Children’s Immunity

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How to boost your child’s immunity naturally

Kids will be going back to school soon and now is a good time to think about how to help them keep their immune systems strong and boost their natural defenses. We talked to Registered Dietitian Carol Bell of Table Health in Traverse City for advice on this topic.

What foods should kids (and adults!) eat to boost their immunity? 
Supporting immunity is about what to limit as well as what to eat abundantly. Sugar, chips, cake, cookies, soda, and other processed & sugar-laden foods increase the production of free radicals (a molecule that damages the cells). The body then has to use up nutrients in order to repair the damage caused by the junk food. If the body is then exposed to a virus, it has fewer nutrients to help strengthen the cells that defend the body.  A better strategy is to provide the body with foods that supply all the tools the immune system needs: 

Protein meats, fish, eggs, beans, nuts, seeds, cheese, tofu. Peanut butter on a carrot, cucumbers with hummus, meatballs, a boiled egg, tofu kebabs, etc. 

Complex carbohydrates and fiber – whole fruit, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, beans, peas. 100% whole wheat crackers with almond butter, apples, bananas, grapes, melon, oranges, pears, mini bell peppers, green beans dipped in guacamole,  pistachios, corn on the cob. 

Antioxidants – berries, cherries, tomatoes, lemons, limes, oranges, green tea (in the morning), hibiscus or rose hips tea, peppers, leafy greens, baked sweet potatoes, squash, smoothies, carrot juice.  

What about probiotic-rich foods or supplemental probiotics? 
Probiotics are bacteria that live in the gut and help keep our digestive cells healthy. By eating a lot of fiber (whole grains, beans, fruit) you “feed” the good bacteria in your gut. This helps create a strong “army” to out-compete the bad bacteria and viruses that come along. Fermented foods like raw sauerkraut, raw pickles, yogurt, and kefir are also beneficial. Or you can use probiotic supplements. These all help establish the right kind of gut bacteria to stay healthy. 

Do you have any supplement recommendations for kids? 
A whole-foods, immune-boosting diet is preferable as supplements don’t replace good food. But with our busy lives pulling us in many directions, the perfect diet every day is just not realistic for many of us. This is where supplements can be helpful for ensuring nutritional adequacy. Multivitamins and vitamin D are good for most kids. If a child is a selective eater, eats a vegan diet, a gluten-free diet, or other specialty diet, then other supplements may be needed like B vitamins, calcium, iron, or omega 3 fats. 

Do you have any other non-food recommendations for boosting kids’ immunity? 
Downtime and unstructured play time lower stress and enhance immunity. Outdoor activity and exercise boosts immunity. 5-8 cups of water per day is ideal and encourages elimination. Hugs – physical contact and perceived support increases immunity. Sleep time is when your immune system gets a boost. Children ages 2-5 need 11-14 hours sleep (including naps). Ages 6-12 need 9-12 hours sleep. Teens need 8-10 hours per night. 

Cohen S, Janicki-Deverts D, Turner RB, Doyle WJ. Does hugging provide stress-buffering social support? A study of susceptibility to upper respiratory infection and illness. Psychol Sci. 2015;26(2):135-147. doi:10.1177/0956797614559284

Iddir M, Brito A, Dingeo G, Fernandez Del Campo SS, Samouda H, La Frano MR, Bohn T. Strengthening the Immune System and Reducing Inflammation and Oxidative Stress through Diet and Nutrition: Considerations during the COVID-19 Crisis. Nutrients. 2020 May 27;12(6):1562. doi: 10.3390/nu12061562. PMID: 32471251; PMCID: PMC7352291.