We are continuously exposed to infectious pathogens. So why is it that some children come down with every ‘bug’ and others don’t? The most important barrier between your child and nasty winter bugs is their very own immune system.
Babies are born with naturally leaky guts, meaning that there are little gaps in the gut lining. This is important because it allows the antibodies from breast milk to flow freely into the bloodstream, providing baby with natural immunities to bacteria and viruses. So leaky gut is good for babies, but only in the beginning. The gaps ideally seal before introducing solids, but for many it takes longer, or never completely seals which leads to not only food allergies but also immunity problems.
So why is gut health so important? It is the first line of internal defence (your skin is your first line of external defence) when a bug (virus/bacteria/parasite) enters the body. This can be through rubbing eyes, putting hands in mouth or up the nose. These bugs are ingested and if the natural gut bacteria are not able to destroy them at the lining of the gastrointestinal tract then they pass through and get into their bodies. A balanced diet, where you keep sugar at a low and increase the foods that promote good gut bacteria, is vital. Sugar reduces your immune system and creates an inflammatory response within the body. It is hidden in lots of childrens’ products so be aware and choose these wisely.
Here are some tips to support your child’s immune system and keep them well this winter.
1) Focus on the GUT
The digestive system is friends with the immune system. Over 70% of our immune system lives in and around the gastrointestinal tract; therefore having high levels of good bacteria in the digestive system is imperative for building a strong immune system in growing children. The beneficial balance of ‘good bugs’ in the gut is easily upset by many factors, including antibiotics, high sugar diets and stress. This can lead to an increased risk of colds for your children. Do your kids get tummy aches often? Are they constipated? Do they eat a balanced diet?
Two great ways to support the health of your child’s digestive system include: a) Bone broth. This not only heals and repairs the digestive system, but also provides protein, minerals and carbohydrates to tiny bodies, which helps the immune system function optimally. Drink on its own or use it as a base for soups, adding plenty of garlic, ginger, turmeric and cumin, cinnamon, sage, oregano and thyme. These herbs and spices have excellent anti-bacterial, anti-viral, anti-inflammatory and immune boosting properties and are most potent when used fresh.
b) Probiotics. These support the growth of gut flora and can be found in foods such fermented vegetables (sauerkraut, kimchi), miso, kombucha, kefir (water or dairy) and yoghurt. Good quality probiotic supplements are important, especially after antibiotics, which can adversely impact gut health and, in turn, immunity. Most people benefit from probiotic supplementation, kids included. Different strains of probiotics are required to achieve various results.
2) Protein with every meal. Your child’s body uses protein to build new cells (for growth), including immune cells. Protein can not be stored in the body so in order for your child’s immune system to function at its best, protein needs to be eaten regularly. Sources of protein include meats, eggs, beans, lentils, nuts, seeds and whole grains.
3) Decrease sugar Sugar has a huge impact on immune function as it weakens immune responses and increases infection time. Sugar inhibits phagocytosis, the process by which viruses and bacteria are engulfed and then literally chewed up by white blood cells. Sugar also negatively affects the good bacteria in our gut.
4) Eat seasonally, preferably local foods Food that is in season and locally grown is at its freshest and most nutritious. Zinc and iron are minerals that are needed for healthy immune function and red blood cells. Foods high in these include meat, seafood, beans, sunflower and pumpkin seeds, brown rice, lentils, figs, dark green leafy vegies and beetroots.
5) Warm foods are best In the cooler months, it is best to swap cold foods like icy poles and smoothies, for warm, immune restorative food and drink. Swap salads and raw vegetables for soups, stews and swap icy poles and iced drinks for herbal teas (yes, even kids can enjoy a variety of yummy herbal teas such as rose hips, spearmint, elderberry and lemon balm which can benefit their immune system).
6) Exercise outside Regular, moderate exercise and Vitamin D (via sunlight) are imperative for a healthy immune system. It is tempting on cooler days to stay indoors, but where possible, get your kids outside to move and play.
7) Personal Hygiene Talk to your kids about personal hygiene. Washing their hands before handling food is one of the very best ways to prevent infection. Teaching them to wash after going to the toilet (with soap!) before they eat and straight after school. Good hand hygiene is the best way to prevent germs getting into their little bodies.
8) Rest Adequate rest is so important for preventing and curing illness. At the first signs of your kids being run down, make sure they get more sleep. This can sometimes be tricky, but certainly pays off in the end.