Well, it’s Spring, and for a nice change of pace, nothing seems to be ‘going around’ these days among school or neighborhood friends. Everyone’s healthy and enjoying our newfound flowers and gorgeous 75 degree weather (to my friends and readers in colder parts, I apologize for my insensitivity and promise, it’s coming…) Still, when seasons transition is always a good time to boost immunity, so that our children’s little bodies are ready for the weather and dietary changes that naturally come with the shift. Here are my favorite immune boosting tips, to be used during any time of travel, climate change, or when something seems to be ‘going around’, in hopes that we can all look forward to a happy and healthy Springtime.
1. Wash hands, and wash hands again
Many viruses can stay alive for at least up to two hours on surfaces such as countertops and doorknobs. The single best way to avoid exposure this way is to have your child wash their hands frequently – and with soap. Worried about their thoroughness? Have them sing the “happy birthday” song thru in its entirety, while they rub their hands and fingers with the soap. When they’re finished singing, it’s time to rinse the soap off.
2. Give your Child Vitamin C — and more Vitamin C
Almost all animals create their own vitamin C — it’s that important. Human beings don’t – we need it from the food we eat and the supplements we take. In addition to being responsible for over 300 bodily functions, your child’s immune system needs vitamin C to run at peak levels. Without enough of it, your child is more likely to get sick more often and stay sick longer. It’s one of nature’s most powerful antioxidants. And because vitamin C is water-soluble, our bodies don’t store it, so your child needs to get the vitamin C s/he needs daily.
Vitamin C is found in predominantly in fruits and vegetables. Oranges have the most well-known reputation, but other fruits and veggies have as much vitamin C as oranges or more: kiwis, mangoes, papayas, red bell peppers are all high in vitamin C. Also try acerola (a west Indian cherry with over 1600mg of vitamin C per cup – compare that to 80mg in one orange!). Acerola can be found by itself in your health food store, or more often as juice, that can be mixed into other juices or smoothies. Try also goji berries, a sweet-and-salty fruit that looks like a raisin – we mix it into our son’s oatmeal, it can even be eaten as a snack on its own, or even baked into bread…
If your child has a history of low immunity, I like incorporating a high-quality buffered vitamin c supplement – taken to bowel tolerance. This can be even 250-500 grams of vitamin C 2-3 times a day (especially when your child’s immune system is under stress) – your child’s body will keep what it needs, and pee out the rest. If your child’s poop gets loose when she takes the vitamin c, reduce the dosage. If you have reason to suspect that your child has been exposed to a viral or bacterial infection, you can increase the number of times per day that you supplement his or her vitamin C intake.
3. Reduce or eliminate white sugar from your child’s diet
Kids love the taste of sugar. Breastmilk and formula are sweet by nature, and in Chinese Medicine, foods with a naturally-occurring sweet taste are considered nourishing and easy to digest – in small quantities. The trouble is that in the standard modern American diet, we consume a lot of sugar – in cakes, cookies, sodas, fruit juices, and even foods that we don’t associate with being a sweet, like crackers, cereals and ketchup. When you add it all up, there’s a strong chance that your child is consuming more sugar than it might seem.
Here’s the thing that no one told me when my son was a baby. Sugar can lower your child’s (and your own) immune system function almost immediately. In particular, sugar can reduce the ability of white blood cells to digest and destroy bacteria. According to research reported by the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, the effect of this immune system drop lasts for five hours, or more. If your child is fighting off an invader already, this could be just the drop that bacteria or virus is waiting for. If your child is ingesting sugar continuously throughout the day, even in small quantities, his or her immune system may be in a constant state of depressed function.
White sugar is especially hard on your child’s system. It has been processed, bleached, and all mineral content that exists in many of its original sources is lost. It breaks down so rapidly in the body that its almost like an i.v. of glucose into your child’s system – which can cause spikes in blood sugar to the brain and other organs, and stress on your child’s pancreas and general digestive tract.
