We are all continuously exposed to infectious pathogens. So why is it that some kids come down with every bug about and others don’t? The single most important barrier between your child and nasty winter bugs is their very own immune system. So here are my top 10 tips to support the functioning of your child’s immune army to keep your kids well this winter.
1) Focus on feeding them a variety of seasonal, local, whole foods
Food that is in season and locally grown is definitely the most nourishing. Here in Australia, we are blessed with an abundance of fresh produce, so there really is no need to buy imported food. Shopping at your local farmers market is the simplest way of ensuring that you are eating food at its absolute freshest and most nutritious. All of the fruits and vegetables that are in season at this time of the year are immune supportive including apples, citrus (add zest where you can for an extra immune boost) and green leafy veggies (homemade pesto is a great way to get greens into kids). Nature has given us these foods at this time of year for a reason, so tuck into this season’s finest produce to stay well this winter.
2) Include a little protein with each meal and snack
Your child’s body uses protein to build new cells (for growth), including immune cells. Protein can not be stored so in order for your child’s immune system to function at its best, they need to be eating protein regularly. In clinical practice, it is very common to see children who are frequently unwell, lacking protein in their diet. More on protein and how to include it here.
3) Limit sugar
Sugar weakens immune responses and increases infection time. Sugar is the number one enemy when it comes to immune function. Sugar inhibits phagocytosis, the process by which viruses and bacteria are engulfed and then literally chewed up by white blood cells. Sugar also adversely affects the good bacteria in our gut (see more below).
4) Treat their gut ‘well’
The health of your child’s immune system is largely dependent upon the integrity of their gut. Approximately 70-80% of immune function originates from our gut, so supporting its health is critical.
Two of my favourite remedies that support the health of your child’s digestive system include:
a) Bone broth heals and repairs the digestive system, whilst providing tiny bodies with all of the nourishment they need to stimulate strong immune responses. It takes minutes to prepare and truly is “nature’s penicillin” (recipe here). It is also a wonderfully soothing, hydrating and healing remedy for kids when they are sick and don’t feel like eating – plus it is super delicious too. Stock your freezer so you always have it on hand.
b) Probiotic foods and supplements. Foods to support the growth of gut flora include fermented vegetables (sauerkraut, kim chi), miso, kombucha, kefir (water or dairy) and yoghurt. Targeted, good quality probiotic supplements are important, especially after antibiotics. Antibiotics can adversely impact on gut health for up to 12 months post medication. To be honest, most people benefit from probiotic supplementation, kids included. Different strains of probiotics are required to achieve various results. In our fridge, we have a general wellbeing probiotic and one specific for the first signs of gastro. Talk to your Naturopath or qualified health care practitioner for further advice on the best supplement for your child (I use practitioner only products, but Inner Health is the best quality retail product that I’m aware of).
5) Other foods that are particularly beneficial to support immune balance includes:
a) Coconut milk and coconut oil
The principle medium-chain fatty acids in coconut, are lauric and capric acid. Lauric acid is also found in breast milk. Both are anti-inflammatory, anti-microbial and healing to your first line of immune defence; your digestive system.
Add garlic to everything you cook. Studies suggest that consuming garlic daily may prevent and also shorten the duration of colds. Include it where you can.
c) Shitake mushrooms
Shitakes are amazing immune boosters. In herbal medicine, studies have proven their immune enhancing action. They are also very nutritious and you can buy them fresh from most farmers markets. Use them like a normal mushroom.
6) Warm foods are best
In the cooler months, it is best to swap cooling foods like icy smoothies, for warming, immune restorative food and drink. We prefer herbal teas, especially my immune boosting hot lemon or chai tea in winter. But if we do have a smoothie, it is never icy cold (more room temperature) and always includes warming spices.
7) Herbs and spices help
Herbs and spices such as turmeric, cinnamon, chilli, sage, oregano, rosemary, thyme are warming and all contain constituents that are protective against a wide range of microbes. Include these in you meals and drinks where possible.
8) Exercise outside
Regular, moderate exercise and Vitamin D (via sunlight) are critical for a healthy immune system. It is tempting on cooler days to hit the couch, but where possible, get your kids outside to move and play.
According to the Cancer Council of Australia “In winter in the southern parts of Australia, where UV radiation levels are less intense, people may need about two to three hours of sunlight to the face, arms and hands, or equivalent area of skin, spread over a week to maintain adequate vitamin D levels. People in southern states may not need sun protection from May to August when the UV Index is likely to be below 3. The only exception is if they are at high altitudes or near highly reflective surfaces like snow or water.”
9) Wash, wash, wash
Talk to your kids about personal hygiene. Washing their hands before handling food is one of the very best ways to prevent infection. I also have my kids wash their hands the minute they walk in the door from school.
Antiseptic gels and wide spread disinfection don’t cut it in my opinion (often the chemical exposure is counterproductive and damaging to gut health) – good old fashioned hand washing is way more effective.
Adequate rest is so important for preventing and curing illness. In our household, at the first signs of being run down, it’s straight to bed. I know this is sometimes tough for working parents, but I do believe in the long run, this will shorten the overall duration of illness.
I also love to burn antiseptic essential oils for my kids in a vapouriser if they are sniffly or coughing. I find this really helps them get a good night sleep and clear their head.
I hope I have given you some ideas for surviving winter without a visit to the doctor. Winter truly is the time to focus on your families health, let’s face it, who has time to be sick or be nursing sick children? Plus my husband is prone to ‘man flu’ so it’s in my best interests to keep us all well!
PS- for tips on what to feed your kids if they are already unwell and don’t have much of an appetite, click here.