Mothers' diets help improve immune systems of premature infants, study finds

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Eating plenty of vegetables can produce the best immune response in premature babies

A new study conducted by researchers from Johns Hopkins Medicine found that mothers’ diets could go a long way towards benefiting their premature infants’ immune systems. 

Though there are risks with premature births, the researchers found that adopting a diet high in vegetables can benefit premature infants’ immune function. Their work showed that a healthy diet was effective in reducing infants’ risk of developing necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC) -- a common gastrointestinal condition among preemies that attacks the intestinal lining and can be fatal. 

“These findings enable us to imagine the possibility of developing a maternal diet that can not only boost an infant’s overall growth, but also enhance the immune system of a developing fetus, and in turn, reduce the risk of NEC if the baby is born prematurely,” said researcher Dr. David Hackam. 

The importance of fruits and vegetables during pregnancy

The researchers conducted several different studies on mice to better understand how pregnant women’s diets can affect their premature infants’ immune systems. The major part of their work was based on the interaction between a compound commonly found in vegetables and a protein linked with NEC. Previous studies have found that the compound -- indole-3 carbinol (I3C) -- can effectively stop the production of the toll-like receptor 4 (TLR4) protein, which is responsible for NEC in premature infants. 

The researchers designed the study to see if IC3 could “be fed to pregnant mice, get passed to their unborn children, and then protect them against NEC after birth.” In the study, one group of pregnant mice was fed high-vegetable diets while another group consumed no IC3 during pregnancy. After the mice gave birth, the researchers analyzed the newborns’ health outcomes. 

The researchers’ hypothesis about the way IC3 and TLR4 interact was correct: greater vegetable consumption reduced the production of the TLR4 protein. The mice born to mothers who had consumed more leafy green vegetables during pregnancy were 50 percent less likely to develop NEC within their first week of birth. 

In another trial, the researchers put breastfeeding to the test. They learned that eating healthier while breastfeeding produced similar immune function outcomes. Infant mice were protected from NEC when their mothers consumed healthier foods. 

While the researchers plan to do more work in this area, they hope that these findings show just how important mothers’ diets can be for their newborns’ overall growth, development, and immune system function. 

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