Raising a child together has a radical impact on both parents’ immune systems, a new study has found
Researchers at the Babraham Institute and VIB and KU Leuven in Belgium have undertaken a detailed look at the immune systems of 670 people, ranging from two to 86 years of age.
Results showed that parenting potentially has a greater effect on the internal system than the seasonal flu vaccine or travellers’ gastroenteritis.
From an assessment of the effects of a range of factors, including age, gender and obesity, one of the most potent factors that altered an individual’s immune system was whether they co-parented a child.
Individuals who lived together and shared a child showed a 50% reduction in the variation between their two systems, compared with the diversity seen in the wider population.
Dr Adrian Liston said that this is the first time anyone has looked at the immune profiles of two unrelated individuals in a close relationship.
“Since parenting is one of the most severe environmental challenges anyone willingly puts themselves through, it makes sense that it radically rewires the immune system – still, it was a surprise that having kids was a much more potent immune challenge than severe gastroenteritis,” he said.
Dr Liston added that sleep deprivation, stress, chronic infections and all of the other challenges of parenting do more to our body “than just give us grey hairs”.
“I think that any parents of a nursery- or school-age child can appreciate the effect a child has on your immune system,” he added.
The researchers also found that following challenges, our immune systems tend to bounce back to the original steady state, demonstrating an “elastic potential”.
Regularly monitoring their insides showed that the individuals maintained a stable immune landscape over time, even after their systems were triggered into action by the seasonal flu vaccine or gastroenteritis.
Participants in the study were assessed over a period of three years.
The research was first published in the Nature Immunology journal.
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