Boosting Your Child’s Immunity
With the winter months approaching, now is the perfect time to start building up your child’s immune system. Children have special health requirements, they are not simply smaller versions of adults. Preventative medicine is key and knowing how to optimise your child’s own immune defences is vital when it comes to protecting them from the bugs that go around each year.
The toddler years can be pretty difficult on the immune system: an average of 6-8 colds every year is considered normal, with infections lasting between 3-5 days. As they get older, their immune system develops and the frequency of colds and flus decrease. If your child is getting sicker more often, or you find it takes them longer to get over illness, their immune system may be compromised and could do with a bit of support.
The Development of the Immune System
Over 70% of our immune system resides within our gastrointestinal tract. Our immune cells that sit in the gut wall lining mount an immune response if they come across bacteria they haven’t encountered previously to avoid infection. These bacteria are so important to be able to digest and absorb nutrients from our food that are critical for the proper functioning of our immune system as well as the prevention of allergies later on in life. Therefore, having high levels of beneficial bacteria in the digestive system is essential for a healthy and robust immune system.
A baby’s first exposure to bacteria/microbes is during the birthing process. As they exit the birthing canal, they consume their mother’s fluid, which is filled with bacteria that literally forms the basis of that child’s bacterial flora for life. If a child is born via caesarean, they skip this vital step and it’s important to supplement with probiotics. Breast-feeding then further develops this immune development process as important immune markers, beneficial bacteria and antibodies are passed onto the baby via the breastmilk.
While the immune system is fully developed at birth, it is not fully matured. Once we are exposed to bacteria, both beneficial and harmful, our immune response starts to develop and mature. In fact, it can take about two years for the baby’s immune system to fully mature. However, due to the modern germ phobic society, antibiotics and toxins, it is now harder for our immune system to develop a balanced response. Excessive sterilisation prevents children’s immune system from getting practice which has increased the rate of allergies and chronic infections in children.
Boosting the Immune System
In order to boost your child’s immune system, the goal is to support their own body’s mechanisms and encourage the production of white blood cells. Let’s take a look at what you can do to support your child through diet and supplementation.
Diet is key in protecting and supporting your child’s immunity.
- Avoid sugary foods and drinks, as well as processed foods with hidden sugars, as sugar dampens the immune system and feeds the pathogenic bacteria. Did you know that one teaspoon of sugar can suppress the immune system for up to 8 hours?
- Avoid dairy products, especially when your child is sick, as dairy increases mucous formation exacerbating their symptoms.
- Avoid antibiotics where possible. While in some cases antibiotics are essential, they only treat illnesses caused by bacteria and the majority of childhood illnesses are caused by viruses.
- Eat a variety of plant foods. It goes without saying that a diet high in fruit and vegetables is the basis for a healthy body and immune system. Encourage your child to eat a variety, what we call a rainbow plate of different colours. Red, yellow and orange vegetables are rich in antioxidant nutrients, lycopene, beta carotene and vitamin C, and are a great support to their immune system function. Include the following immune boosters on a regular basis- garlic (lots of it!), onions, ginger, turmeric and chilli, cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage and brussel sprouts, and beta carotene foods such as carrots, pumpkin, sweet potato and green leafy vegetables.
- Incorporate foods in their diet which are rich in zinc and iron such as sunflower and pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, almonds, walnuts, brown rice, lentils, dark leafy greens and legumes which are essential for a healthy immune system and the formation of red blood cells.
- Fresh garlic is great for fighting colds and flus due to its antiviral properties. Mix a crushed garlic clove with some lemon and honey in hot water (make sure the garlic flavour is masked as much as possible!) and have your child sip on this throughout the day.
- Low vitamin D levels are associated with poor immune function. The best way to increase your child’s vitamin D is for them to play out in the sun and expose their skin to the sunlight for at least 10 minutes per day.
- Make sure your child is getting enough sleep by encouraging early bedtimes, bedtime routines, limiting their screen time especially before bed and giving them easy to digest meals at night. Good quality sleep is essential for proper immune functioning as the body repairs itself while you are sleeping. If they’re not getting enough, one of the first signs is a dysfunctional immune response. Lack of sleep not only affects their immune function, but also cognitive ability, mental health, blood sugar regulation and contributes to chronic disease.
- Exercise and physical activity is also important in strengthening the immune system as well as for promoting healthy sleep. Encourage your child to be active through participation in sports, outside playtime and going for bike rides and walks.
Probiotics contain living beneficial bacteria which have been shown to have vast beneficial effects on the microbiome and therefore increasing diversity of bacterial species and therefore enhancing immune resilience and preventing recurrent infections. There are several specific strains that have been shown to improve immunity in children including Lactobacillus rhamnosus, Bifidobacterium animalis, Bifidobacterium lactus and Lactobacillus acidophilus. You can also get probiotics in certain foods such as kombucha, yoghurt, kefir, sauerkraut and cultured vegetables.
