With the Coronavirus outbreak, pregnant women around the world are wondering how they can safely boost their immunity during pregnancy.
Let’s consider the most commonly prescribed immune-boosting nutrients and herbs. More importantly, are they safe to take during pregnancy?
Increases our resistance to infection, boosts antibody production and enhances the activity of our immune system. Vitamin A is found in egg yolk, full-fat dairy products, liver and fish liver oils. Too much vitamin A, however, can cause birth defects. For that reason, it’s not safe to eat liver or pate during pregnancy.
It is possible to eat foods high in carotenoids, such as apricots, carrots and green leafy vegetables and convert the carotenoids to vitamin A. However, a quarter of the population lack the enzyme required for conversion.
For supplementation, I love the combination of beta-carotene and lutein. Supplementing with beta-carotene on its own may inhibit the absorption of lutein (another carotenoid) by up to 50%.
If you are vegan or are intolerant to eggs or dairy, it would be a good idea to speak to your nutritionist or naturopath about supplementing with vitamin A.
Grandma knew what she was talking about when she suggested eating oranges and drinking lemon and honey tea to ward off colds.
Vitamin C is necessary for a healthy immune system. Not only that, it helps us absorb iron which is essential during pregnancy (more on iron below).
The RDI during pregnancy is 60mg, although you can increase this dose to 2000mg daily during times of illness. If you are not actually pregnant yet, you may like to look into intravenous vitamin C for a greater boost in this super vitamin. Google a clinic near you.
It is a good idea to test vitamin D prior to pregnancy and at the end of each trimester of pregnancy and supplement accordingly. The reason for testing is that you may need more than the 1000iu commonly found in prenatal vitamins. Don’t go ahead and take a high dose thinking more is better either. As a fat-soluble vitamin, it may be toxic in excess.
The RDI during pregnancy is 200iu although I’ve found in clinic, most women need much more than this.
One of the most important minerals during pregnancy, especially from 16 weeks when hemodilution kicks in (doubling of blood volume).
Iron deficiency can lead to dysfunction and disease including poor immune function so it’s important to get supplementation right.
• If you are anaemic, it’s a good idea to speak to your doctor about an iron infusion. It is very difficult to boost iron stores through supplementation during pregnancy.
• If you are mildly deficient, then it’s a good idea to speak to your naturopath or nutritionist about the appropriate dose for you. Even though the RDI is 27mg daily during pregnancy, you may need 100mg of elemental iron daily.
• If you are trying for a baby and your ferritin (iron stores) are less than 30ug/L, speak to your doctor about an iron infusion. Otherwise, try to boost your stores to more than 80ug/L through supplementation prior to conception. This allows for a decrease in iron stores throughout the pregnancy (which is inevitable) without becoming anaemic.
Derek Bryce-Smith from the Department of Organic Chemistry, Reading University, UK was once quoted as saying “If a new drug had been found with this broad range of properties, it would have been hailed as the discovery of the (20th) century”.
Zinc is the most important mineral during the entire preconception, pregnancy and postnatal period. Involved in over 200 enzyme reactions in the body, zinc maintains a healthy immune system.
It is a common deficiency and even though the RDI during pregnancy is 11mg daily, most women will need a higher dose than that to correct their deficiency. Remember, like everything, it’s essential to have a chat with your health professional rather than self-medicating with high doses.
Taking a high quality prenatal vitamin can help you achieve the recommended daily intake of nutrients during pregnancy and breastfeeding.
Common Herbs Used for Immune Support
As a medical herbalist, I have to weigh risk vs benefit when prescribing herbal medicine during pregnancy.
There are some herbs that are contraindicated in pregnancy but echinacea is not one of them. One study demonstrated that echinacea is safe when taken short term (5-7 days) although long term safety has not yet been established.
The prospective, controlled study included 206 women who had used echinacea with 112 women who used it in the first trimester. There was no increased risk of major malformations and no significant differences were found in pregnancy outcome between the control group and study group.
In clinic and from personal use, I find echinacea is most effective when used as a preventative medicine. Perhaps save this one for times when you are exposed to a higher risk of illness such as travelling.
This herb is NOT safe for pregnant women to use.
Although it is highly effective as an anti-viral, I would advise against using it if you are trying to conceive or are pregnant.
If you are breastfeeding and you start to feel the symptoms of a cold or virus coming on, this is a great herb to use to nip it in the bud (along with high doses of vitamin C).
This fabulous herb not only makes our food taste amazing; it has serious health benefits! Try crushing a garlic clove with the side of a large kitchen knife to release the oils. This releases allicin, the active constituent responsible for antimicrobial effects in the body. At the first sign of an illness, swallow the garlic clove whole and repeat a few times daily.
One of the yummy herbs, this one makes a great cough syrup! Elderberry and elderflowers are commonly prescribed for influenza, common colds and other acute viral infections.
This herb has been studied in three clinical trials which concluded it is effective against influenza. It’s certainly worth trying if you are unfortunate enough to contract Covid-19 during pregnancy.
Getting back to grandma’s lemon and honey drinks, it turns out she was a very smart woman.
Manuka honey is anti-viral, anti-inflammatory and a great antioxidant! I’ve been having half a lemon squeezed into hot water with one teaspoon of manuka honey every day as part of my own immune-boosting plan.
The benefits of probiotics during pregnancy extend further than just the prevention of allergies and eczema. I like to prescribe a multi-strain probiotic to support the immune system as well as gut health.
Lifestyle and mind/body medicine
Pregnancy is already a time that can evoke anxious thoughts and feelings without worldwide pandemics occurring.
Remember that pregnancy itself weakens your immune system and stress can weaken it even further. If you find yourself becoming stressed out, switch off from watching/listening to the media and go for a walk, meditate or do some yoga.
Try to distance yourself from people as much as you possibly can until this pandemic is over. Focus on eating nutritious meals, exercise, fresh air, sun and try to sleep 8 hours every night (if your bladder lets you!)
Disclaimer: The nutrients and herbs mentioned in this article are for immune support only. They have not been proven to prevent or treat COVID-19.