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Boosting Kids’ Immune Systems

By Kim Robson:

Now that the kids are back in school, they will be much more exposed to germs and viruses from being in close daily contact with their classmates. And cold and flu season is nearly upon us. Those dispensers of hand sanitizers are just about everywhere now, but they are not an ideal solution, as they allow only the strongest, most resistant germs to proliferate. Let’s explore some ways to safely and naturally boost our kids’ immune systems.

Playing Outdoors

Good, clean dirt from a garden or forest helps strengthen our immune systems and can even make us happier. Studies have shown that children exposed to microbial biodiversity in green environments — natural playgrounds, parks and forests — perform better on standardized tests, are more creative, are happier; and show that their cortisol levels are lower, making them calmer and less stressed. This exposure can come from food grown in healthy soil, too. Phytonutrients, which are part of the plant’s immune system, are stimulated by organisms in the soil. Being exposed to different organisms improves the health of the plant, which in turn improves our health. So, encourage your kids to get dirty! They’re washable, after all.

Eating Healthy

Speaking of phytonutrients, eating nutrient-dense “powerhouse” foodsis an effective way to boost the immune system. Avoid processed foods with chemical dyes, preservatives, or sweeteners, especially during cold and flu season. Instead, encourage your kids to eat fruits and veggies packed with vitamins and minerals:

  • Organic leafy greens (watercressand spinach are both highly nutrient-dense)
  • Certified Humane®eggs (“pasture-raised” eggs are also acceptable)
  • Sustainable, wild-caught fish (Alaskan salmon, catfish, and barramundi, as well as ALL shellfish, and smaller “forage” fish that are lower down on the food chain, such as herring, anchovies, and sardines, are all sustainable.)
  • Nuts and seeds (Look for almonds, roasted soybeans, pistachios, cashew nuts, and sunflower, chia, sesame and pumpkin seeds.)
  • Colorful vegetables and fruits (bright colors = vitamins, minerals and nutrients!)
  • Grass-fed beef, pasture-raised poultry, and organ meats (I know, all kids hateliver just on principle, but try sneaking it into spaghetti sauce, stew or chili.)
  • Probiotics (Healthy gut bacteria influence the immune system, correct deficiencies, and increase T-cells. Try kombucha, yogurt, pickles, sauerkraut — anything fermented.)

Plenty of Exercise

Speaking of playing outside, it almost always involves some physical activity. When so many kids these days are sadly overweight and sedentary, it’s important to encourage exercise to improve heart and brain function, not to mention boosting the body’s immune system. A recent studyfound a solid link between physical activity and immune system health.

090611-N-3271W-012 CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. (June 11, 2009) Local area children test their fitness skills during a Junior Seal Fitness Challenge at Warner Park organized by the Navy and the Chattanooga Parks and Recreation Department. The event is in conjunction with Chattanooga Navy Week, one of 21 Navy Weeks planned across America in 2009. Navy Weeks are designed to show Americans the investment they have made in their Navy and increase awareness in cities that do not have a significant Navy presence. (U.S. Navy photo by Senior Chief Mass Communication Specialist Gary Ward/Released)

Even in the winter, try fun indoor activitiessuch as making a blanket fort, navigating a red yarn laser grid, balloon tennis with paper plate paddles, an empty water bottle bowling alley or an indoor discotheque. All are super fun and get those bodies moving.

Plenty of Sleep

Sleep is critically important for infants, children and teenagers alike, because their brains are still developing, with synapses and new connections growing. Sleep deprivation not only inhibits productivity and the ability to remember and store information, but also leads to serious health consequences such as

  • Obesity (due to increased appetite caused by sleep deprivation)
  • Diabetes and heart problems
  • Psychiatric conditions, including depression and substance abuse
  • Inability to pay attention, react to signals, or remember new information
  • Compromised mood, performance and alertness 

Over time, sleep deprivation in youngsters leads to an “erosion of happiness” — an increased risk of depression and other emotional disturbances. Some tips:

  • Set and enforce appropriate bedtimes.
  • Avoid bright light and exciting activities in the evening.
  • Remove nightlights as soon as toddlers are old enough not to be afraid of the dark.
  • Get light exposure in the morning.
  • For an hour before bedtime, turn off all electronic devices. Computer, television, tablet and smart phone screens emit light primarily in the blue spectrum. Blue light inhibits production of melatonin, the hormone that induces sleepiness.
  • Establish relaxing pre-sleep rituals, like dim lights, soft music, warm baths, and/or bedtime stories.

