Dr. Matt Hand, DO & Pediatric Nephrologist
One of the easiest ways to boost the immune system is through consuming healthy chemical- and preservative-free food. Keeping kids away from sugary cereals and microwave meals are important in supporting the circulating, nutrient-dependent immune cells.
As you learned in part one of this two-part article series, stress, anxiety, and sleep are crucial components that parents need to monitor to ensure that their children’s immune response stays strong. Increasing the amounts of specific nutrients—and even exposure to a mild fever—are additional ways you can help maintain optimal health of your child’s immune system.
When approaching the immune response from a nutritional perspective, as a physician, I like to ask the following question: What are the phytonutrients that help our immune system work better?
Phytonutrients are natural bioactive plant chemicals known to have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory response properties. Antioxidants work by protecting healthy cells in the body from oxidative stress damage caused by unstable molecules called free-radicals.1 Adding foods high in antioxidant content to your child’s diet can be as easy as making a few simple adjustments, such as substituting romaine lettuce for kale, milk chocolate for dark chocolate, and blueberries for popcorn.
Avoiding foods that are known to cause a heightened inflammatory response—such as fried foods or refined carbohydrates—and choosing anti-inflammatory options is another way parents can work to keep their child’s immune system supported. Look to add ingredients like tomatoes, leafy green vegetables, olive oil, nuts, and avocados, which are high in protective, anti-inflammatory compounds. 2
Gut Health: Prebiotic and Probiotic Foods
Since stress is known to weaken the immune system, it is important for parents to know how to mitigate the role of stress The GI tract plays a direct role in the homeostasis of the immune system. Approximately 70% of the immune cells reside in the mucosa-associated lymphoid tissue (MALT) of the gut. Working symbiotically with the immune system, various beneficial microbes that reside in the gut help protect it from harmful pathogens, promote tolerance for harmless microbial organisms, and help the immune system remain self-tolerant.3
Consuming prebiotic foods help keep the “good” probiotic bacteria alive by providing them with nutrients to thrive. Prebiotic foods include onion, garlic, chicory root, asparagus, and barley. Fermented foods such as yogurts, sauerkrauts, kimchi, or in some cases even pickles and olives fall into the probiotic category, as they provide the “good” bacteria for the gut.4 Using both prebiotic and probiotic nutrients is a natural way parents can help improve the function of their child’s immune system.
Adaptogens are natural substances that help the immune response adapt to everyday stress.* They work through a number of different pathways in the body and primarily impact the hypothalamus, pituitary gland, and adrenal glands responsible for releasing hormones like cortisol.*
Often used in herbal medicine, adaptogens include mushrooms (like ashwagandha, cordyceps, and reishi), herbs (like tulsi holy basil and turmeric), and roots (like Siberian ginseng or liquorice root).5 It’s often easier to find supplements or powdered versions of adaptogenic foods that can be given to your child with a glass of juice or blended into their morning smoothie to keep them feeling balanced and healthy.*
Related Article: Best Supplements for Season Immune Health
Pro-inflammatory foods contribute to the activation of the immune system and the inflammatory response pathways. The most common pro-inflammatory ingredients are high fructose corn syrup, trans-fats, refined carbohydrates, and processed meats. Milk protein (casein) is also a pro-inflammatory food. It’s the casein protein in milk that often stimulates an allergic immune response. Parents can look for signs of intolerance to pro-inflammatory foods as symptoms that can include bloating, gassiness, or stomach pains.
While gluten allergies and sensitivities have become more prevalent in America, researchers are still gathering data to discern if the high spike in gluten-sensitive individuals is due to a reaction to the gluten protein. Many researchers are looking into other explanations, such as the high usage of herbicide glyphosate (Roundup) or Bt-toxin, that can cause a wide-spread imbalance in gut flora and damage to the intestinal lining.6 Avoiding GMO and pro-inflammatory foods is a preventative measure parents should take to avoid any potential consequences for their child’s overall well-being.
Two common nutrient deficiencies can lead to a poorly functioning immune system: zinc and vitamin D. Zinc is an essential mineral that helps the immune system fend off harmful pathogens and keeps the immune cells functioning properly.* Zinc also acts as a free-radical fighter by keeping cells from being damaged by free radicals.* Deficiencies in zinc can lead to delayed developmental growth as well as a weakened immune system. Although severe zinc deficiency is rare in North America, according to Oregon State University, up to 12% of the United States’ population is at risk for mild to moderate zinc deficiencies.7
Parents should also consider screening their children for low vitamin D levels, as it is more common than one might think among children in America and is correlated with a weakened immune system. The American Academy of Pediatrics studied 10,000 individuals ages 1-21 and found that a shocking 9% of the population had a vitamin D deficiency, and 61% had vitamin D insufficiency in the blood.8 Talking to your physician about the best way to add vitamin D to your child’s diet will help keep their bones—and the rest of their body—healthy.*
One of the things I like to express to parents is that our immune system is geared toward fighting off infections. Allowing our immune system to respond to a harmful pathogen is critical for us to be able to develop the ability to fight off infections in the future. Thus, a low-grade fever may not necessarily be a bad thing.
Parents can allow their children’s natural defense system to kick in before intervening with more aggressive treatment options, such as antibiotics. A worry-free, mindful approach will lower the risk of your child becoming antibiotic resistant and make their body’s immune system naturally stronger.
A Holistic Approach is Key
To keep an immune system strong, the foundations of a healthy lifestyle need to be set into motion. Since the immune system is linked to every other part of our body, parents can take a proactive approach by ensuring that their child’s life is balanced. To reduce stress and anxiety, ensure quality sleep, and make sure your child is getting the right nutrition, you can:
- Be aware of academic and social pressures
- Encourage outdoor exercise and reduce electronic device exposure
- Add antioxidant and anti-inflammatory foods to their diet
- Reduce pro-inflammatory food intake
- Supplement nutrient deficiencies
- Allow low-grade fevers to pass naturally
Finally, keeping the conversation going with your pediatrician will help keep your child healthy and strong all year long.
*These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.
1 “Phytonutrients as Therapeutic Agents - NCBI.” 2014. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25051278. Accessed October 16, 2019.
2 “Foods That Fight Inflammation - Harvard Health Publishing.” 2018. https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/foods-that-fight-inflammation. Accessed October 16, 2019.
3 “Allergy and the gastrointestinal system - NCBI.” 2008. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2515351/. Accessed October 16, 2019.
4 “Prebiotics and Probiotics: Creating a Healthier You - Eat Right.” 2018. https://www.eatright.org/food/vitamins-and-supplements/nutrient-rich-foods/prebiotics-and-probiotics-creating-a-healthier-you. Accessed October 16, 2019.
5 “What Are Adaptogens, and Should You… - Everyday Health.” 2019. https://www.everydayhealth.com/diet-nutrition/all-about-adaptogens-definition-functions-sources-risks-more/. Accessed October 16, 2019.
6 “Roundup Ready, Bt-Toxin and GMOs… - Global Research.” 2015. https://www.globalresearch.ca/roundup-ready-bt-toxin-and-gmos-a-dangerous-trinity-that-encourages-gluten-intolerance-and-celiac-disease/5455060. Accessed October 16, 2019.
7"Zinc deficiencies a global concern | Oregon State University." https://today.oregonstate.edu/archives/2009/sep/zinc-deficiencies-global-concern. Accessed 28 Oct. 2019.
8“Vitamin D Deficiency in Children - American Bone Health.” 2016. https://americanbonehealth.org/nutrition/vitamin-d-deficiency-in-children/. Accessed October 16, 2019.