Sugars in their natural form still need to be used with real moderation – after all, they are still sugar, and can still have an effect on your child’s immune system, especially in larger quantities. However, in their natural form, they still contain essential minerals, and generally have a lower glycemic index – meaning that they break down more slowly in your child’s body – minimizing the blood sugar peaks-and-valleys. When you are going to use sugar in baking or to sweeten, consider using:
- Maple syrup or maple crystals
- Honey – in children over the age of one (in baking, can be sweeter than sugar, may have to modify accordingly)
- Brown rice syrup (slightly less sweet than sugar, may have to be combined with other natural sweeteners) o Apple juice or other fruit sweetener
Cooking and using new sweeteners can cause some initial adjusting. For example, if it’s a liquid sweetener, you may need to use less of some other liquid in your recipe. If you’re using honey, agave, or maple syrup, you may find you need 1/2 to 2/3 the amount of sweetener to achieve the same level of sweetness. It just takes a little bit of practice. For more information on cooking with natural sweeteners, there are also some great cookbooks devoted just to this… Please don’t substitute artificial sweeteners for sugar here – we have found that they can be quite difficult for a child’s system to recognize and detoxify. The idea is more to bring back sweet choices with more nutritional merit, while still giving your child the sweet flavor she or he enjoys.
Sugar cravings can result from an imbalance of intestinal flora or excessive intestinal yeast in your child’s body – which can come from a history of antibiotic usage, a diet high in sugar, or following illness. Sugar cravings can also result from insufficient nutrition – such as too little lean protein or beneficial fatty acids. Sweet-tooths can also be from mineral deficiencies – sometimes chromium, or other minerals are implicated. If your child has a real sweet-tooth, we suggest that you consult with a qualified nutritionist.
4. Consider Other Beneficial Supplements
Probiotics, whether from yogurt, or in supplement form, can also play an important role in bolstering your child’s digestive health and immunity. Some research suggests that children with high levels of lactobacilli and bifidobacteria in their intestines – the good bacteria found in many probiotics are less likely to get infections than those with sub-optimal levels. Levels can get low from heredity, diet, illnesses, history of frequent antibiotic use. Probiotics may also be added to your child’s bathwater for some gentle exposure.
If your child is recovering from illness, looking frail, or suffering from lowered immunity, you may also try giving them royal jelly – up to 75mg for 50 lbs of body weight. Royal jelly – the food that transforms a worker bee into a queen bee, thereby living 20 times longer! – is considered by some nutritionists to be one of nature’s most perfect food sources. If your child is having any issues with food malabsorption or malnutrition, this may prove particularly effective.
Astragalus has long been used by Chinese medicine (and also is grown here in the U.S.) as one of the most effective ingredients in any immune tonic. Research has shown that astragalus increases the activity of macrophages (immune cells that ‘eat’ unwanted visitors) and the production of T-lymphocytes (white blood cells that are capable of seeking out and destroying viral proteins.) For children especially, astragalus can also work very well on its own, made into a tea or broth. Astragalus is a member of the pea family, with a long membraneous root. It’s the root that is useful here, and comes dried, resembling a tongue depressor. Put 3-4 pieces of the astragalus into boiling water, and simmer for 25 minutes. You can have your child drink this with miso paste or bouillon for a simple broth, or add 1-2 cloves of garlic, 1 white onion, 2 carrots, parsley and shitake mushrooms for an incredible immune-bolstering soup. Astragalus can often be purchased as a tincture from your local health food store as well, and is a particularly good choice if your child has swollen glands.
**A word on supplements here. Not all supplements are created equal. We love these immune-enhancing suggestions in general, but some forms of vitamins and nutrients are more bio-available and easy for your child’s body to break down. Please ask your practitioner, or nutritionist for suggestions. A reputable health food store may also prove to be a good resource.
5. Maintain a healthy diet for your child
A well-balanced diet, may be, above all, the most important gift that you can give your child for their current and later health. The more nutrition research that’s done, the more it emerges that an adult’s health, general constitution, brain development and number of fat cells in their body is very influenced by their diets as a child. This occurs at the biological level. As your child reaches developmental milestones, it is important that the nutrients required for growth are available to them.
Research also now shows that deficiencies in certain nutrients can lower your child’s immune system. Folic acid tends to be the most common deficiency, and can increase your child’s susceptibility to infection. Other vitamins that mediate immune response, and can cause lowered immune function when their levels are low are: vitamin c, a, e, certain b vitamins, magnesium, copper, and iron. You’ll need to consult with a qualified nutritionist to know if your child is deficient in any of these nutrients, and, if so, which ones. Preventatively, however, a well-balanced diet is your best defense.
