The roles of the immune system in Women's reproduction: Evolutionary constraints and life history trade-offs



Life history theory posits that, as long as survival is assured, finite resources are available for reproduction, maintenance, and growth/storage. To maximize lifetime reproductive success, resources are subject to trade-offs both within individuals and between current and future investment. For women, reproducing is costly and time-consuming; the bulk of available resources must be allocated to reproduction at the expense of more flexible systems like immune function. When reproducing women contract infectious diseases, the resources required for immune activation can fundamentally shift the patterns of resource allocation. Adding to the complexity of the reproductive-immune trade-offs in women are the pleiotropic effects of many immune factors, which were modified to serve key roles in mammalian reproduction. In this review, we explore the complex intersections between immune function and female reproduction to situate proximate immunological processes within a life history framework. After a brief overview of the immune system, we discuss some important physiological roles of immune factors in women's reproduction and the conflicts that may arise when these factors must play dual roles. We then discuss the influence of reproductive-immune trade-offs on the patterning of lifetime reproductive success: (1) the effect of immune activation/infectious disease on the timing of life history events; (2) the role of the immune system, immune activation, and infectious disease on resource allocation within individual reproductive events, particularly pregnancy; and (3) the role of the immune system in shaping the offspring's patterns of future life history trade-offs. We close with a discussion of future directions in reproductive immunology for anthropologists. Yrbk Phys Anthropol 54:134–154, 2011. © 2011 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.