Our body’s natural defenses are collectively termed as the immune system, which comprises special disease-fighting cells, proteins, tissues, and organs. For the body to remain hale and hearty, a formidable immune system is a must. It builds up the body’s tolerance to ward off the everyday germs and microorganisms, which are usually the cause of various maladies.
A well-functioning immune system is more than sufficient to combat any incoming threat of infection or illness. However, if your body’s inherent defenses become compromised for some reason, you become an easy prey for a whole spectrum of pathogenic agents.
The impending threat of disease looms larger on young children as their immune system is not seasoned enough to take on the major health menaces. Nevertheless, there’s only so much you can do to keep your child away from the omnipresent dirt, germs, and microorganisms.
It may sound oxymoronic but exposure to such disease-carrying bacteria, viruses, fungi, and parasites only makes your child’s immunity stronger in the long run.
When your body encounters a specific pathogen, your immune system springs into action by producing antibodies to fight it off. So, the more exposed the child is to these microorganisms, the greater will be their antibody reserve and disease-fighting potential.
Everyone encounters potential pathogens through direct contact, ingestion, and inhalation on a daily basis. This holds especially true for kids, given that they venture out to play without any real concern for their hygiene.
However, this does not mean they will get sick every time they are faced with a pathogen. Instead of curbing your child’s activities, it’s best you adopt measures to strengthen his/her immune system.
Types of Immunity
Innate Immunity: Children are born without any antibodies of their own, and they rely majorly on the ones derived from their mother’s milk for the first few weeks of their life. During this nascent stage, a child’s innate immune responses lead the way in fighting off any foreign invader.
Innate immunity is the naturally present defense mechanism of the body that springs into action during the first critical hours and days of exposure to a new pathogen. It is a nonspecific form of immune response that is rapidly activated by the chemical properties of the invading antigen and operates through chemicals in the blood, physical barriers such as the skin, and immune system cells to combat and eliminate the foreign cells in the body.
Given that this type of inborn immunity is not acquired through prior sensitization to a particular antigen, it provides immediate defense against a wide variety of pathogens in a nonspecific manner. Thus, the body’s innate immune system is its first line of defense in the truest sense.
Adaptive Immunity: Unlike innate immunity, the adaptive immune system is not independent of the antigen and is built over time as a response to specific foreign substances. When a particular antigen first enters your system, it is slowly processed and recognized by the body, following which the adaptive immunity creates an army of immune cells specifically designed to attack that antigen.
Another distinguishing characteristic of adaptive immunity is “memory,” which essentially means that every previously encountered pathogen is remembered by a signature antibody, making it easier for the body to mount future responses to that particular invader more efficiently.
At the time of first exposure to a new pathogen, the adaptive immune responses can take a week or two to become effective. With repeated exposure, however, the immune cells tend to become more trained so that a response to a subsequent infection by the same pathogen is more rapid and greater in magnitude.
The adaptive immune system is functional at birth, but it is largely devoid of any immunologic experience to develop optimal memory responses. That said, the most substantial and rapid memory development occurs between birth and three years of age.
Passive Immunity: Passive immunity refers to the transfer of antibodies to a nonimmune individual from an immune subject to offer temporary protection. The administration of these pathogen-fighting agents can either be done naturally or artificially.
For instance, the mothers’ antibodies and white cells are transferred to the fetus through the placenta in the last trimester of pregnancy. Once the baby is born, he/she continues to receive passive immunity from the mother in the form of colostrum or the breast milk produced in the first few days after childbirth. The breast milk produced thereafter also comprises such protective elements, but not in the same concentration as colostrum.
Passive immunity can also be induced artificially when antibodies are administered as a medication to an unimmunized individual. This form of immunity provides immediate but short-lived protection against specific antigens.
How Do Vaccines Work?
Whenever there is a pathogenic breach into your system, your immune system gets activated to counter the invading organism. The disease-carrying agent proliferates quickly once it enters your body, and so a prompt response by your natural defense system is warranted to arrest its growth.
Once the threat has been identified, the immune system responds by producing certain proteins called antibodies that help destroy the germs that are making you sick.
Sometimes you have to rely on vaccination to proactively ward off the threat of certain diseases. A vaccine is a biological preparation that contains a weakened version of a disease-inducing microorganism – a bacterium, virus, or toxin.
This pathogen-resembling agent is administered to unprotected individuals, either as drops or injections, to improve their immunity to a particular disease.
