When you contemplate having a baby the first thing that springs to mind for most people is the reproductive system. You may think of your hormones, egg and sperm quality and ponder some of your lifestyle habits. But the one thing that may never cross your mind is your immune system.
What has your immune system got to do with pregnancy?
Your immune system is your 'guardian angel'. Its role is to protect the inner sanctum from the outside invaders such as bacteria, viruses, worms and fungi. And, to destroy cancer cells, deformed cells, repair cell walls, heal wounds, cuts, breaks, sprains, infections and on and on it goes …. you can not live without it – literally.
You've probably heard of the 'fallen angel', a once good angel gone bad? Well this too can happen to your immune system. Rather than fighting off real threats and dangers, it can turn on harmless substances such as pollen, food, bees, animals, your own body tissue and sperm.
The immune system is like a small child. When it's young it needs to 'learn the ropes', needs to distinguish between what it should and should not attack. Bad upbringing will lead to a delinquent immune system.
If you were breastfed you got your mother's antibodies which protected you while your immune system was developing. If your parents let you crawl on the floor, put your fingers in your mouth and play outside in the dirt, then your immune system learnt very quickly what pathogens are and you most likely developed a robust immunity. If on the other hand, you were never breastfed, raised on cow's milk formula (large protein molecules are too big to absorb, potentially leading to inflammation and poor intolerance or allergy), and your parents were fanatical about keeping everything you came in contact with sterilized – than there is a possibility that your immune system has a delinquent or atopic predisposition (do not blame your parents, they did the best they knew). Let me explain.
Your immune system makes different types of antibodies. Among those are Th1 cytokines and Th2 cytokines. You have more Th2 antibodies when your immune system functions normally and more Th1 antibodies when you are prone to allergies and auto immune diseases. The term for this is atopic predisposition.
Pregnancy is an immunological event
From immunological point of view an embryo and sperm cell are foreign bodies. But Mother Nature was clever; she programmed our immune systems to distinguish between an everyday invader and sperm or embryo.
A normal immune response to an embryo or sperm cell is orchestrated by Th2 cytokines. They suppress your killer cells (that's what they are called) to leave the embryo unharmed. Because of this protection many pregnant women are poor wound healers and can come down really badly with a cold or flu. Your natural protection has been suppressed so that your baby can develop properly.
An abnormal immune response to the implantation of the fertilized egg is orchestrated by Th1 cytokines. Rather than suppressing your killer cells they stimulate their activity. This can lead to defects and the loss of the fetus.
There is one more player in this game – progesterone. Progesterone binds to a receptor in T cells and makes them favor Th2 cytokines over Th1. If you have progesterone deficiency than this Th2 bias is minimized.
Antibodies affecting your ability to conceive
Antisperm antibodies and thyroid antibodies can be found in men and women. Women can have additional antibodies to FSH (follicle stimulating hormone), LH (lutenizing hormone) receptors and antiovarian antibodies which are implicated in premature ovarian failure or insufficiency. Women with PCOS and endometriosis are more likely to have anti-FSH antibodies while it is not uncommon for women with ovarian insufficiency to have an autoimmune disorder.
Up to 10% of women and 19% of men with infertility have antisperm antibodies. Antisperm antibodies have been linked to Chlamydia and other reproductive tract infections, testicular trauma, varicoceles, cryptorchidism and smoking.
Effects of antisperm antibodies
Poor sperm development, impaired transport of sperm in the male reproductive system, agglutination (clumping) of the ejaculated sperm, inability to travel through cervical mucus in the female reproductive system, development of sperm immunity in the female leading to a miscarriage.
Although rare, is more common among younger women with other known allergies. Reactions to sperm are similar to coming into contact with a substance one is allergic to – itching, redness, burning, swelling or even anaphylaxis in extreme cases.
How to Retrain Your Immune System
Naturopathic treatment relies heavily on what we call immune system modulation or retraining the immune system. This can be achieved by:
– Avoiding substances one is allergic or intolerant to. This requires tests. However avoiding substances most people are intolerant to, such as gluten and dairy, can help.
– Echinacea is a wonderful herb for modulating immune response and tribulus has been found to decrease antisperm antibodies.
– Increased intake of antioxidants to aid your immune function.
Genitourinary tests will show if there is an infection present which can oftentimes be asymptomatic, especially among men. Studies have shown that couples believe their partner to be STD free which oftentimes is not the case.
As you can see it is imperative to prepare for pregnancy under guidance of your naturopath or doctor who specializes in preconception care. IVF and other assisted reproductive technologies will not be able to overstep your immune system without proper tests, diagnosis and treatment. Therefore it pays to prepare for your pregnancy even if you are going to use IVF. Dr. David who performed the first IVF procedure in New York criticizes IVF practitioners for over-treating and under-diagnosing as many as 90% of infertile patients. According to Dr. David at least 50% of infertile couples do not need IVF if not more.