So what constitutes good nutrition for a child? Variety is a key component in making sure your child gets a good mix of the nutrients she or he needs. Here is a very basic list of things that most children should be getting on a daily basis:
- “good” fats: essential fatty acids, found in flax oil, avocados, wild salmon, nut butters, cold-pressed vegetable oils – – olive oil, safflower oil, walnut oil; should be about 20-25 % of their total calories (margarine, partially hydrogenated oils should be avoided here; butter and saturated fats should be only moderately used)
- proteins: such as beans, poultry, eggs, meat, fish, nuts and seeds; should be about 15-25% of their total calories
- complex carbohydrates: such as vegetables, beans, whole grains, whole fruit; should be about 50-60% of total calories
- vegetables and fruits: should be between 4 and 6 servings per day; at least 3-4 should be vegetables. A “serving” is approximately 1/2 cup of fruit or vegetable, except leafy greens, where a serving size is 1 cup
I recommend eating organic and locally grown foods as a part of healthy nutrition. Organic foods tend to keep higher nutrient levels, and are easier on your child’s system; it gives them less to fight against – no more pesticides or chemicals to fill their ‘rain barrels’. Locally grown foods preserve more nutrients due to less transit time between being picked and getting to your table. Its also great because what’s grown locally may be what’s exactly right for your child in your climate, at your time of year.
6. Become an expert on your child’s poop (and general digestive health)
In most Eastern Medicine, boosting your child’s immune system begins with supporting their digestive tract. In recent years, western science supports this connection between immunity and the gut – recent studies show that the majority of our immune cells reside in our intestines.
One important way to assess your child’s immune health can be by observing their bowel movements. Some variation in stools is normal. When you start noticing patterns developing however that may indicate a digestive problem that may be affecting your child’s immune system. Examples of problems would be a tendency toward constipation, loose stools, undigested food in the stool, pain in the belly or when passing a stool, lots of gas, or alternating diarrhea and constipation, consistent foul smell to your child’s poop. Any of these as longstanding patterns warrant a trip to your primary health provider.
Constipation, in particular, is an important imbalance to consider when assessing your child’s immune system. If your child is having a bowel movement less than once a day, is straining and struggling, and/or the movements seem ‘incomplete’, this could be interfering with your child’s ability to absorb nutrients, and weakening their immune system (as waste gets reabsorbed into the bloodstream thru the walls of the large intestine, and intestinal flora becomes imbalanced). If constipation is an issue for your child, make sure your child is drinking enough water and getting enough fiber in his or her diet. You can also make your child flaxseed tea – 1 Tblsp. of flax seeds in one cup of boiling water, left to soak overnight and taken in the morning can be a big help.
There are some other basic mealtime suggestions that can improve your child’s digestive and immune health. We recommend that mealtimes are as calm as possible and that children are expected to sit down to eat. We also recommend that parents reduce snacking. Constant snacking requires that a kid’s digestive system is constantly working. Focusing on fixed regular mealtimes helps regulate the system.
Another easy way for parents to help support their child’s system is to provide warm cooked foods at mealtimes on a regular basis, especially if your child is frail, pale, tends toward loose stools, or is recovering from illness. Children’s digestive systems are not “up and running” like an adult’s, so they may not be effectively breaking down food without some help from your oven or stove. The way Chinese medicine looks at it is that the breakdown of food creates energy in the body but also requires energy to digest. In particular if your child’s system is tired from illness, fatigue, or is showing signs that it is having trouble breaking down food on its own, in the form of loose stools, gas, bloating, undigested food in the stool, offering your child cooked bland foods can help them to rebuild, without expending energy on digestion. Grandma was on the right track when she made up chicken soup!
If your child tends to be more robust, however, to run hot, be sweaty, red in the face, maybe even tending toward constipation, including some raw veggies, salads, seeds and nuts may have a more beneficial and even cooling effect.
You may also consider incorporating digestive enzymes with your child’s meals. You can have your child take them immediately after eating to improve food breakdown, or I’ve known parents to break open capsules of enzymes and sprinkle them directly into their child’s food. You can also get them directly from papaya and pineapple (sometimes a little at the end of a meal can provide nice results.) Ask at your local grocery or health food store for their favorite digestive enzymes for your child.
7. Help your children get their ZZZs
A few words on healthy sleep – This may seem basic, but one of my great struggles as a parent was to understand that the amount of sleep my son needed, and the amount of sleep he thought he needed were two different things. While his enthusiasm for playing and reading books and exploring has always trumped his desire to sleep, without his beauty sleep his health and immune system suffers.
