While good genes certainly don’t hurt, one thing we do know about the immune system is that it is greatly impacted by a host of environmental factors. Emotional stressors can suppress the activity of white blood cells. A lack of sleep slows production of those white blood cells and impairs their effectiveness. And, of course, the Standard American Diet of processed, refined, and sugary foods is one quick recipe for impaired immune function. But while you do your best to ensure that you and your family gets the emotional support, sleep, and healthy foods they need, you may find that cold and flu season is still too much for your immune systems, which is why you could perhaps use a little extra support.
Natural Supplements for Immune System Support
When it comes to essential vitamins and minerals, studies have linked deficiencies of vitamins A, B6, C, D, and E to reduced immune system function. There have also been studies that have looked into the relationships between other nutrients like as zinc, folic acid, and selenium and compromised immune systems. Even with these clinical studies, scientists have yet to determine what optimal levels of these nutrients are for healthy immune system function, let alone all of the intricacies of the immune system itself. We also know that nutrients do not exist in a bubble, which is to say that they often work best with other supportive nutrients. So of course, before opting for a new vitamin or natural supplement, always consult your pediatrician. But let’s take a look at some of the biggest contenders for you and your child’s immune health.
Vitamins for Immune System Health
1. Vitamin D
In terms of its relationship to immune system function, vitamin D is believed to weaken and help destroy the cell walls of bacteria, fungi, and viruses (including the influenza virus). The fact that vitamin D deficiency has been found to be extremely common among sick children is less surprisingly than it once was.1 But what is surprising is that vitamin D deficiency garnered quite a bit of media spotlight recently, as it has become apparent that in our mostly indoor lives most people are deficient – sometimes dangerously so – in the essential nutrient.
Experts say that just 15 minutes of (unprotected or sunscreen-less) sunshine on the legs, arms, and face a day can provide the necessary amount of vitamin D your body needs. But during the seasons that tend to lack adequate sunshine, you may choose to supplement with foods naturally high in vitamin D like cod liver oil or with dietary supplements, which are available in liquid capsules and also chewables or liquid for children. Most physicians recommend supplements with somewhere between 200-1,000 IU vitamin D3 (not the synthetic D2) and one study found that 1,200 IU a day of supplemental vitamin D reduced the risk of influenza in children.2
Zinc is a trace element that is essential for the immune system and a deficiency in zinc affects the ability of the immune system’s T cells (among others) to function as they should in combating infection. There are also several studies that suggest that when taken at the first signs of a cold, zinc might shorten the duration and even severity of the cold.3 Physicians and nutritionists generally say that it is important to get enough zinc in your diet, which accounts to 15-25 mg a day for adults (according to Harvard Health Publications). But when your child is showing signs of illness, you and your pediatrician may decide to up the dose in the form of a vitamin supplement or zinc lozenge.
Since zinc is more difficult to get from foods (though their zinc content is a great reason to hang on to those pumpkin seeds this fall!), you may opt for a zinc supplement. Just be sure that your child doesn’t take it on an empty stomach (zinc is known to cause upset stomach) and be sure that your child isn’t getting too much. Contrary to popular belief, when it comes to zinc, there is such thing as too much of a good thing. Be sure to work with your pediatrician about proper dosages, as too much zinc can actually suppress the immune system rather than support it.4 Zinc is also known to interact with certain supplements and medications (like some antibiotics, birth control, calcium, and magnesium), so always be sure that your child’s doctor and pharmacist are aware of everything your child is taking – natural or otherwise.
3. Vitamin C
Vitamin C is an antioxidant and antihistamine with possible antiviral properties. Vitamin C can help balance the body’s reactions to microbes and also assist in breaking up excess phlegm and mucous. While there are quite a few vitamin C-based supplements and products out there marketed to “boost the immune system” and help with colds and flu, we always recommend going for the most natural sources first. Fruits and vegetables high in vitamin C are the best places to start. While most people reach straight for the oranges, we suggest that you consider a little more variety. You be surprised by some of the whole foods that rival oranges in terms of their vitamin C content.
But if your child still needs a little extra vitamin C support, we recommend a product that contains whole food based ingredients. Common vitamin C products contain either ascorbic acid and calcium ascorbate, which are synthetic, isolated forms of vitamin C. While the research is conflicted, there have been recent studies that have shed light on some possible health concerns related to taking high doses of these synthetic versions of vitamin C. Instead, try opting for a vitamin C supplement like this one or this one. During cold and flu season, younger children can benefit from around 250 mg a day, while older children and adults can take up to 500 mg.
Natural Herbs and Supplements for Immune System Support
Probiotic supplements and foods are full of the beneficial bacteria and yeasts that live in your gut. We know that these special critters provide great benefit to our overall health by providing protection to our digestive tracts, helping digest food, and protecting us against the harmful bacteria and viruses that threaten our health. While there is evidence that probiotics can reduce the duration and incidence of infections,5 exactly how that good bacteria interacts with the immune system is still not understood.
