Naturopathic Nutritionist, Kiowa Reynolds shares 7 steps we can take to build a stronger immune system in our children…
Recurrent infections, colds, flu, gastrointestinal bugs, ear infections, constant runny noses. Sound familiar? This seems to be expected with children nowadays, and while it is an important lesson for your child’s developing immune system to contract certain pathogens and diseases in order to evolve their immune response and reducing the risk of further illness in the future, it should not mean that children are frequently fighting infections. There is a lot that we can do to naturally boost our children’s immune systems, encouraging strong responses to illness, the ability to fight off some bugs whilst remaining a-symptomatic (without symptoms), and a quick and efficient recovery from the ones that do make them sick.
#1: It is all based on a good diet. The food we eat is a direct source of fuel to our children’s bodies. Each cell needs the proper nutrition to function correctly, to build new tissue and to grow and thrive. The immune system needs to be fed the correct foods to do its job. Just like the type of fuel you put into your car affects how it runs, on a foundational level what we put into our bodies directly impacts how healthy they are and how well they ‘run’.
Ensure plenty of fresh organic fruits and veggies. This will provide essential vitamins minerals macro and micronutrients. Phytonutrients (such as vitamin C and carotenoids) have been shown to have a positive impact on immune function. Phytonutrient levels have been found to be higher in organic produce than non-organic. The lack of chemical exposure will also increase immune function as there is not a strain on the body to detoxify these foreign substances. We should be eating 7-10 portions per day. For a toddler, one portion is approx 2 Tbsp and for children 1 cup. A great way of increasing intake is to juice vegetables or make them into a smoothie.
Consuming organic foods is a great way to boost immune health, herbicides and pesticides have an accumulative effect and are damaging to immune function. Organic animal produce is free of the multitude of environmental toxins found in non-organic meats and are higher in immune protective nutrients such as essential fatty acid omega 3.
If your child suffers from food intolerances which are rife and often undiagnosed this will invariably cause inflammation and therefore reduce the capacity of their immune system to fight off infections.
Sugar is a foe of healthy immune response. Once sugar is ingested it has been shown that neutrophils (the cells responsible for engulfing and ‘eating’ pathogenic bacteria) are compromised for 5 hours. Artificial colours, sweeteners, food additive and processed foods which are devoid of nutrients will all have a negative impact on immune function.
Good overall nutrition is the best way that we can lay the foundations of a healthy immune response in our children. All nutrients are important in correct amounts to create strong healthy bodies and minds, but in particular vitamins, A, C, E, essential fatty acids, manganese, selenium, zinc, copper, iron, sulphur, and magnesium are great supporters of immune function.
#2. Feed your child’s microbiota. Their inner ecosystem of bacteria in the gut are inextricably linked with their level of health. We need a diverse population of ‘good bacteria’ and a balance of good vs bad in order to maintain healthy immune systems. These organisms are responsible for digesting food and therefore assimilating the nutrients contained, protect against viruses and bugs, assisting in the removal of toxins and maintaining a healthy gut lining, all of which directly impact the immune system. Reducing sugar, which feed bad bacteria and increasing vegetables and pre-biotic foods that feed the beneficial gut bacteria will help to support this.
It has been shown that when the beneficial gut microbiome is starved of fuel it can result in the gut lining being damaged due to the mucus that lines the intestines being eaten. This will increase risk of food intolerances, autoimmunity and inflammation resulting in an increased risk of many disease states. Eating bacteria itself may reduce incidences of illness in children (studies by Georgetown University Medical Centre) fermented foods are a great way of achieving this. Kefir or unsweetened organic live yoghurt are the most child friendly options, you could always sweeten them slightly with a natural option such as maple syrup or raw honey (if your child is age appropriate).
#3 Breastfeed your child. If you can breastfeed your child, this is by far and away the best thing that you can do for your babies immune system. A baby is born with an inexperienced immune system, it has never come into contact with a pathogenic bacteria, germ or virus. Your breast milk contains immunoglobulins IgG, IgA,IgM, IgD and IgE (your antibodies) protecting your baby while their immune system develops. Colostrum (produced during the first 3 days of breastfeeding) will activate the genes that make secretory IgA; the immune systems first line of defence. Breast milk also contains immune cells such as phagocytes which directly attack pathogens, and chemicals that stimulate the babies own immune response.
#4 Exposure to germs. We all want to protect our children from nasty bacteria and germs, but the tendency to over sanitize children’s environments may be having negative effects. It is important for children to come into contact with germs and bacteria, to teach their immature immune systems and to give them exposure to the beneficial bacteria found in the environment alongside the negative strains. Antibacterial products kill all bacteria removing exposure to the health-promoting strains. It also increases stress on their immune systems by creating a toxic load from the chemicals contained which need to be detoxified therefore reducing immune capacity. There are natural and safe alternatives to all household cleaning products and personal care items that are laden with chemicals.
While it is important to stave off detrimental bugs like e.coli and salmonella after visits to the farm and so on, allowing your children to get dirty in the soil of your pesticide-free herb patch/garden, or by cuddling pets is a great way to allow exposure to beneficial bacteria. Studies suggest (JAMA Paediatrics published one such study) that babies growing up exposed to dogs are less likely to develop asthma before the age 6.
#5 Avoid unnecessary antibiotic use. While antibiotics can be effective and at times life saving, overuse can have a detrimental effect upon immune function creating incidences when the body resists the medication. Antibiotic use will also indiscriminately destroy all bacteria in the gut including the health protective immune supportive beneficial bacteria. This leads to an increased risk of a myriad of disease processes and can affect overall health and immunity in later life.
#6 Sleep is vital. Sleep is vital to immune function, it supports adaptive immunity (the memory defence that works with the first line of defence; the adaptive immune response). A lack of sleep will steer the immune system towards a TH2 pathway (leading to an imbalanced immune response and symptoms of TH2 dominance such as food allergies and intolerances, seasonal allergies, atopic conditions such as eczema and asthma, Chronic fatigue syndrome and certain auto-immune disorders) while simultaneously increasing the risk of contracting infectious disease. Reduction in natural killer cells is found with reduced sleep, lowering the bodies ability to fight infections. Sleep requirements are as follows: A newborn needs up to 18 hours, toddlers 12 to 13 hours, and preschoolers require approximately 10 hours.
#7 Reduce stress: Just like adults children’s bodies experience a physiological response to stress, and while the triggers are different the same reactions are occurring within their bodies.
Chronic stress leads to increases in adrenaline and cortisol which will decrease immune function. Children have busy lives in today’s society, it is important to create daily opportunities for downtime, to spend time together, loving them in a calm environment free of technology and overstimulating lights and noise, to decrease their stresses and anxieties.