New Study Finds Our Immune Systems May Be Created In The Womb

Image by Kristen Curette & Daemaine Hines / Stocksy

When you imagine the development of an infant's immune system (and who doesn't in their free time?), you might think of the skin-to-skin contact just after childbirth between a mother and her baby. Or maybe you're thinking of breastmilk and its special antibodies that are passed to a baby during feeding to boost infant immunity. 

While both of those scenarios are valid, as a baby's initial exposure to the world really does affect the development of their immune system, a new study from the journal Developmental Cell found that a portion of the fetal immune system may actually be developed before birth, meaning you might have a greater ability to protect your child's gut immunity during pregnancy, rather than after. 

How did they make this discovery?

"We were surprised to find that almost complete immune capacity in the gut had developed as early as 14 weeks, and it remained mostly stable through infancy," said co-senior author of the study, Liza Konnikova, M.D., Ph.D. 

Konnikova and her team used advanced cellular and genomic analyses to study the immune system in gut tissues from 14- to 23-week-old fetuses and infants undergoing surgery in order to correct gut defects. 

What they found was that the fetal gut had cells from both the innate and adaptive immune systems. These findings are super interesting, as the adaptive immune system tends to develop in response to certain bacterial invaders, meaning this certain component of the immune system needs to be exposed to those pathogens before it can recognize that bacteria in the future and do its job properly. 

Even more intriguing is that these scientists found an abundance of memory T-cells (cells that require exposure to a pathogen in order to form) in the fetal gut. 

"Finding memory T cells was completely unexpected because these cells need to be exposed to a pathogen to form, and you would think that the placenta would prevent most pathogens from entering the womb," Konnikova says.

Somehow, pathogens are coming into contact with these fetuses—and the fetus is naturally developing mechanisms to protect themselves against this bacteria. 

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What could this mean for our gut immunity?

So, the question becomes: How are these fetuses becoming exposed to pathogens that spark the development of their gut immunity? Konnikova believes that these pathogens could exist in the amniotic fluid that fetuses float in and begin swallowing as early as 12 weeks. That being said, since fetuses have the ability to come into contact with certain immune-building bacteria, mothers might have the power to offer protection against various diseases even before childbirth.

If researchers can figure out exactly what pathogens the fetus is exposed to, they could potentially manipulate these pathogens in order to safeguard against certain diseases before birth and potentially offer specific maternal vaccines that would enhance the fetus's immune system. 

Put it this way: Autoimmune and autoinflammatory conditions like IBS or Crohn's disease could be diagnosed or even eradicated before birth—a groundbreaking step toward combating and protecting against these chronic illnesses that have caused so much pain and discomfort. 

While this research is preliminary and very complex, the future of gut immunity sure looks hopeful. But before autoimmune illnesses become a thing of the past, let's stick to prioritizing our gut health and nourishing your newborn's microbiome.

Ready to learn more about how to unlock the power of food to heal your body, prevent disease & achieve optimal health? Register now for our FREE web class with nutrition expert Kelly LeVeque.

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