Posted by Dr. Matt Hand on Jan 25, 2022 6:34:35 PM
School has always had a reputation for being a germ factory—and for good reason.
Returning to school after winter break brings pressing concerns about immunity and staying healthy. Transitioning back to school is an especially precarious time for your child’s health, and it’s crucial to arm yourself with strategies to keep the whole family well.
Cold-weather months trigger an evolutionary body response that requires more sleep, rest, and nourishment. Winter break brings just the opposite for many kids: sugar and late nights. When children return to school without being sufficiently rested, their immune system isn’t primed.
To gauge whether or not your kid’s immune system is ready to go back to school, consider their winter break routines. Were they regularly up late at night? Did they eat a lot of sugary foods? Were they traveling? All of these factors might mean that your children need some extra immune support to stay healthy as they transition back to school.
Getting back into a school routine can be difficult for kids even under the best of circumstances—early wake-ups, lack of morning sunshine, and cold weather all make it tough to feel ready to start the day. These elements alone act as immune system onslaughts, not to mention the unique circumstances of the past year, from mask-wearing to increased hand-washing and use of hand sanitizer, which can make your child more vulnerable.
Given the realities of heading back to school this year, learning how to boost kids' immune systems is more important than ever.
Immune health is tied to sleep, diet, exercise, and stress. A whole foods diet goes a long way in building and sustaining a healthy immune response, and supplements for kids can fill in the gaps. Building healthy habits for your children is key as a foundation for all of these immune-boosting approaches.
There’s no doubt that added sugars significantly affect immune function by increasing inflammatory proteins that are linked with immunity.1 Refined sugar also negatively impacts the body’s ability to fight off germs. A high-sugar diet can damage the intestinal barrier, potentially contributing to an increased inflammatory response and lowered immunity.2
Winter break often comes with higher sugar intake. If this was the case for your children, try to offer a back-to-school diet rich in colorful vegetables, fruit, protein, and good fats.
Studies show that more physical activity directly contributes to better immune health.3 Cold weather can make exercise challenging, so you might need to get creative. Depending on where you live, you could build a snowman or have a snowball fight, bundle up for a family walk, chase bubbles around (they will freeze if it’s cold enough, which kids love), or head out for a sledding, snowshoe, or ski adventure.
For adults, fewer than seven hours of sleep has been linked with decreased immunity.4 The amount of sleep that children need varies with their age and other individual factors, but plenty of rest and a regular sleep schedule is key to a robust immune system.
For many kids, transitioning back to school is stressful, and stress stimulates the immune system. While this is a positive and necessary response to aid wound healing, longer-term stressors can weaken the body’s immune response. Kids and adults under stress are typically less able to fight off germs.5 Especially this year, after many months of at-home schooling, kids are anxious and worried about returning to in-person classes.
It is critical to build habits that will help your children calm their anxiousness, manage stress, and incorporate other immune-boosting strategies as they go back to school.
Knowing why the following habits are essential for a strong immune system is one thing, but understanding how to start creating those habits is another. Here are some practical tips to get started:
fun and gentle movement
Every child requires a certain level of physical activity depending on their distinct needs, but movement doesn’t always have to be intense. Gentle exercise helps children breathe better, clears the lungs, and naturally reduces anxiousness. Try to help your children avoid sitting for long periods at home, and work in movement breaks if they’re doing something sedentary, like homework.
Movement breaks can also be a fun bonding activity, especially with young children. Try jumping jacks, somersaults, skipping around the room, doing cartwheels, pushing something heavy around the living room like a laundry basket or toy box, jumping in place, or another silly way to get your kids moving.
Understanding that ongoing stress weakens the immune system, creating age-appropriate stress reduction techniques can help prep your kids for the rest of the school year. Young children won't sit through a 20-minute guided meditation or yoga class, but they can benefit from three minutes of deep breathing, petting the family dog, or stretching.
Consistent Sleep schedule
Encourage your children to get as much sleep as possible. Winter naturally requires more rest, and you can set your children up for immune success by sticking to consistent sleep schedules. Have a solid sleep and wake time, and begin winding down at least one hour before bed. Turn off electronics, read a book, take a bath, use an essential oil diffuser with lavender, or any other calming nighttime rituals that work for your family.
Specific vitamins and minerals essential to a healthy immune response include zinc, vitamin C, vitamin D, elderberry, and Chinese mushrooms.*
Food sources are best whenever possible. Foods high in zinc include oysters, red meat (grass-fed if possible), and hemp seeds. Vitamin C foods include broccoli, strawberries, citrus fruits, and Brussels sprouts. Vitamin D is best obtained from natural sunlight when possible, but testing your kid’s levels with their pediatrician and supplementation is often necessary, especially if you live above the Mason-Dixon line. Elderberry is an excellent immune-boosting and kid-friendly supplement that offers some additional support alongside a healthy diet.*
Chinese mushrooms are adaptogens that help balance stress hormones, but getting kids to eat mushrooms can be tricky.* These immune superstars can be prepared in soups and broths or finely ground and disguised in sauces, ground meat, or other dishes.
Prepare for immune offenders by developing healthy habits at home that your kids can stick to. Movement, whole foods, stress reduction, and immune-supportive nutrients go a long way in keeping the entire family stay healthy during the winter months. Supplements can be an excellent add-on to these wholesome routines, especially as children deal with back-to-school immune challenges.
 Iddir, M., Brito, A., Dingeo, G., Fernandez Del Campo, S. S., Samouda, H., La Frano, M. R., & Bohn, T. (2020). Strengthening the Immune System and Reducing Inflammation and Oxidative Stress through Diet and Nutrition: Considerations during the COVID-19 Crisis. Nutrients, 12(6), 1562. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu12061562
 Pereira, M. T., Malik, M., Nostro, J. A., Mahler, G. J., & Musselman, L. P. (2018). Effect of dietary additives on intestinal permeability in both Drosophila and a human cell co-culture. Disease models & mechanisms, 11(12), dmm034520. https://doi.org/10.1242/dmm.034520
 Carlsson E, Ludvigsson J, Huus K, Faresjö M. High physical activity in young children suggests positive effects by altering autoantigen-induced immune activity. Scand J Med Sci Sports. 2016 Apr;26(4):441-50. doi: 10.1111/sms.12450. Epub 2015 Apr 18. PMID: 25892449.
 Besedovsky, L., Lange, T., & Born, J. (2012). Sleep and immune function. Pflugers Archiv : European journal of physiology, 463(1), 121–137. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00424-011-1044-0
 Segerstrom, S. C., & Miller, G. E. (2004). Psychological stress and the human immune system: a meta-analytic study of 30 years of inquiry. Psychological bulletin, 130(4), 601–630. https://doi.org/10.1037/0033-2909.130.4.601
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