Maternal Obesity Compromises Babies’ Immune System

In the United States, nearly 60 percent of all women of childbearing age are either overweight or obese. Obesity is a large problem right now in the U.S., and it has been linked to health issues including heart disease, cancer, hypertension, and more. During pregnancy, obesity can increase risk to both mother and child, as it increases the mother’s risk of having preeclampsia, gestational diabetes, a child born with defects, or even pre-term birth. It also increases the infant’s risk of negative health conditions for the rest of it’s life, conditions such as type-2 diabetes, heart disease, and mortality.

According to a new study conducted by a research team from the University of California, Riverside, the baby’s immune system is compromised very early in it’s life. The researches examined umbilical cord blood samples of infants born to obese, overweight, and lean mothers, and discovered that pre-pregnancy maternal weight has a significant impact on the baby’s immune system health.

According to Ilhem Messaoudi, the lead researcher and an associate professor at the school, a few studies have already linked maternal obesity to higher risk of cardiovascular disease and asthma in children. Her study shows the mechanisms, and the possibility that these risks could be linked to altered immune system function caused by maternal obesity.

The researchers categorized the mothers using the body mass index scale, or BMI. A mother was considered overweight if she had a BMI ranging from 25-29.9, and considered obese if her BMI was above 30. All the mothers were non-smokers, non-diabetic, and did not have any gestational complications. Each of the mothers in the study delivered only one baby, and the mother’s were a variety of races.

The researchers found that specific cells, cells which support immune system function, were not found at optimal levels in the infants born to obese mothers. They speculated that this suppressed function was directly related to maternal obesity, that is, being obese before and during the pregnancy. Certain cells related to immune system, allergic response function, and other important function were affected by the obesity. This could explain increased rates of asthma and other complications later in life in babies that were born to obese mothers.

This is the first research to clearly show a link between maternal obesity pre and during pregnancy, and immune system health and function in the infant. It shows that changes in immune system are already detectable at birth, via umbilical cord analysis, and decreased immune function could persist for the entire life of the child.

According to Messaoudi, this research has drastic implications for research moving forward. She says that the many vaccines children receive during their early years may not be safe, if the children’s immune systems aren’t functioning well due to obesity in the mother during pregnancy. Further research in the area is needed, but this study may very well change vaccination procedures as doctors begin to understand more.

She also says that this makes it abundantly clear that doctors need to be speaking with potential mothers about their weight. Typically, issues involving drugs, alcohol, or smoking are addressed, but not healthy bodyweight. We now know that bearing a child while obese can have lifelong consequences for the infant, and this is something that every doctor should be aware of.

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