Children’s immunity is always something that comes up in the winter. Childhood can be difficult on the immune system. As children socialise with other children and often start childcare or school, it may seem like they are constantly sick. It is considered ‘normal’ for a child for suffer from 6-8 colds every year. However, each infection should last no longer than 3-5 days. If your child is suffering from infections that last longer than this, or seems to never fully recover between infections then it’s a good sign that their immune system could do with some support.
Immune development starts in the womb
The immune system begins to be developed when the embryo is just 5 weeks old and is completely developed at birth. However it can take up to 2 years before your child will have a properly functioning immune system. This is because we literally need to get ‘sick’ in order to grow and develop the immune response.
At birth, while the immune system itself is fully developed, you could say that we are born with an imbalance in our immune response. There are two branches in the immune system- known as T-helper 1 vs. T-helper 2. Our T-helper 1 is responsible for fighting off infections. Our T-helper 2 response is important for fighting allergens.
At birth we are born T-helper 2 dominant and with very little T-helper 1 activity. This means we are highly alert to look for allergens, but not very good at fighting infection. It is only once exposure to bugs takes place that our immune system is able to balance out. However due to our overly germ conscious society, sanitizing soaps, antibiotics and vaccinations it is now harder for our immune system to develop a balanced response. Kids need to play in the dirt, share their germs and literally get sick in order to have a healthy immune system. These issues can also account for the rise in allergies seen in kids over the last 50 years. In fact, studies have shown that a 1 year old that suffers from more than 2 colds a year is much less likely to suffer from asthma and eczema by age 7.
The gut connection in children’s immunity
A healthy digestive tract is paramount for a healthy immune response. This is because our digestive tract holds 70% of our immune system. These immune cells sit in the gut wall lining and are responsible for how the immune system responds. It uses the gut as kind of like a window to the outside world. Cells living in the gut wall systematically sample contents of the digestive tract and latch on to microbes. They bind to bacteria they haven’t encountered previously and an immune response will be set up to prevent infection. This process is constant during the first few years of life to ensure we are able to protect ourselves from infections. A healthy level of beneficial flora is a big help in regulating the immune system in kids.
Dietary guidelines to consider for children’s immunity
Eat every colour of the rainbow: Provide as many different coloured fruits and vegetables as you can into each meal. Different coloured veggies and fruit have different phytochemical and nutrient profiles and ensures your child is getting a wide spread of nutrients. Aim for 3 serves of fruit and 5 types of veggies as a minimum every day.
Adequate protein intake: Protein is essential for the immune system to function effectively. While a large proportion of protein will come from milk intake, it is important to get protein from a variety of sources. This may include fish, chicken, eggs, meat, nuts, seeds and whole grains such as brown rice or oats.
Adequate iron intake: Low iron levels are very common in toddlers. This is usually due to it being difficult to eat/chew red meat products and low levels of green leafy veggies. Offer red meat 1-2 times every week. Iron is also found in high amounts in green leafy veggies, parsley, almonds, lentils, broccoli, dried peaches, dried apricots, prunes.
Offer water as a drink: Water should be encouraged instead of fruit juices, cordials and soft drinks etc. These are high in sugar that will depress the immune system and feed bacteria.
Avoid sugary foods: Sugar depresses the immune system and feeds bacteria and should be avoided in toddlers. Avoid sugary drinks such as cordial and juice. Avoid highly processed and pre-packaged snack foods that are usually high in sugar. Ensure you check ingredients labels for extra sugar and avoid.
Hayley’s favourite immune boosting supplements for children
Sometimes it is just not achievable to get all the nutrient needed each day into a toddler. Especially when they are run down or have a cold, it is incredibly important that their body receive extra nutrients from the diet for immune function. This is the time when herbal or nutritional supplementation is important. Please talk to Hayley if you need some advice regarding supplementation for your child.
Supplementing with probiotics is easy as they are tasteless and easy to sneak into a child’s diet. They can be added into milk, smoothies, yoghurt, cereal, water, pureed food or a little freshly squeezed juice. Child specific probiotics are available that have the specific blends of beneficial bacteria that not only improve immune health but improve digestion and reduce the risk of allergies or intolerances developing. They are also essential if your child has needed antibiotics.
Cod liver oil
Cod liver oil might bring back some bad fish memories from your childhood, but these days they are flavoured to mask the taste and I find good compliance with my child patients. Cod liver oil contains high levels of vitamin A (to improve respiratory tract health) and vitamin D (to stimulate immunity).
Echinacea is a well tolerated immune stimulating herb. It is also available via prescription as a glycetract extract- meaning that it is a liquid herb without the alcohol content and instead comes in a sugary base. I also get great compliance with this due to the taste and it is an easy tool to have on hand to improve immunity or recovery following infection.
*Dosages will vary depending on your child’s age and weight- please contact hayley on firstname.lastname@example.org for more specific information.