On entering the body, this imposter activates the body’s immune system, such that the white blood cells – APCs, B cells, and T cells – become acquainted with this version of the pathogen. The next time you are faced with the threat of this particular disease, the immune system can quickly recognize, destroy, and “remember” the harmful microorganism.
If your child often suffers from constant colds, recurrent flu infections, ear infections, stomach disorders, and other health problems, it means that your child’s immune defenses are not operating as well as they should.
With simple lifestyle and dietary changes, you can boost your child’s defenses against these common health problems, speed up healing, and help your child enjoy a greater level of wellness.
Help Your Child Stay Disease-Free
Here are some simple yet effective ways to give your child’s immunity a much-needed push.
1. Breastfeed Your Baby
Breast milk is a great way to boost your child’s immunity. It contains all the proteins, sugar, and fats that your child needs to be healthy. Moreover, it contains antibodies and white blood cells, both of which boost the immune system and help fight diseases.
A published study by Australian researchers highlighted the positive influence of breastfeeding on the development of a baby’s immune system.
Certain components in human milk are known to promote gastrointestinal mucosal maturation and alter gut microflora that plays a role in immune system development.
The World Health Organization (WHO) and UNICEF recommend 6 months of exclusive breastfeeding, followed by partial breastfeeding for another year. Compared with breastfed babies, formula-fed babies are more prone to suffering from middle ear infections, pneumonia, stomach flu, and other issues.
2. Feed Your Child More Fruits and Vegetables
A healthy diet is the foundation of a good immune system, so pay more attention to what your child eats. Immune-boosting fruits and vegetables such as apples, carrots, sweet potatoes, beans, broccoli, kiwi, melons, oranges, and strawberries are important to include in any child’s diet.
Give your child raw, organic fruits and vegetables. You can also try juices and smoothies made with fruits and vegetables. Try to get your child to eat five servings of fruits and veggies a day, wherein one serving amounts to about 1 cup. Toddlers need about 1 cup each of fruits and vegetables per day.
The servings can be spread out throughout the day across different meals and snacks. The portion size can be about 1 tablespoon of fruits or vegetables per year of your child’s age. For example, if you are feeding a 2-year-old, you can give the child about 2 tablespoons per meal.
Nuts, seeds, legumes, whole grains, and other foods rich in vitamins A, B2, B6, and C, zinc, selenium, and essential fatty acids also help strengthen the immune system. Instead of refined grains, give your child whole-grain products.
Avoid feeding your child foods that are highly processed and loaded with sugar, such as cookies, boxed cereals, and sodas.
3. Use Probiotics
Probiotics are the strains of “good” bacteria in the intestinal tract that keep the “bad” bacteria from taking over.
The “good” bacteria have a positive influence on the immune system and can even modulate immune responses through the gut’s mucosal immune system. Exactly how the gut bacteria interact with the immune system components, however, is still not known.
Regularly give probiotic-rich foods such as yogurt, buttermilk, kefir, and sauerkraut to your child. You can also find some baby cereals and formulas with probiotics.
If opting for probiotic supplements, it is suggested to give bifidus to children aged 7 years or younger and acidophilus to children over the age of 7.
1. Make Sure Your Child Enjoys Sound Sleep
Proper rest and sleep are essential for growing children. Sleep deprivation has many disadvantages, including increased vulnerability to illnesses. A 2012 study published in Pflügers Archiv European Journal of Physiology found that sleep exerts a strong regulatory influence on immunity.
A newborn requires up to 18 hours of sleep a day. Older children need between 10 and 14 hours of sleep a day, depending upon their age. Along with the duration, the quality of sleep is also important.
Turn your child’s bedroom into a sleep haven by keeping it dark and well ventilated at night. Sleeping in darkness promotes the production of the hormone melatonin, which also acts as a powerful antioxidant. Also, avoid all electronic devices and games in your child’s bedroom.
2. Soak Up Fresh Air and Sunshine Daily
Nature is an excellent immune stimulator. So, expose your child to nature to nourish his body and mind while boosting his immune system.
The majority of children in the United States are deficient in vitamin D, which is an immune-boosting vitamin. People with vitamin D deficiency are at the highest risk of getting sick more frequently. Vitamin D deficiency correlates with asthma, cancer, various autoimmune diseases, and susceptibility to infection.
The sun’s rays are a rich source of vitamin D3, which helps to fight against autoimmune diseases.