So what is the right amount of sleep for a child? Well, it really depends on your child, and the age of your child, but in general, your child should be getting from 10-12 hours of sleep per night from the ages of 4-6, at least 10 hours from the ages of 6-9, and at least nine hours from the age of 9 to 12. These are just averages. Your child may need a little less or little more, but if they are way off of this range, it might be worth exploring any factors that may be interfering with your child’s sleep.
Going to sleep requires a certain type of “letting go” and for some kids this may be difficult. For the sensitive or really active kids often this transition may be even more difficult. I often find the key to sleep problems occur during the day. Parents will need to look closely at the amount of stimulation kids receive. Scary movies, a very hot day, new foods, or lots of transition may create the occasional bout of insomnia or nighttime waking. The focus here is to help your child’s nervous system unwind. If your child is having a hard time unwinding a nice warm bath with some lavender oil or chamomile in it may help. Lavender and chamomile have relaxing properties and the water element can also help to move your child into a more receptive or sleepy state. After a nice long soak you can incorporate some massage to help your child relax more. With your child stretched out in a warm place on their towel you can gently work on their feet or their heads. In general massaging the feet helps to bring the energy down. Some children prefer to have her heads gently rubbed. As you massage your child check in to find out what feels relaxing to them.
You can also try chamomilla, a gentle homeopathic remedy to relieve nervousness and irritability, and to relax tension in your child. Homeopathics come as little sweet white pills that are dissolved under the tongue at least 15-20 minutes before eating. They are extremely gentle, which makes them an easy remedy for children. Sold at different potencies, start out by giving your child 6x potency, 3 times during the day, or right before bed for mild relaxation. You can also try Sleepytime Tea, a Celestial Seasonings® blend that includes chamomile, along with lemongrass, spearmint and orange blossoms. Traditional Medicinals® also makes a wonderful organic nighty-night tea with chamomile for children.
In Chinese medicine, the time of night that your child sleeps and the quality of that sleep can be even more important than the number of hours she gets. Sleep is the time when the energy of your body cycles through all of the organ systems, and traditional Chinese wisdom believes that the hours between 9pm and 12am may be the most important hours for your child’s body to detoxify. Some practitioners even believe that one hour during this window is equal to 2 hours the rest of the night. Experiment with the time you are putting your child to bed. If your child goes to bed late, try lowering his bedtime by 1/2 hour each night over the course of the week, and see if you notice a difference in his behavior, energy and tendency toward illness. In some children, just the time that they go to bed can make a profound difference in the quality of their sleep cycle.
In general, most children in our culture do not get as much sleep as their little bodies actually need to grow, detoxify, process, and function properly. One of the single most effective steps you can take as a parent to improve and support your child’s health is to ensure healthy and adequate sleep. If your child is having trouble winding down or staying asleep, please refer to this great Mommy’s ER video for tips.
8. Try gentle massage and acupressure
To strengthen your child’s immune system, I also recommend doing basic acupressure and massage techniques daily. Parents can use the digestive massage techniques of spinal rolling, tummy circles, belly massage and acupressure. For video demonstration of these techniques, check out the Mommy’s ER youtube channel.
All of these techniques help to regulate the digestive system and the bowels. They also improve autonomic nervous system functioning, the system with which is responsible for regulating your child’s (and your own) immune functions. We encourage parents to incorporate some or all of these techniques into your child’s nightly routine, much like brushing their teeth, five to ten minutes a night.
9. Eliminate Environmental Irritants
Why look at environmental irritants in the context of building immunity? Undetected environmental sensitivities and allergies have a generalized impact on the immune system, kind of like a mystery movie, where someone is getting poisoned a little undetectable bit at a time. Your child may get colds, flus, even have behavioral changes and trouble sleeping aggravated by simple factors in the environments in which they live. Reducing your child’s exposure to common household substances, pet danders, or outdoor pollens to which they may be reacting poorly may reduce a constant barrage against their immune systems.
Here’s a list of some other things you can ask yourself, or start to notice as you look at your child’s different environments – home, school, out-of-doors.
- Is this an old house?
- Does it smell ‘musty’ when I walk in after having been away? … you may want to have your house checked for mold.
- Is this a new house – two years or less? Do I notice any new house smells when I’ve been away?
- Do we have pets?
- Do my child’s symptoms get better or worse when they spend time on the floor in our house or playing with the pets?
