Please forgive us. We are going to start out this article with a bit of backtracking. Despite our chosen title, “How to Boost Your Child’s Immune System Naturally,” the phrase boost your immune system is a bit of a misnomer. In fact, there are a lot of reasons why you might not want to “boost” yours or your child’s immune system. Why not? Don’t worry, we wrote an article all about it.
Have you read it? Okay, good. So you probably agree that boosting your child’s immune system is not your best bet (nor is it really possible). But you do want to support it in doing its job properly and effectively. So rather than providing the proverbial immune system “boosters,” we’ve collected some of the best ways to naturally help support your child’s immune system not just this cold and flu season, but year-round. And yes, these are some of the things conventional pediatricians and the natural health community agree on.
How to Strengthen Your Child’s Immune System with Good Habits
Thankfully, great immune system function is not all about great genes (though those certainly don’t hurt), which means that you can take steps to keep your child’s immune system balanced and working properly. But a strong immune system is not just one that avoids illness, rather it is one that defeats intruders and illness quickly (this definition is particularly true for children). For instance, if your child catches a cold and gets over it within a couple of days, that is your sign of a healthy immune system. Getting over minor illnesses quickly is great proof that your child’s immune system is working efficiently, which is the best you can ask for when getting sick is just part of life (and expanding the acquired system’s immunological memory). But let’s take a look at some of the things you can do to help support your child’s immune system naturally.
Healthy Habit 1. Let Your Child Play in the Dirt
We know how frustrating it can be when your child decides that the mud pile is more alluring than the swings, but getting dirty every once and a while is actually a good thing. Exposure to dirt and the microbes it contains ultimately makes your children’s immune system stronger and more prepared. This messy truth is based on the hygiene hypothesis, which holds that exposure to everyday germs in early childhood is not harmful, but rather is essential to a healthy immune system as it encourages the development of a diverse range of antibodies. But it’s not just about letting your child get a little messy. It’s about your approach to cleanliness. For one, when it comes to washing up, we suggest good old soap and water. Though hand sanitizer can be okay in a pinch, what we’re learning about antibacterial soaps isn’t so great. So while you can still be a clean freak, don’t fret too much about that romp in the mud and maybe don’t go overboard with the Purell.
Healthy Habit 2. Ensure a Healthy Diet
As a parent, you are likely already constantly thinking about what your children eat and you try to feed them nutritious meals and snacks. While unhealthy convenience foods are certainly fine every once and a while, it’s important that children are fed balanced, nutritious foods most of the time. We know, that’s not new news. What your child eats has an enormous impact on their overall health and wellbeing, so it should be no surprise that it impacts their immune system as well. Even so, most parents underestimate the power that food has on their children’s immune system. Very simply put, here’s some of what we know about the relationship between food and healthy immune systems:
- Vitamin deficiencies can lead to decreased immunity as your child’s body needs certain vitamins to function properly.
- Protein deficiency can hinder cytokine production, which hinders the acquired immune system’s response.
- Food sensitivities and allergies compromise the mucosal barrier of the intestine, which can lead to decreased immune function.
- The unhealthy additives in most processed foods can irritate and cause inflammation in the gastrointestinal mucosa, which can also result in decreased immunity.
What can we learn from this? When it comes to diet, it’s about decreasing the bad and increasing the good.
Children’s immune systems take a hit when the body is constantly being bombarded with food intolerances or sensitivities, additives, preservatives, and refined sugar. In fact, sugar has been shown in multiple clinical studies to actually suppress the immune system. It is thought that just one teaspoon of sugar can suppress a child’s immune system function by up to 50 percent for anywhere between 24 and 48 hours, an amount that is nothing compared to the amount of sugar in the Standard American Diet (for which the acronym is quite fittingly SAD). In addition to looking out for signs of food allergy or sensitivity in your children, be sure to take a look at the ingredients list as well. Do your best to avoid added sugar and other food additives particularly unnecessary food colorings that are all too common in foods marketed to children like caramel color, and all red, blue, and yellow dyes (e.g., Red #40 and Yellow #5).