Vitamins

  • Vitamin A — Deficiency is associated with impaired immunity and increased risk of infectious disease. 
  • Vitamin B2 — Enhances resistance to bacterial infections in mice, but how that translates to human immune response is unclear.
  • Vitamin B6 — Deficiency can suppress the immune response, such as lymphocytes’ ability to mature and spin off into various types of T and B cells. Supplementing with moderate doses restores immune function, but megadoses don’t produce additional benefits. 
  • Vitamin C — May work best in concert with other micronutrients rather than providing benefits by itself.
  • Vitamin D — When produced by skin exposure to sunlight, it signals an antimicrobial response to the bacterium responsible for tuberculosis. 
  • Vitamin E — Increasing dosage from the recommended dietary allowance (RDA) of 30 mg to 200 mg increases antibody responses to hepatitis B and tetanus after vaccination, but not for diphtheria and pneumococcal vaccines.
  • Magnesium — Benefits the immune system, nerves, muscles, heart and bones. It’s involved in over 300 biochemical reactions in the body. Easy way to get it into your kids: add Epsom salts to their evening bath!
  • Zinc — Deficiency affects the ability of T-cells and other immune cells to function properly. Get 15–25 mg of zinc per day in your diet, but no more: too much zinc can inhibit the immune system.

Herbs

Many herbs have nutritional benefits that support a healthy immune system, and they’re easily absorbed through the stomach lining when made into herbal tea. DO TRY …

  • Elderberry — Contains antioxidants, vitamin A, potassium, vitamin C, folate, calcium, and iron. A few drops of elderberry syrupa day will fight off a cold or flu.
  • Eucalyptus — Great for cough, cold and sore throat. Contains antimicrobial, antibacterial, antiseptic and antifungal properties that help boost the immune system.
  • Chamomile — Mild and soothing, it is perfectly safe for babies and pregnant women. 
  • Peppermint — Contains immune-boosting vitamins, nutrients, antioxidants, vitamin B, potassium and calcium.
  • Garlic — In the lab, researchers have seen garlic work against bacteria, viruses and fungi. 

DON’T BOTHER WITH THESE:

  • Aloe vera — There’s no evidence yet that aloe vera can boost immune response. 
  • Astragalus membranes — The quality of studies demonstrating the immune-stimulating properties of astragalus are poor. Plus, it can be dangerous.
  • Echinacea — Harvard Medical School physicians note that studies of echinacea’s cold prevention capabilities were not well designed, and that it can cause potentially serious side effects. A 2005 study of 437 volunteers found that echinacea didn’t affect the rate, progress or severity of cold infections.

Good Hygiene

Scientists are concerned that widespread overuse of antibiotics will inevitably render it useless, as dangerous bacteria will develop resistance to it. Better to avoid these products for daily use, and save antibiotics for when they are truly needed. Train your kids to simply wash their hands in hot soapy water for 20 to 30 seconds (or as long as it takes to slowly recite the “ABC” song), and clean surfaces regularly with vinegar, baking soda, or various other natural cleanersto kill bacteria as needed. Enforcing good oral hygiene is also important for immune health.

…Which Includes Not Spreading Germs

Talk with your kids about sneezing or coughing into a tissue or their elbow. They should wash their hands after sneezing, coughing, or blowing their noses, and not touch anything else until they do so. They should ask for a tissue instead of wiping their noses on their arms, and learn how to blow their noses. Remind them as needed until it’s an ingrained habit.

About Kim Robson

Kim Robson lives and works with her husband in the Cuyamaca Mountains an hour east of San Diego. She enjoys reading, writing, hiking, cooking, and animals. She has written a blog since 2006 at kimkiminy.wordpress.com. Her interests include the environment, dark skies, astronomy and physics, geology and rock collecting, living simply and cleanly, wilderness and wildlife conservation, and eating locally.

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