Health

How to Support Children’s Immune Systems

Rather than focus on the fear of microbial invaders, put more efforts to strengthening immunity
BY Ashley Turner TIMEFebruary 11, 2022 PRINT

Within every individual on planet Earth is a powerful immune system, designed to protect the body from outside invaders. Sadly, the immune system has been under-emphasized by the mainstream in recent years. This has resulted in many people overlooking both the behaviors that hurt their immune system and those that help it.

Parents must be equipped with strategies for supporting their children’s immune systems. Illnesses are a normal part of childhood and play a pivotal role in developing a robust immune system. Childhood illnesses are almost a rite of passage. Through recovering from illness, children gain an understanding of the power of their bodies to overcome obstacles and learn how certain foods, nutrients, and rest can equip their bodies to heal.

We need to keep in mind the idea of immune resilience. Our main goal shouldn’t be to shield ourselves and our children from pathogens. That simply isn’t possible and, any attempts to over-sanitize our homes or to use antibiotics to wipe out bacteria that get in the body, can cause significant problems. Earlier this year, Taiwanese researchers warned of this problem in an article published in the International Journal of Antimicrobial Agents.

“There has been a rapid increase in multidrug-resistant organisms,” they wrote, listing several strains of bacteria that have shown increased resistance. “The cause is multifactorial and is particularly related to high rates of antimicrobial agent utilization in COVID-19 patients with a relatively low rate of co- or secondary infection.” In other words, the overuse of antibiotics during COVID has caused an increase in more dangerous pathogens.

Meanwhile, by avoiding such exposures, the human immune system is denied the routine exposures that keep it tuned in and up-to-date with the microbes in our environment. Instead of prioritizing avoidance, our emphasis should be on supporting the immune system, and helping it to rise to the occasion.

The reality is that pathogens are ubiquitous in our environment. We are constantly being exposed to viruses, bacteria, fungi, and parasites. It is impossible to live in a bubble to escape their presence. Oftentimes, the body is able to easily deal with these exposures. Sometimes, however, infections take hold, and symptoms arise.

There are several factors to consider when facing an illness. First, fostering a proper immune response is critical. The immune system is composed of various immune cells that work together to identify, target, and eliminate the pathogen that the body comes into contact with. Second, is equipping the body to deal with the inflammation and oxidative stress that arise due to the infection.

The immune system is an intricate army of cells that work together to fight off infections. It is broken into two parts: the non-specific innate system and the more specific adaptive system. The innate immune system is the first natural defense to intruders and includes the skin, saliva, stomach acid, mucus membranes, and the gut barrier. The adaptive immune system works against specific pathogens and includes b lymphocytes and t lymphocytes. Both parts of the immune system work intimately together to mount a response against a foreign invader.

Lifestyle

Various lifestyle factors can bolster immune function. Children need to breathe fresh air and take part in moderate physical activity every day. Stress management is also an important health-promoting strategy—even for our youth. Stress not only hinders our immune cells from working properly, but it also promotes various inflammatory cytokines. Teach your children deep breathing exercises and how to cultivate gratitude to help them manage stress.

Diet

Diet is foundational to immune system function and overall health. Parents should focus on nutrient-dense foods for their children, including quality vegetables, fruits, proteins, and fats. Focusing on antioxidant-rich vegetables and fruits will help to overcome the oxidative stress brought on by illness. Processed foods, sugars, and artificial food colorings and additives are inflammatory and can hinder immune function. Keeping blood sugars stable is an essential strategy in promoting proper immune function, because blood sugar spikes cripple our white blood cells’ ability to fight infections.

Food sensitivities are also common among children. Consuming foods a child is sensitive to, can hinder immune function, and contribute to inflammation within the body. Common food sensitivities are gluten, dairy, eggs, soy, corn, and various food preservatives and additives.

Sleep

Children require 10 to 14 hours of quality sleep each night. Sleep is crucial for the body’s ability to overcome infections, especially in seasons of acute illness. Children should avoid screens for at least two hours before bedtime in order to foster proper melatonin production and achieve optimal sleep. I often recommend that parents dim artificial lights as the sun sets to promote quality sleep. That may be more difficult to synchronize in northern regions with larger shifts in day length during darker winter months.