- Does my child experience any physical or behavioral changes after getting vaccines, flu shots, taking any medications, getting surgery or dental work done? … we are NOT saying don’t do these things, but if your child is having a response, it could be a sign his or her ‘toxic load’ is already too high to handle something new – again like the last drop that makes the barrel overflow.
- How does my child’s daycare smell when I first walk in? Is it a new building? An old building?
- Do we have scented candles, room deodorizers, incense sticks in our house?
- Do we clean infrequently? How often are things dusted?
- Do we use a lot of chemicals, bleach, etc to clean our house? How’s my child’s energy, behavior, sleep, on days when its just been cleaned?
- Does anyone smoke in our house?
- How old are our pipes and our paint? Is our paint peeling Have our water pipes and our house been checked for lead contamination?
If you are answering yes to any of these questions, the best solution is usually eliminating the possible irritant. However, this is not always the most practical solution. Incorporating vitamin C in difficult environments can be a very beneficial practice for your child, getting them extra antioxidants that their bodies can use to cope. Solutions can also be simple, such as moving beloved pets out of your child’s room at night, or even calling their bedrooms a no-pet zone.
Incorporating green plants into your home can also provide a simple solution – green plants help to clean up our air quality and help to provide us an oxygen-rich environment. Specific plants that are noted for their ability to detoxify their environment are peace lilies, gerber daisies, bamboo palms, Phillodendron, golden pothos, and spider plants have been found by NASA to best clear formaldehyde (a preservative used in cabinets and other woods, insulations, even new clothes) from the environment. Dracaena massangeana, boston fern, ficus, lady palm, miniature date palm, rubber plants and chrysanthemums were also rated as good at removing toxic substances from the air.
Ionizing air purifiers are another line of defense against the pollutants that enter your home environment. Just make sure that if your air purifier does produce ozone, that you only leave it on when you are away from the house. Ozone can be very hard on the sensitive lining of your child’s lungs and respiratory tract.
Mineral salt baths, or baths using dead sea salts can also be a way to remove toxic buildup on and through your child’s skin. You can see its calming effect as well – I see it especially with my son if I bathe him with mineral salts two nights or more in a row. Just make sure to rinse your child off afterward thoroughly with glycerin soap.
Finally, a word on children who live with smokers or are exposed to second-hand cigarette smoke on a regular basis. Children with parents who smoke are admitted to the hospital with what has been estimated as 28% more frequency than children who are not exposed to cigarette smoke. Some of this may be due to the fact that exposure to cigarette smoke lowers levels of antioxidants vitamin e and vitamin c. It also is aggravating to the tender tissue of their little lungs. If your child is an environment with secondhand smoke, and quitting is not an option, you may consider establishing an outdoor smoking area, away from your child’s play area. Keep an indoor ozone-free air purifier in the house if you can. Change your filters frequently. Keep a lot of green plants around. You may also choose to supplement your child with buffered vitamin c supplements daily, to replenish what is lost from second-hand smoke exposure.
10. Provide a Loving and Low Stress Home for your Child
We all love our children (if you didn’t, I doubt you’d even be reading this article), but providing a low-stress home can be more difficult, especially, if, as a parent you’re feeling stressed and overtired – which is, perhaps, subject for another article, and one I may not be as qualified to write. My best suggestions for a typical 21st century household? Number One: be sure that you are taking care of yourself – like the favorite airplane analogy: put on your mask first, then assist your child. Make sure that you, as a parent, are following the preceding nine suggestions as best you can, getting adequate sleep, exercise, nutrients and rest. It is easiest for our children to get on board the behaviors that we are modeling to them.
Research on emotions is now uncovering that our emotional states can be even more contagious than our physical ailments. If we’re stressed, our child can pick up on that…and stress is the number one enemy of healthy immunity. Just one more excuse to indulge in that bubble bath, fit in a run or golf game, or take your favorite yoga class…
For your child, make sure that s/he or he is getting plenty of exercise, time with easygoing friends, time outdoors. Make sure they are getting extra touch from you. Even just rubbing my son’s arm as I read to him can noticeably improve his calm and our connection. These are the stress relievers of children.
An old Chinese proverb says, “a man is not sick because he has an illness. He has an illness because he is sick.” If your child’s immune system is healthy, it can tackle invaders that we will never know have been there. We may not be able to control our children’s exposure to illness-inducing viruses and bacteria, but we can help them to be ready and healthy in the face of any exposure. As always, a healthy immune system is the universal remedy.