We’re just getting into our hottest summer days, ideal for swimming, camping and outside play. And yet the majority of Blaine County students are back in school, and parents are already asking how to support their kids’ immunity.
The immune system is a complex and coordinated network of cells that protects the body from pathogens, bacteria, viruses, parasites and other such bugs. As we spend more time inside with germs, we want immune cells to function optimally to keep our bodies healthy. The easiest and most effective way to ensure strong immunity is twofold: feed our cells with immune-boosting nutrients and eliminate immune-depleting habits.
August is an ideal time of year to feed the immune system because seasonal nutrient-dense foods are at their peak ripeness, offering more nutrients (and more flavor!). Blueberries and cantaloupe are a high-antioxidant foods containing immune-supporting vitamins A and C. Leafy greens, broccoli, zucchini, peppers, tomatoes, onions and garlic contain varying amounts of these antioxidants, plus many other immune-supportive nutrients, including vitamin B6.
Approximately 70% of the immune system resides in the gastrointestinal tract alongside the gut microbiome. Bacteria help immune cells develop, support a resilient immune system and improve digestion so that more nutrients are absorbed into cells. We can support a well-balanced gut by eating fermented foods such as yogurt, kefir, kombucha, sauerkraut, kimchi, miso and tempeh. Yogurt and kefir are also great sources of zinc, a necessary mineral for immunity.
Removing nutrient-poor foods is absolutely essential for building the immune system. While high-carbohydrate, refined and “fast” foods might be the only thing your picky child will consume, eating too many of them leads to dietary monotony, poor nutrient intake and, eventually, undernutrition. Any “mono” diet, really, can weaken gut function; imbalance the microbiome; contribute to chronic inflammation; and lead to multiple nutrient deficiencies or insufficiencies. As a result, kids become sick more frequently.
While the majority of our nutrients will come from a whole foods diet, it’s also a good idea to keep immune-boosting botanicals at bay for extra support during back-to-school germ and cold season. Astragalus is a favorite ancient herb that is high in antioxidants, and supports T-cell function and inflammatory responses. Echinacea is a North American flower that shortens the severity and longevity of colds. Elderberry of the Sambucus nigra variety is antiviral, immune-protective and reduces symptoms and duration of common viruses.
Another kid-favorite supplement is zinc lozenges – an awesome addition to lunch boxes, car trips and a great alternative to Dum-Dums. In addition to intake of probiotic-rich foods, plus plenty of fruits and veggies, daily zinc lozenges helped my son not miss one day of school last year due to illness!
Likely summer has altered good-sleep habits, and yet ample sleep is probably one of the best activities for cell reparation and immune function. Preschoolers still need between 10-13 hours of sleep per night; 6-13 year olds benefit from 9-11 hours; and teenagers require 8-10 hours of sleep.
Finally, regular hand washing remains one of the most effective ways to prevent the spread or germs. Choose gentle soap over antibacterial soap or hand gel, which contain triclosan, a chemical ineffective in preventing the spread of viruses and cultivates antimicrobial-resistant bacteria.
Simple dietary and behavioral shifts will not only offset risk of back-to-school illnesses, but also reduce the need for both medication, which burdens the liver (a key organ that modulates the immune system), and antibiotics (which contribute to antimicrobial resistance and anti-biotic resistant genes).
Here’s to a season of resilient immune systems and healthy kids!
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Block, K.I. & Mead, M.N. (2003). Immune system effects of echinacea, ginseng, and astragalus: a review. Integrative Cancer Therapies. 2(3):247-67.
Bourke, C. D., Jones, K., & Prendergast, A. J. (2019). Current Understanding of Innate Immune Cell Dysfunction in Childhood Undernutrition. Frontiers in immunology, 10, 1728. doi:10.3389/fimmu.2019.01728
Jenne, C.N. & Kubes, P. (2013). Immune surveillance by the liver. Nature Immunology, 14: 996-1006.