Vitamins A, D, and K

Vitamins A, D, and K work synergistically to bolster various cells within the immune system. Keep in mind that since vitamins A, D, and K are fat-soluble, they can build up to toxic levels within the body. This is quite rare, however, especially when these nutrients are used together. These vitamins can be found in various grass-fed and pasture-raised animal sources including liver, beef, dairy, butter, eggs, and cod liver oil. Do not be afraid to expose your children to 15 to 20 minutes of unhindered sunlight each day to help their bodies produce vitamin D naturally. The fact that this hormone is made in the skin through exposure to sunlight hints at its vital importance.

Vitamin C

Vitamin C is famous for its role in supporting various cellular functions within the innate and adaptive immune systems. Vitamin C is a powerful (and cheap) antioxidant that fights free radicals and, in turn, decreases inflammation. It also supports a proper histamine response, which is part of the immune response. Deficiency in vitamin C results in impaired immunity and higher susceptibility to infections. Vitamin C is a water-soluble vitamin, so it needs to be replenished frequently. Vitamin C rich foods include citrus fruits, berries, tomatoes, peppers, and broccoli.

Zinc

Zinc has been shown to allow the immune system to slow viral replication and fight off bacterial infections. Zinc can actually stop viruses from hijacking cells to replicate themselves. Zinc deficiency is a very common nutrient deficiency. Interestingly, insufficient zinc levels are associated with an increased risk of various infections. Optimizing zinc levels is a crucial part of reinforcing the immune system. Zinc rich foods include oysters, beef, chicken, crab, lobster, pumpkin seeds, cashews, and chickpeas.

Zinc supplements typically need to be taken with an ionophore to help get it across the cell membrane to where it can do its work. Ionophores are like taxi cabs aiding this process. One of the best ones to use is quercetin, an antioxidant found in many plants, including onions, kale, tea, broccoli, blueberries, and more. In other words, diet is still the best way to get these nutrients.

Glutathione

Glutathione is naturally produced in the liver and is known as the body’s master antioxidant. It has a powerful impact on the immune system through various mechanisms. It has the ability to decrease free radicals and oxidative stress. Glutathione raises natural killer cell activity, which is a primary defense mechanism against many infections.

N-acetyl cysteine (NAC) is the precursor to glutathione and can also increase glutathione levels. Sulfur-rich foods, including onions, garlic, and asparagus, along with cruciferous vegetables, are also rich in glutathione. Additionally, giving children a warm Epsom salts bath can boost glutathione levels. Liposomal forms of glutathione are the most effective to use as supplements.

Probiotics

Fostering proper gut health, by building up beneficial bacterial strains, helps to bolster the immune system, because roughly 80 percent of the immune system is housed in the gut. Low levels of beneficial bacterial strains allow room for pathogens to take hold and flourish. Probiotics also improve the integrity of the gut lining. Not only that, but beneficial microbes in the gut also support brain function, focus, and a positive mood.

Fermented foods such as sauerkraut, kimchi, yogurt, kombucha, kvass, kefir, and raw apple cider vinegar, deliver a hefty probiotic punch to the gut. It is also a good idea to eat prebiotics, which are the indigestible carbohydrates found in high-fiber foods. These are the best food sources for beneficial gut bacteria.

Omega 3 Essential Fatty Acids

Omega 3s are essential fatty acids, which means your body cannot make them—they need to be consumed. Omega 3 fatty acids support the immune system, promote brain health, and decrease inflammation. Sources of omega 3 fatty acids are wild-caught salmon and other fish and seafood. Additionally, cod liver oil, flaxseed, chia seeds, walnuts, and hemp seeds are good sources of omega 3 fatty acids.

If you build your diet around foods that support proper immune function, you will give your children the critical support necessary to not only eat well, but also to develop an appreciation for foods that keep them healthy. Do not live in a state of fear but be empowered with strategies to help children thrive.

Focusing on various diet and lifestyle factors can go a long way toward equipping a robust immune response and avoiding severe illness. Sometimes, supplementation of key nutrients is also an important part of illness prevention and healing from acute infections.

Sources

https://academic.oup.com/ajcn/article-abstract/26/11/1180/4732762?redirectedFrom=fulltext

https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29073412/

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5707683/

https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23089304/

https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28853742/

https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/15189121/

https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Zinc-HealthProfessional/

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5707683/

This article was first published in Radiant Life Magazine

Ashley Turner
Dr. Ashley Turner is a traditionally trained naturopath and board-certified doctor of holistic health for Restorative Wellness Center. As an expert in functional medicine, Dr. Ashley is the author of the gut-healing guide “Restorative Kitchen” and “Restorative Traditions,” a cookbook comprised of non-inflammatory holiday recipes.
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