That said, you have two primary avenues for using probiotics to support your child’s immune system. The first is preventative. As always, we advise our readers not to overuse antibiotics unless absolutely necessary. This is for many reasons, but in this case, it is to help preserve that balance of beneficial microflora. Like the acquired immune system, the strength and numbers of the inner ecosystem of your child’s gut develop over time with exposure. Just one round of antibiotics can wipe them out and further compromise gastrointestinal health and all that goes with it (like immunity). The second route for using probiotics to support your child’s immune system health is through supplementation, which can also be extremely beneficial after that unavoidable round of antibiotics. You can try increasing you child’s exposure to fermented foods like yogurt and kefir or you might opt for a probiotic supplement. We like this brand because it contains small, once daily capsules that can be swallowed whole or cut open and sprinkled into your child’s food undetected. With an extremely high number of colony-forming units (CFUs) and a diverse combination of 34 raw probiotic strains, this is one of our most trusted probiotic brands.
5. Elderberry (Sambucus nigra)
The elderberry plant has a long history of use in traditional and herbal medicines. Nearly all of the plant from its roots to its leaves has been used for their natural health benefits and bacterial and viral disease fighting abilities. Along with its long history, recent scientific studies have also confirmed what many traditional medicine practitioners already seemed to know. For instance, one study concluded that elderberry extract can be used a safe treatment for influenza effectively reducing the duration of flu symptoms by several days.6 Another concluded that Sambucol, elderberry-based natural products, are not only antiviral, but can also increase cytokine production, which are the cells that aid in cell communication and immune response movement toward the site of infection or trauma.7
For illness prevention during cold season, adults can take up to 1/2 teaspoon of elderberry extract or elderberry syrup (tastier, but we prefer to avoid the extra sugar) twice a day. But if you or your little one has already caught a respiratory viral infection like a cold or the flu, you may be able to speed recovery by taking 1-2 teaspoons up to four times a day.
6. Green or Black Tea
Hot teas are great during cold and flu season. Not only can the warmth simply be soothing, but hot tea can also calm a sore throat and loosen excess mucus from the respiratory tract. But tea is not limited to a symptom soother. One Harvard study showed that participants who drank five cups of black for two weeks had 10 times more interferon, the immune system proteins that modulate the immune system response against bacteria, viruses, and even cancer cells, in their blood than those who drank a placebo. Experts believe that it’s the amino acid found in both black and green teas called L-theanine that is responsible for the observed immune system support. Try drinking several cups of black to green tea a day for the immune system benefits (and plethora of other health benefits).8
While hot tea may be more appetizing during the winter months, freshly brewed cold tea and even decaffeinated versions will also do the trick when it comes to immune system support. Our favorite organic green tea to keep on hand for our daily cup is Prince of Peace.
7. Echinacea (E. augustifolia, E. purpurea, or E. pallida)
This flowering plant has been the subject of more than a few studies that have brought into question its efficacy, but still many natural medicine practitioners swear by its immune system supporting qualities. Echinacea has been used as an effective natural aid for preventing and even treating colds, influenza, and other common infections. It is though that Echinacea stimulates the production of important immune system components like interferon. Though some use Echinacea products as a preventative measure, most research suggests that the herb is most effective and safe when used for shorter durations at the first sign of respiratory illness. One study showed that participants with early symptoms of cold and flu who drank several cups of Echinacea tea (like this one) every day for 5 days felt better sooner than those who drank tea without Echinacea.9
Some natural health professionals suggest that adults can take up to 30-60 drops of liquid Echinacea extract or 300-600 mg Echinacea capsules (which may contain other immune system supporting herbs) every two hours during the day for the first 24-48 hours of illness. You can then decrease to only 3 to 4 times daily until symptoms disappear. There has been a history of quality concerns with the plethora of Echinacea products on the market and findings that have shown some such products to be mislabeled and even contaminated. As with any natural supplement, it’s always best to do your research and follow these supplement buying tips.
Other Tips for Natural Immune System Support
Have you noticed that we haven’t mentioned “boosting” your immune system? There is a reason for that and it’s based in the complex and intricate science behind your amazing immune system. Find out why we want to support, not boost your immune system.
- Vitamin D Deficiency Common in Sick Kids – http://www.medicinenet.com/script/main/art.asp?articlekey=161128 ↩
- Randomized trial of vitamin D supplementation to prevent seasonal influenza A in schoolchildren – http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/91/5/1255.long ↩
- Zinc for the common cold – http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23775705 ↩
- Zinc-Altered Immune Function – http://jn.nutrition.org/content/133/5/1452S.full ↩
- Probiotic supplementation reduces the duration and incidence of infections but not severity in elite rugby union players – http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24045086 ↩
- Inhibition of several strains of influenza virus in vitro and reduction of symptoms by an elderberry extract (Sambucus nigra L.) during an outbreak of influenza B Panama – http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9395631 ↩
- The effect of Sambucol, a black elderberry-based, natural product, on the production of human cytokines – http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11399518 ↩
- Tea Drinking Improves Health, Study Shows – http://www.thecrimson.com/article/2003/4/23/tea-drinking-improves-health-study-shows/ ↩
- Echinacea Overview – https://umm.edu/health/medical/altmed/herb/echinacea ↩