and intact. Instead of apple juice, eat an apple. Instead of sweet potato chips, eat a sweet potato. Instead of white bread, eat whole wheat with as few ingredients listed on the label as possible.
Practice food safety
During pregnancy, you are at particularly high risk for foodborne illness because your immune system is weakened. It is important to practice food safety since food poisoning can have serious consequences for your baby.
- Remember to always wash your hands and kitchen surfaces with hot, soapy ware before you prepare a meal.
- Avoid all raw and undercooked seafood as well as raw eggs, which can be found in homemade mayonnaise and Caesar salad.
- Avoid undercooked eggs, wash raw fruits and vegetables thoroughly before eating them, and avoid raw sprouts.
- To prevent listeriosis, don’t eat cold cuts, deli meat, or smoked or pickled fish unless they are cooked until steaming hot.