Do you feel like your kids are constantly sniffling? The average preschool child has at least six colds a year. Sometimes, especially in winter, it might seem that your child is sick for weeks at a time, barely getting over one cold before the next one hits.
We all enter this world with an immature immune system. Over time, a child’s immunity is primed as they are exposed to an ongoing series of germs, viruses, and other organisms.
Aside from the general cold prevention techniques (washing hands, trying to avoid contact with others that are sick and so on), the best thing you can do to support your child through winter is to help support a healthy functioning immune system. While you will never be able to completely protect them from the sniffles, a strong immune system may help reduce the severity and duration of the common cold.
Here are some healthy habits you can adopt that will give your child's immune system a boost.
Focus on a whole foods diet.
Optimal nutrition is essential to developing and keeping the immune system healthy and strong. Nutritional deficiencies may be responsible for recurring infections as it is much easier for bacteria or viruses to take hold when important nutrients are missing. Critical nutrients that stimulate a strong immune system include vitamins A, C, E, zinc, iron and essential fatty acids. These nutrients can be obtained from a whole foods diet consisting of fresh fruits and vegetables, nuts, seeds, beans, whole grains, and good quality animal protein. Water is hugely important too, so don’t forget to keep up your fluid intake.
Ensure adequate zinc and iron status.
While the majority of vitamins and minerals play significant roles in our immune system, zinc and iron are especially important and are commonly deficient in young children. Particularly those that are fussy when it comes to eating. Zinc is predominantly found in red meat and seafood, as well as in smaller amounts in whole grain bread, nuts, and seeds. It works to support the immune system by aiding the development and functioning of infection-fighting white blood cells. Whereas iron is necessary for our immune cells to respond to infections. Iron-rich foods include meats, legumes, wholegrain, and leafy greens.
Ditch the sugar.
Keep your child’s intake of refined sugar to a minimum. Consuming sugar has been shown to decrease immune response and increase systemic inflammation. Sugar has the potential to reduce white blood cell count, an indicator of immune strength. Additionally, sugar competes with Vitamin C for transport in the body, so diets high in sugar have negative effects on the bodies immune response.
Don’t over sanitise.
While hand washing and general hygiene practices are important, we don’t want to be overdoing the cleanliness when it comes to our kids. Just as a child’s brain needs stimulation, challenges, and interaction to develop optimally, the young immune system is strengthened by exposure to everyday germs so that it can detect, readjust, and regulate itself. When we overly sanitize a child’s environments to protect them from illness, we may instead be preventing them from developing a strong immune system.
Support the gut.
It’s now well established that a healthy microbiota (the diverse community of microorganisms that live within our guts) help to keep your immune system functioning optimally. For our gut to be healthy we need a balance of good and bad bacteria. If this balance is thrown off, our ability to defend against infections is impaired and our immune system becomes more susceptible to infections.
Probiotics contain live microorganisms that can help to repopulate and balance the gut, which in turn helps to support the immune system. Probiotics are found in supplements or foods containing living microorganisms, such as full-fat natural yoghurt, sauerkraut, kimchi, and kefir. I always recommend going the food route and supporting with prebiotic containing food (prebiotics are mostly found in fiber-containing foods). If your child has been on a few rounds of antibiotics, I might suggest a probiotic supplement for a period of time.
Get a daily dose of Vitamin D.
Vitamin D is important for strengthening our immune system, so don’t be afraid to enjoy a little sunshine. One of the best things about living in Australia is that we get so much sun, even in winter. So step outside a few times a week for a walk to the park or a play in the garden to ensure your child is getting enough Vitamin D, whilst still being sun safe.
Sleep is the way our body repairs itself, so getting plenty of it gives us the strength to fight off common colds and flu. Deep, restorative sleep is essential, so encourage an early bedtime for your child. I appreciate this is usually easier said than done, but in order for your child’s immune system to thrive, they need time to rest. While children need plenty of opportunities to be creative and play, it is just as important for children to have downtime and rest.
Consider a supplement.
If your child has been struggling with a constant bout of colds that they just can’t seem to shift, is presenting with additional systems or is a really fussy eater you may need to consider additional supplementation. All supplement advice needs to be individualized, so please check in with me if you think your child may need a little extra support.