Keeping Kids' Immune Systems Strong Naturally
One of the most common questions I hear from parents is about how they can keep their child’s immune system healthy, especially in the fall —seasons that are predictably punctuated by colds and flus. Immune support is key, certainly now more than ever, and implementing a few simple techniques can help better prepare them for the uptick in bacteria and viruses that may greet them.
Natural Ways to Support Your Child's Immune System
Whether you're paying attention to washing hands, keeping sheets and pillowcases clean or making a few conscious changes to your recipes, there are plenty of ways to keep everyone feeling their best through the cold and flu season.
Never in your child’s lifetime has washing their hands been so important (or so widely endorsed!). Teach your children to wash their hands frequently and effectively—for at least 30 seconds (picking a fun 30-second tune to sing helps!)—using soap and warm water and making sure that they wash the backs of, between, and to the tips of their fingers, the backs of their hands, and around the wrists as well. It’s also important to encourage them to keep their hands away from their faces as much as possible.
Wash pillowcases and sheets weekly. After a family member has been sick, launder bedding right away, and replace their toothbrush or disinfect it in boiling water. Vacuum often and keep the air cleaner by opening windows frequently to encourage fresh air exchange, even if only for a short period of time. Changing humidifier filters regularly and filling your home with air-purifying plants will also help.
Many children resist sleep, even when they’re tired, but an over-exhausted child is more likely to become ill. Ensure consistent sleep schedules, especially during cold and flu season, and provide time for calming activities such as reading or doing puzzles—especially before bed—to give their minds a chance to slow down and to help them ease into a better sleep pattern. Fresh air and time spent outdoors can also help with better quality sleep so be sure to carve out time for active outdoor play.
Learn more about optimal sleep schedules for kids of all ages here.
If your child seems more tired than usual or not quite themselves, ease up on the strict scheduling and give their bodies every opportunity to rest and fight an illness that may be coming. Implementing an earlier bedtime or a later wake time may help. If necessary, keep them home from school for a day of rest.
According to Chinese medicine, when the back of our neck is exposed to cold, damp weather, it allows illness to enter the body. Avoid this by providing your child a warm jacket and scarf.
Rubbing castor oil onto your child's chest and abdomen after bath time is not only a relaxing ritual; castor oil is also great for stimulating the lymphatic system, which plays a huge role in keeping the immune system strong. Apply in a clockwise direction.
Our bodies respond best to food that is unprocessed and in its most natural state. Ensure your child's diet is primarily made up of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, and legumes. Eating foods in a wide range of colours—“eating the rainbow”— is a great place to start! Whenever possible, choose organic produce, meats, and dairy products.
Go for garlic!
Garlic is antimicrobial and great for combating colds. Include plenty of garlic (especially in raw form) in your child’s diet and sneak it into everything from dips to salad dressings.
Favour fatty acids
Add essential fatty acids (EFA's) to your child's diet. Raw nuts, nut butters, seeds (chia, hemp), and fish (salmon) are full of good fatty acids and are low in hydrogenated and saturated fats. Hempseed oil can be incorporated into salad dressings, smoothies, or drizzled on pasta and vegetables. Fish oils are another fantastic way to get EFA's into your child’s diet and are available in easy-to-administer liquids and chewable gel caps.
Coconut helps balance the ratio of good-to-bad bacteria in the digestive tract, is naturally antibacterial and antimicrobial, possibly due in part to its high levels of lauric acid. Incorporate coconut oil and coconut milk into smoothies, sauces, and more!
When the body consumes food to which it is sensitive, the immune system focuses on dealing with that issue, which may mean that it isn’t in its best fighting form against bacteria and viruses. Removing any known or common food allergens like dairy, wheat, corn, soy, eggs, peanuts, citrus fruit, strawberries, bananas, tomatoes, and shellfish allows the attention to remain on seasonal invaders. Some typical symptoms associated with food sensitivities include gastrointestinal concerns such as diarrhea and constipation, chronic earaches, runny nose, sinusitis, repeated infections, eczema, itchy skin, headaches, poor concentration, and hyperactivity. If you’re not sure if your child has a sensitivity, it’s important you visit your healthcare provider to rule it out.
Say toodle-oo to nutrient-void and immune system compromisers:
- Sugar weakens the immune system, amplifies mineral loss in the urine, and depletes the body of B-vitamins.
- Processed foods and drinks generally contain hydrogenated oils and large amounts of sodium and phosphates, which disrupt absorption of nutrients.
- Food colourings and additives like tartrazine, benzoic acid, carmolic acid, sulfur dioxide, caramel colour, sodium nitrate, BHT, BHA, food colouring (e.g. FD&C #5) should be avoided. Watch for these in any supplements your child may be taking.
Probiotics, supplements and multivitamins are all terrific ways to support everyone's immune system (and for more on the best vitamins and supplements for your children, check out Dr. Salomonian's article here).
Since the gastrointestinal tract is the foundation of a healthy immune system, supplementing with the good bacteria found in probiotics is a wonderful way to support your child's gut.
Kids do not always eat everything that is put in front of them, so introducing a multivitamin is a good insurance policy that they are getting all they need for optimal immune function. Look for ones that don’t contain extra sugar or food colouring (and for more great advice on how to pick the right multivitamin for your little ones, click here and here.)
It’s always best to choose food sources of vitamin C whenever possible (such as citrus, bell peppers, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, pineapple, papaya, kiwi, and kale), but sometimes the body needs an extra boost to support the immune system and supplementing with vitamin C can be very effective. Opt for the powdered form over a chewable tablet as these tend to contain sugar and artificial colouring.
Dosing: Your child’s age in years times 50 mg, twice daily. (i.e. A 6-year-old child would need 300 mg of vitamin C, twice daily. Reduce dosage if loose stools occur.
Deliver the D
Vitamin D is a great support for the immune system. While sunshine is an effective (and free!) source of D, in the winter we especially don’t get enough! Aim for 15 minutes of sunshine on the arms, legs, and face each day if possible. Supplementation is still typically necessary and most children need about 400-1000IU of vitamin D daily.
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