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Remember the 1976 American TV movie, The Boy in the Plastic Bubble?
In the movie, a boy named Tod had to spend his entire life in an incubator-like condition because of his fragile immune system.
Unlike other children, his room was the only place where he learned, ate, and exercised—alone. What a strange and lonely life he had.
Under normal life circumstances, exploration of the outside world isn’t just a nice thing for kids to do, it’s crucial for the healthy development of their life-long immunity!
And as parents, it’s our job to safely encourage exploration in a way that can build a child’s immune system, so our kids can be healthy and strong.
The Departments of Your Child’s Immune System
Think of your child’s immune system as the body’s version of the military.
The immune system works in different branches or “departments.” These departments act at the body’s defense to fight infections and protect your child from illness.
These departments include:
The white blood cells. White blood cells (or leukocytes) recognize and fight off the bad guys whenever and wherever needed. An important type of white blood cell is the lymphocyte. These special cells include b-cells, t-cells, and natural killer cells. They remember the invading microbes in the body so they can fight them off faster when the body is attacked in the future.
The bone marrow. Bone marrow is where the body’s white blood cells are produced.
The lymph nodes. Lymph nodes function as filters, trapping viruses, bacteria and other invaders before they can cause trouble.
The spleen. This organ helps remove damage and clean out old blood cells from the body.
The thymus. The thymus filters and monitors the blood, and it produces white blood cells called T-lymphocytes.
Phagocytes. Types of cell within the body capable of engulfing and absorbing bacteria and other, smaller cells. The two most important cells involved in these responses are neutrophils and macrophages.
Neutrophils are the most common phagocytes. Their main function is to destroy pathogens and other harmful microorganisms. Neutrophils enter through the blood, but go into other parts of the body wherever invaders are found. When a neutrophil finds a pathogen, it surrounds and ingests it. This process is called phagocytosis. Neutrophils only survive a few days.
Macrophages are long-lived cells that are found in pretty much all tissues in the body. They also use phagocytosis to trap invaders. The most important function of these cells is to activate other parts of the immune system through cytokines. Cytokines are chemical signals that help recruit other immune cells to an infected area as “backup” to fight illness.
Like the military, the immune system has “special forces” that take over when pathogens get past the skin, mucus membrane, and the above organs and tissues. These “special forces” are part of the adaptive immune system, and their primary function is to stop any current infection and trigger immunologic memory.
According to the Children’s Hospital of Pennsylvania (CHOP): “The adaptive immune response is driven by the activities of cells called antigen-presenting cells (APCs). Three cell types can serve as APCs—dendritic cells, macrophages and B cells. Of these, dendritic cells are the most common and powerful APC type. They are considered to be the bridge between the innate and adaptive immune responses.”
This network of cells works hard to fight and defend against bacterial infections and viral infections to keep your child’s immune system functioning at its best.
However, thanks to our modern world, stress, uncertainty, and an ever increasing number of environmental toxins—not to mention a global pandemic—kids can quickly become vulnerable to sickness.
That’s why boosting their immunity should be at the top of every parent’s list of priorities. Now that you have the background on how our bodies work to fight off and protect against illness, let’s dive into a few ways to give additional support to our children’s immune systems.
5 Tips to Support a Healthy Immune System for Kids
Try these 5 immune-boosting tips to help strengthen your child’s immune system and keep them strong and healthy all year round.
1. Fill Their Plate with Immunity Nutrients
Food and the immune system can be the best of bedfellows, so long as you choose your foods wisely. We’re fortunate to live in a time where we have so much access to nutrients that can positively impact the immune response.
And that’s a good thing too because if your kids don’t get enough healthy nutrients, it can quickly result in increased susceptibility to sickness AND worsened symptoms when they do get sick.
Here’s the key that unlocks the immune-boosting kingdom: Make sure you are providing your child with all the nutrient building blocks they need to keep their immune systems in fighting form.
Below are some of the most important nutrients (and their whole food counterparts) you’ll want to serve for breakfast, lunch and dinner:
- Widely renowned as an immune booster, Vitamin C is necessary for the growth, development, and repair of all body tissues.
- Primarily found in citrus fruits (oranges, lemons, limes), but can also be sourced in vegetables such as broccoli, brussels sprouts, peppers, and leafy greens.
- Your body cannot produce vitamin A from scratch, which makes it an essential micronutrient.
- Found in sweet potato, liver, carrots, tomatoes, squash, cantaloupe, and green leafy vegetables.
- Is vital to cell protection and your immune system and is a powerful antioxidant, helping your body fight off infection.
- Found plentifully in sunflower seeds, pumpkin, beet greens, almonds, hazelnuts, broccoli, and spinach.
- There are 13 different types of B vitamins, and all have a direct impact on your energy levels, brain function, and immunity.
- Get B vitamins naturally from salmon, leafy greens, nutritional yeast, eggs, beef, legumes, and sunflower seeds.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
- Though we can’t make these ourselves, Omega-3’s have fantastic anti-inflammatory properties that support our immune function.
- Get your omegas via salmon, mackerel, sardines, chia seeds, walnuts, and flaxseed.
A well-balanced diet that puts the emphasis on vegetables and whole foods will do wonders for your child’s healthcare.
2. More Water, Please!
Water is essential for the health and survival of every cell in the body.
Apart from keeping the body hydrated, water helps transport important nutrients and oxygen to and from the immune system for optimal functioning.
For kids, water comprises 75% of their body weight. Therefore, keeping your child hydrated is essential for a healthy immune system.
A well-hydrated body can help flush out toxins that may wreak havoc on your child’s health, and can help them avoid all manner of illness.