Vitamin C is one of the best immune enhancing nutrients for many reasons. It is an antioxidant which combats free radicals and fights off bacteria and viruses. It has been shown to reduce the length and severity of the common cold. If we become deficient in vitamin C, it can actually make us susceptible to infections. It is found naturally in many fruits and vegetables such as oranges, kiwi fruits, berries, cabbage, capsicum and broccoli and can also be taken as a supplement.
Zinc is used in over 300 pathways in the body and is essential for the proper functioning of the immune system. It’s the primary building block for our white blood cells and helps to inhibit histamine, reducing runny nose and cough symptoms. It is anti-viral and has been shown to reduce the severity and frequency of the common cold (1, 2). The main plant-based sources of zinc include nuts and seeds includingbrazil nuts, almonds, cashews, peanuts, pecans, pine nuts, walnuts, sesame seeds, sunflower seeds, and vegetables including sundried tomato, green peas, garlic, spinach, mushrooms.
Elderberry has been used for its healing and immune boosting properties for thousands of years. It is rich in vitamin C as well as anthocyanins which boosts the production of immune cytokines to help the body defend against disease and illness. It also contains a potent antiviral agent called antivirin which not only helps to prevent viruses from attaching to host cells but also prevents the virus from replicating, therefore shortening the duration of a flu. Researchers found that elderberry blocks proteins in the flu. Elderberry comes in various forms but the popular supplement for children are lozenges or syrups.
Another popular herb used for its immune boosting properties is Echinacea. Echinacea contains antioxidants which may help protect cells from damage caused by free radicals and making the body better able to fight off infections and disease. A meta-analysis of 14 studies found that echinacea reduced the risk of getting a cold by 58% and reduced their duration by 1.4 days (3).
Astragalus is another herb that has been used to protect, support and stimulate the immune system. It contains antioxidants which protects cell against damage. It also has antibacterial, anti-inflammatory and antiviral properties and thus helps to prevent colds. Astragalus is an adaptogen which is a class of herbs that helps support the body’s stress response. Thus, it is a great herb to use in times of stress which can dampen the immune system making it more vulnerable to infections.
The use of mushrooms in medicine stems from ancient times. They have been used for centuries in Chinese medicine for their immune boosting properties. For example, Shiitake mushroom has been used to alleviate the common cold for centuries.It has also been reported that Shiitake enhances host resistance against infections by bacteria, fungi, parasites and virus and promotes non-specific inflammatory and immune responses (4).Reishi mushroom is an antioxidant and an anti-inflammatory and helps to regulate the immune system by stimulating immune cells. Lion’s Mane is another type of mushroom that has immune-stimulating and anti-inflammatory properties and possesses significant antioxidant activity.
Our child’s oral health can also have a significant impact on their immune system. As we know, over 70% of our immune system is in the gut and oral bacteria can directly contribute to dysbiosis, leaky gut, and systemic inflammation. Furthermore, oral infections commonly warrant antibiotic use, which further jeopardizes the gut.
Take these steps to make your mouth inhospitable to pathogens to support a healthy gut and reduce your need for antibiotics.
- Teeth Brushing: Brush twice daily with a toothpaste that is free of fluoride, triclosan, and sodium lauryl sulfate. Other harmful ingredients that you should take care to avoid include parabens, propylene glycol, saccharin, artificial coloring, carrageenan, aspartame, and diethanolamine (DEA). If you are concerned about cavities or experiencing sensitive teeth, you may wish to try remineralizing toothpaste, several of which are available for purchase online.
- Oral Probiotics: Chewable oral probiotic tablets crowd out pathogens by recolonizing the mouth with beneficial microbes. Oral probiotics are especially useful for yeast overgrowths. Specific probiotic species are used for the targeted treatment of plaque, gingivitis, and bad breath, as well as to relieve the inflammation that is caused by gum disease.
- Hemilä H. (2017). Zinc lozenges and the common cold: a meta-analysis comparing zinc acetate and zinc gluconate, and the role of zinc dosage. JRSM open, 8(5), 2054270417694291. doi:10.1177/2054270417694291
- Science, M., Johnstone, J., Roth, D. E., Guyatt, G., & Loeb, M. (2012). Zinc for the treatment of the common cold: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. CMAJ : Canadian Medical Association journal = journal de l’Association medicale canadienne, 184(10), E551–E561. doi:10.1503/cmaj.111990
- Shah, S. A., Sander, S., White, C. M., Rinaldi, M., & Coleman, C. I. (2007). Evaluation of echinacea for the prevention and treatment of the common cold: a meta-analysis. The Lancet. Infectious diseases, 7(7), 473–480. https://doi.org/10.1016/S1473-3099(07)70160-3
- Guggenheim, A. G., Wright, K. M., & Zwickey, H. L. (2014). Immune Modulation From Five Major Mushrooms: Application to Integrative Oncology. Integrative medicine (Encinitas, Calif.), 13(1), 32–44.