Anxiety during pregnancy changes immune activity in the mother

The immune system of pregnant women with anxiety is biologically different from that of pregnant women without anxiety.

Maria Zavialova

Anxiety during pregnancy affects maternal and fetal immunity

Anxiety in pregnant women can and should be treated for the health of the mother and unborn child.

This is according to new joint research by Weill Cornell Medicine, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, and Columbia University Irving Medical Center. This is the first study to assess the link between anxiety and the trajectory of immune changes during pregnancy and the postpartum period.

Pregnant women with anxiety have higher levels of certain immune cells known as cytotoxic T lymphocytes. These cells attack infected or otherwise compromised cells in the body. There were also differences in the activity of immune markers that circulate in the blood.

Women with anxiety appear to have an immune system that behaves differently from that of healthy women during pregnancy and after delivery. During pregnancy, a delicate dance is supposed to occur, in which the immune system changes so that it does not reject the fetus but is still strong enough to keep out foreign pathogens.

Dr. Lauren M. Osborne, principal investigator, vice chair for clinical research for the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Weill Cornell Medicine

Why anxiety needs to be treated, not just tolerated

According to Dr. Osborne, who conducted the research while on the faculty of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, this study could lead to better treatment of anxiety in pregnant patients. She is also a reproductive psychiatrist at New York-Presbyterian Weill Cornell Medical Center. As a clinician, she believes that women with anxiety may resist being prescribed medications. The reason: fear that they will harm the baby, despite evidence of their compatibility with pregnancy.

Anxiety, reported by more than 20% of pregnant women, has already been proven to be harmful to parents and baby. For example, it can increase the risk of premature birth and low birth weight.

For this study, Dr. Osborne and her colleagues evaluated a group of 107 pregnant women, 56 of whom had anxiety and 51 of whom had not. The women were studied during the second and third trimesters of pregnancy and six weeks after delivery. The researchers evaluated blood samples for immune activity and conducted a psychological assessment to identify clinical anxiety.

Results and conclusions of the researchers

They found that women with anxiety had elevated levels of cytotoxic T cells during pregnancy and then declined in the weeks after delivery. In women without it, the activity of these cells decreased during pregnancy and continued to decline after birth.

The researchers also noticed that the activity of predominantly pro-inflammatory cytokines, or substances released by cells as part of the immune system’s response, was suppressed during pregnancy in women with anxiety. Then it increased after childbirth, while the opposite was observed in healthy women.

This is the first clear evidence that immune activity differs for pregnant women depending on their anxiety status. Knowing that there is immune system involvement is a first step toward understanding the biological factors related to anxiety in pregnancy, and a first step toward developing new treatments. We know that anxiety needs to be treated to ensure healthy outcomes for both mother and child.

Dr. Lauren M. Osborne

Earlier, scientists found that prenatal wellness care improves further life of mothers.

Read about the best methods and ways to preserve your mental health and counteract stress in our article.

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