Similarly, water is great for digestion. It helps ensure kids are getting enough vitamins and minerals from the healthy foods you serve, keeping them energetic and protected.
How much water should your child drink in a day?
Kids between 4 to 8 years old are recommended to drink at least 5 cups of water per day. You can increase this to 8 cups daily when they’re between 9 to 13 years old.
Children from ages 14 to 18 can drink between 8 to 11 cups per day.
Also, quality matters! Always ensure you’re serving your child filtered, non-distilled water.
3. Practice Daily Hygiene and Good Cough Etiquette
Kids touch their eyes, nose, and mouth frequently without even realizing it.
This means that teaching your child proper hand washing with soap and water is an important practice in fighting infectious diseases.
Aside from frequent handwashing, good cough etiquette is also important, especially these days, when even the slightest sniffle can raise alarm.
Here are 4 steps that you can teach your child to cover their cough the right way.
- If you’re going out, make sure you bring facial tissues with you in case your child needs to cough or sneeze.
- If you’re in a crowded space, move away from people before your child makes the achoo.
- Cover your child’s mouth with a tissue before coughing and throw it in the trash can afterward. You can also bring disposable plastic bags to throw away tissues if a trash bin is not available nearby.
- Wash your child’s hands after coughing. If soap and water is not available, using hand sanitizer can be a great next option.
As much as possible, tell your child to avoid coughing into their hands. Instead, teach them how to cough into the crook of their elbows.
4. Show Your Kids the Door
There’s a whole world that exists outside your front door, and as parents, we should remind our kids of this fact as often as possible.
Encourage your kiddos to go outside as much as possible depending on schedules… And this isn’t only a spring and summer directive. Kids should be getting outside all year round for an optimal intake of the “sunshine vitamin,” aka vitamin D.
Every single cell in your body requires vitamin D, and when it comes to your immune system, it’s absolutely crucial! Many studies point to the beneficial effect of vitamin D on immune function and protecting the body against infections.
However, because many kids don’t get enough outdoor time, they can quickly become deficient in vitamin D. Low levels are linked to, immunodeficiency, autoimmune disease , muscle weakness, pain, fatigue, and depression.
5. Don’t Snooze on Sleep
Your child needs to have at least 10 to 14 hours of uninterrupted sleep each night. With a proper and healthy sleeping schedule, your child is more likely to develop a healthy immune system compared to children with poor sleeping patterns.
During sleep, the immune system produces more cytokines, a type of protein that helps protect the body from invading bad guys.
Similarly, when your child gets enough sleep, their body naturally boosts infection-fighting antibodies and cells that protect them from uninvited guests.
To help your child get enough sleep, create (and follow) a bedtime routine. A little light reading or warm bath can prepare them for sleep.
How much sleep does your child need?
Below are the ideal sleep hours for kids according to the National Sleep Foundation:
- Under 1 year: 12 to 16 hours a day
- 1 to 2 years: 11 to 14 hours a day
- 3 to 5 years: 10 to 13 hours a day
- 6 to 12 years: 9 to 12 hours a day
- 13 to 18 years: 8 to 10 hours a day
Make sleep time a priority, because a well-rested and energized child is a healthy child.
BONUS: Add Immune Supplements to Your Child’s Diet
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, healthy children who eat a nutrient-focused diet (see above) do not generally need much supplementation.
However, many parents choose to give their kids a supplement boost to ensure they’re meeting their nutritional needs and improve their overall health.
Adding immune-boosting supplements to their diet is also advisable, especially for kids who are picky eaters. (Talk to your child’s doctor or pediatrician before starting them on a new supplementation regimen.)
Here are the top 3 supplements to give a boost to your child’s immune system.
Zinc is one of the most important minerals that can help kids’ immune systems, as it can boost immune cell function and maintain healthy oxidative stress levels in the body.
However, since zinc isn’t naturally produced by the body, you must obtain it through food or supplements.
Below is the following recommended daily intake of zinc for children according to the National Institute of Health (NIH):
- Birth to 6 months: 2 mg
- Infants 7–12 months: 3 mg
- Children 1–3 years: 3 mg
- Children 4–8 years: 5 mg
- Children 9–13 years: 8 mg
- Teens 14–18 years (boys): 11 mg
- Teens 14–18 years (girls): 9 mg
A growing number of research studies show that probiotics help with digestion and immune system function, especially for kids. Since our gut is home to a tremendous amount of bacteria, creating a balance of more beneficial bacteria (probiotics) and less unhealthy bacteria (pathogens) will pay huge health dividends.
In fact, one recent study showed that children who were given probiotics every day for 3 months were healthier compared to those given a placebo.
Supplementing probiotics in your kid’s diet therefore provides key health benefits for strong gut health and immunity.
Pro Parent Tip: When sourcing a probiotic product, make sure to look for spore-based strains. These are the only types of probiotics guaranteed to survive your harsh stomach acid and arrive in the intestines alive and ready to go to work.
Prebiotics are plant fibers that help increase the growth of good bacteria in the body.
Think of your gut like a garden… Similar to how the right fertilizer can help your garden grow, our prebiotics act like a fertilizer for your good gut bugs and can help your beneficial bacteria thrive!
The problem with most prebiotics on the market is that they feed BOTH the bad bacteria and good bacteria. This can lead to an imbalance in your gut microbiome which can set the stage for numerous health challenges.
So, when you’re sourcing a prebiotic product, look for ones that are formulated to support only the growth of beneficial bacteria for optimal digestive and immune health.
Don’t wait until it’s too late. Boost your child’s healthy immune system to help them stay healthy, active, and protected all year long.
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