Dr. Matt Hand, DO & Pediatric Nephrologist
As fall turns into winter and temperatures drop, the rise of runny noses, coughs, and fevers remind us of the important role a strong immune system plays in living a healthy life. For parents in particular, it’s essential to know what can be done to strengthen their child’s immune system.
Most parents want their children to stay healthy and avoid illness and infection but are unsure where to begin. In this two-part article series, we will be discussing key factors that help boost a child’s immune system and providing helpful tips to parents on how to keep their child’s immune system functioning for optimal health.
We will begin with the most common factors that can contribute to a poorly functioning immune response—such as stress, anxiety, and poor sleep quality—and branch out to other contributors, including gut health, nutrition, and nutritional deficiencies.
Stress and Anxiety
Over the past 10 years, there has been a 17% increase in anxiety disorder diagnoses among young people in America. In fact, 30% of children and adolescents are affected by anxiety at some point, and 80% of them never get help.1 For the longest time, there was an impression that children don’t experience stress, but the data is beginning to show that this is simply not true. Kids are not only experiencing stress and anxiety, but it’s on the rise.
For most children, it’s safe to say that school is a major stressor. Outside of typical social pressures that kids face among their peers, the current academic requirements that schools have are more rigid than they were for their parents and grandparents. Many of the daily school activities that used to lower stress levels—like mandatory physical education, longer lunches, and recess—have been almost eradicated in most school systems.
Furthermore, educational expectations have gotten higher. A typical sophomore in high school is taking college-level or AP classes, and parents of children in kindergarten are being told that their child may fail because they can’t obtain a certain level of comprehension at age five. This adds unnecessary stress to children at an age where they should be experiencing the world and developing at their own rate instead of being forced to uphold such high standards.
Another commonly noticed stressor among children is the dramatically high exposure to electronic devices. Electronic devices have become not only an integral part of our society but also the way we communicate and obtain information. Constant contact and stimulation with electronic devices adds to the stress levels that kids may be experiencing in other parts of their lives and can have a profound impact on the immune response.
Dealing with Stress and Anxiety: Helpful Tips for Parents
Since stress is known to weaken the immune system, it is important for parents to know how to mitigate the role of stress in their children’s lives. As a physician, I aim to keep parents stress-free by reminding them that the educational milestones set for children nearing preschool and kindergarten aren’t predictive of the child’s success down the road.
Early reading, while associated with early academic success, is also associated with less lifelong educational attainment and worse midlife adjustment.2 Reminding yourself as a parent to reduce academic pressures on your children can help keep their stress levels low and their immune system functioning optimally.
Another way parents can help reduce their children’s anxiety is by reducing their exposure to electronic devices such as phones, tablets, and TV screens. Technology not only changes the neural connectivity and neurochemical balance in your brain, but it is extremely addictive.3
Limiting screen time may be tricky at first, but it’s essential to reduce its negative impact. Substituting online time with time spent in nature can have a massively positive impact, replacing the sedentary position of staring at a screen with exercise, fresh air, and being present in the moment.
Lastly, parents need to stay aware of their own expectations and the impact it has on their child’s behavior. Asking your child questions and staying observant of how they use their time can provide a world of information for where potential stress may be coming from. Incorporating balance into their lives by suggesting mindful family activities such as yoga or Tai Chi can provide the space for a new bonding experience in addition to keeping their immunity up.
Another critical factor in a properly functioning immune system is sleep. Sleep, stress, and immunity are all linked together. If one is out of balance, you can be sure that the other two are teeter-tottering as well.
In this hyper-aroused world, a good night of rest is becoming harder to obtain. Psychophysiological insomnia is caused by various cognitive factors such as constant worrying, rumination, stress, and intrusive thoughts. A study looking at the link between sleep and immunity in 11 pairs of identical twins found that the twin with shorter nights of sleep also had a depressed immune system response.4,5 Thus, incorporating a variety of stress-reduction techniques that focus on improving sleep can also help boost your child’s immune system response.
Related Article: What to Look for in a Kids' Multivitamin
Dealing with Sleep: Helpful Tips for Parents
Parents can try to reduce the use of electronic devices and TV exposure before bed to aid in calming down their child’s brain activity. The better your child sleeps, the lower their stress levels get and the more time their immune system has to repair and regroup.
Adding outdoor physical activities to your child’s daily routine, even if it’s just for 30 minutes, can help them use up their energies and be more naturally tired when bedtime approaches. While there currently isn’t a lot of clinical data on the direct impact of dirt and microbe exposure on immune system health, early exposure to various outdoor particles and antigens has been correlated with a stronger functioning immune system.
Our immune cells were designed to be stimulated by the external environment. This helps them develop a repertoire of memory cells that end up shielding us from getting sick at every turn. Worried parents can breathe easier knowing that exposure to the outdoors will actually help keep their kids healthy, in comparison to a sterile indoor environment in front of a screen.6
A Balanced Lifestyle Keeps an Immune System Strong
Reducing stress and anxiety through thoughtful parenting and mindful changes to your child’s daily routine is extremely helpful in promoting their immune system health. Simple techniques such as reducing exposure to electronic devices and allowing for time without academic pressures are just a few approaches that parents can take. Keeping the immune system functioning smoothly also means establishing a solid foundation in good quality sleep, as stress, sleep, and immune health are all interconnected. In part two of this article series, we will dive into the nutritional factors that directly affect immune health and common deficiencies that may be affecting your child’s immunity.
1 “Understanding Anxiety in Children and Teens - Child Mind Institute.” 2018. https://childmind.org/our-impact/childrens-mental-health-report/2018report/. Accessed October 15, 2019.
2 “Early Educational Milestones as Predictors of Lifelong… - NCBI.” 2009. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2713445/. Accessed October 15, 2019.
3 How Too Much Screen Time Affects Kids'... - Forbes.” 2018. https://www.forbes.com/sites/alicegwalton/2018/04/16/how-too-much-screen-time-affects-kids-bodies-and-brains/#5932ad301549. Accessed October 15, 2019.
4 “Psychophysiological Insomnia - University of Pennsylvania.” 2013. https://www.med.upenn.edu/cbti/assets/user-content/documents/PsychphysinsomniaPGandMLP.pdf. Accessed October 15, 2019.
5 “Chronic Sleep Deprivation Suppresses Immune System - Science Daily.” 2017. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/01/170127113010.htm. Accessed October 15, 2019.
6 “Early Exposure to Germs Has Lasting Benefits - Nature.” 2012. https://www.nature.com/news/early-exposure-to-germs-has-lasting-benefits-1.10294. Accessed October 15, 2019.