Just as important as avoiding what’s bad is eating what’s good! Proper nutrition ensures that your children are getting all of the vitamins, minerals, proteins, and healthy fats needed for a healthy, growing body. If you’re not sure if your child is getting everything he or she needs from food (whether due to picky eating struggles or unhealthy school lunches), consult your pediatrician.
Healthy Habit 3. Reduce Stress and Anxiety
It is common knowledge that all adults experience daily stresses. While it is important for you as the parent to learn how to effectively manage the stress in your life, it is equally important to be on the look out for stress that could be impacting your kids. Not only can children pick up on the stress around them (even when they don’t understand it), but they can suffer from their own stressors, too. As adults, we might not consider going to school as stressful as say, a big presentation at work or paying unexpected bills, but for our children these experiences can be equally as stressful. Not only is stress management important for mental health and wellbeing, in this context, it is also important to the healthy function of the immune system.
Increased stress and anxiety actually raise adrenaline and cortisol levels in the body.1 When the elevation of these hormones is chronic or sustained, the immune system’s response is suppressed.2 Talking to your children and perhaps learning how best to deal with stress together can be a first step, but it is also known that children need sufficient downtime, time for creative play, and just time to relax. So build that time into the schedule. If between school, soccer practice, piano lessons, and any other extra-curricular activities this seems impossible, it might be time to take another look at the activity load.
Healthy Habit 4. Ensure Adequate Sleep
Adequate sleep is important for everyone. While most children regularly resist bedtime, children and their immune systems can suffer greatly from lack of sleep. In fact, we know that getting inadequate sleep can increase your susceptibility to catching the common cold.3 So how long does your child need to sleep? Many parents are surprised when they learn that most children, depending on their age, need between 10 and 14 hours of sleep a day. Try opting for a bedtime that allows for the recommended number of hours of sleep for your child and building in an hour before for relaxing bedtime routines that don’t include electronics like an iPad or the TV (the blue light from which can hinder the hormones necessary for quality and restful sleep4).
But we also know that it’s not just about the quantity of sleep, it’s about quality of sleep. Studies have shown that getting adequate deep sleep may strengthen immunological memory, the key to a strong acquired immune system.5 To further promote proper melatonin secretion, try to make your child’s room as dark as possible, which might be easier said than done when nightlights are part of the equation. If the nightlight is a non-negotiable, try using a dim red light as a nightlight as red light has the least power to shift circadian rhythm and suppress melatonin and it least likely induce depressive symptoms.6 A reader recommended this one that she uses for her children. She says that it is not too bright, but gives off enough light to comfort her children as they fall asleep.
Take the Extra Step During Cold and Flu Season
Healthy habits #1-4 above are non-negotiable when it comes to strengthening your child’s immune system – and keeping them healthy overall. In fact, they are the top four tips for a healthy immune system among both conventional pediatricians and natural health professionals. While they can prove to be enough during the spring and summer months, when your child heads back to school and must face cold and flu season, it might be time to consider calling in some extra immune system support. That’s where bolstering and even supplementing your child’s diet might come in. Learn how to support your child’s immune system naturally with these essential vitamins and herbs.
- Stress, Illness and the Immune System – http://www.simplypsychology.org/stress-immune.html ↩
- Stress Weakens the Immune System –http://www.apa.org/research/action/immune.aspx ↩
- Does lack of sleep make you susceptible to common cold? – http://www.nhs.uk/news/2015/09September/Pages/does-lack-of-sleep-make-you-susceptible-to-common-cold.aspx ↩
- Blue light has a dark side – http://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/blue-light-has-a-dark-side ↩
- Deep sleep boosts immunological memory –http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/300150.php ↩
- What Color is Your Night Light? It May Affect Your Mood – http://researchnews.osu.edu/archive/lightcolor.htm ↩