Children’s Immune Support

By Rachel Oppitz, ND

Not surprisingly, children’s immune systems function much like those of adults.  The major exception, however, is that kids’ immune systems are more actively “learning”.  That is, they are developing the acquired immunity which allows us to fight off infections as we repeatedly encounter the same organism.  Actively supporting your children through this learning process can help to ensure their immune system develops properly and stays strong.

First, make sure your children are getting enough sleep.  It may not look like it, but during sleep our bodies are busy regenerating cells damaged by bacteria, viruses, and aging, as well as regulating hormonal cycles.  Sleep requirements range from 12-14 hours for the newborn, infant and toddler to 10-12 hours for adolescents.  The sleep obtained before midnight significantly supports neurological development.

Second, feed your children a balanced, nutritious diet.  If you are nursing, continue to breastfeed your baby or toddler for as long as possible.  Breastfeeding has been shown to decrease the incidence of diarrhea, blood infections, meningitis, asthma, respiratory illness, and ear infections.  If a child has been exposed to a pathogen, as soon as the child latches on, the mother begins to produce antibodies and within two hours those antibodies are present in the breast milk.  The child’s intestinal tract does not break down these antibodies.  As much as possible, feed your children a whole foods diet with a wide variety of fresh fruits and vegetables (frozen is second best, canned retains very little nutritional value).  The high fiber found in whole foods increases the number of beneficial bacteria in the digestive tract and helps to protect against gastrointestinal and other chronic diseases.  Fruits and vegetables have higher levels of the important vitamins and minerals required to have an active immune system.

Be sure to make physical activity a regular part of your children’s lives.  Regular exercise has been shown to decrease the incidence of chronic disease, obesity, and cancer.  Movement also increases the body’s ability to cope with stress and improves the body’s ability to fight off infection.

Encourage your children to drink lots of filtered water.  The cells lining the inside of the mouth and nose are extremely prone to dehydration.  When these tissues dry out, they develop small holes and cracks, thereby offering free passage to cold viruses.  In contrast, well-hydrated mucus membranes are plump and more resistant to infection.

Do your best to avoid unnecessary antibiotic prescriptions and the overzealous use of antibiotic soaps and cleansers.  Antibiotics are miraculous medicines when used judiciously; however, antibiotic-resistant bacteria are becoming a frightening problem.  Antibiotic soaps and cleansers also contribute to bacterial resistance and decrease the protective population of healthy bacteria on the skin.  In virtually all cases, standard dishwashing soap cleans and kills germs as well as antibacterial soap without the concerns about bacterial resistance.

Don’t smoke around your children.  Kids exposed to second-hand smoke are more likely to suffer from recurrent respiratory and ear infections as well as asthma.  The symptoms are likely to be more severe and last longer than children with non-smoking parents.

Once children get sick, consider “warming socks” or a “warming T-shirt”.  A cotton sock or shirt is soaked in cool/cold water, wrung out, and covered with wool socks or a sweater before bedtime left on until warmed, usually about 20 minutes to ½ hour.  In the process of responding to the cool temperatures, the immune system will be stimulated.

When your children, despite your best efforts, catch a cold, take comfort in knowing that mild childhood infections are an important part of training the immune system.  A cold virus your kids catch today is one they won’t have to catch tomorrow!

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