You can ensure that your child gets the required amount of vitamin D naturally by exposing his/her arms and face to the sun for 20 minutes daily. Overexposure is harmful, too, due to the UV rays; hence, do not overdo it. Be sure to expose your child to the early-morning sun to avoid the harsher sunrays later in the day.
In addition, early-morning fresh air is good for your child’s body and mind. Take your child for walks in the woods, country, or parks. Let your child run, jump, dance, and climb. Allow them to run barefoot on the grass. These activities also promote increased strength and agility.
3. Teach Good Hygiene Habits
Inculcate good hygiene habits in your child from the very beginning. Young children tend to have impressionable minds, and the ideas they adopt at this tender age continue to stick with them throughout their adult lives.
Good hygiene is one of the major tenets of healthy living that your child should be acquainted with from the very start. It does not boost the immune system, but it does help prevent diseases by minimizing the strain on the immune system from fighting off everyday germs.
The first thing that you should teach your child is proper hand washing technique. This simple habit will lower his/her chances of contracting various infections such as the common cold and flu. Ask your child to wash his/her hands with regular soap and warm water for at least 20 seconds. Make sure that your child doesn’t do it just for show or rushes through the process.
A child should wash his/her hands after playing outside, after getting home from school, after using the bathroom, after playing with pets, and before eating meals.
Other good hygiene habits are brushing the teeth twice a day, wearing clean clothes, and taking daily baths. Also, teach your child to use a handkerchief when sneezing or coughing. You will need to help your child check their fingernails for trapped dirt and clean them when needed.
Also, keep your home and surrounding area clean and free of germs. Being careful about your child’s hygiene, however, does not mean going on an antibacterial hypervigilance as it can actually hurt your child’s immunity.
4. Avoid Unnecessary Antibiotics and Vaccines
While antibiotics are essential and helpful in today’s world, relying too much on them can be harmful to the body. Excessive use of antibiotics tends to destroy the immune system as it indiscriminately kills both good and bad bacteria.
Moreover, it may cause the bacteria to become increasingly antibiotic resistant and not respond to standard treatment.
Do not ask your pediatrician to write a prescription for an antibiotic every time your child has a cold, flu, or sore throat. Similarly, too many vaccinations can put too much pressure on your child’s immune system and cause chronic immune dysfunction.
5. Introduce Exercise Early in Life
Exercise is a great way to keep your child free from diseases. Regular exercise of about 30 minutes daily boosts the immune system and provides many other health benefits to your child.
To help your child develop an interest in exercising, you need to be a role model. Encourage exercising by doing it with your children, instead of just urging them to go outside and play. The child will pick up this healthy habit in no time.
Walking, running, jogging, or cycling for about 30 minutes daily are some of the best physical exercises for the whole family. You can also enroll your child in swimming classes, tennis classes, or sports of his choice.
You can even go out with your child once a week for a small game of baseball or enjoy hiking and bike riding. This also gives you more quality time with your child.
6. Try Home Remedies
Certain immune-boosting herbs and remedies can be of great help in improving your child’s immunity. They also have antimicrobial properties that help fight off infections such as the common cold and flu.
- Give turmeric milk to your child on a regular basis, especially during the flu season. To prepare this milk, add ¼ or ½ teaspoon of turmeric powder and a little black pepper to 1 cup of milk and boil it. Sweeten it with a little raw honey.
- Thoroughly wash a couple of basil leaves and ask your child to chew them daily or several times a week.
- An age-old Ayurvedic remedy called chyawanprash prepared from Indian gooseberries and a variety of herbs and spices is also beneficial for your child’s overall health and immunity. It can be given to children aged 4 or older in doses of ¼ to 1 teaspoon twice daily.
- You can also consider giving herbs like echinacea and astragalus to your child.
- Include leafy vegetables (spinach, kale, broccoli) in your child’s diet as they contain a lot of minerals and vitamins to boost his/her immunity.
- Oats contain beta-glucans, a component of fiber that activates killer cells. These are the cells that fight bacteria, viruses, and other intruders in our bodies.
- Add garlic to your food daily as it helps boost the immunity.
- Limit time in front of the TV and other screens.
- Cacho NT, Lawrence RM. Innate Immunity and Breast Milk. Frontiers in immunology. Published May 29, 2017. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5447027
- Hosseini, Berthon, S B, et al. Effects of fruit and vegetable consumption on inflammatory biomarkers and immune cell populations: a systematic literature review and meta-analysis. OUP Academic. Published June 21, 2018. https://academic.oup.com/ajcn/article-abstract/108/1/136/5042153
- Besedovsky L, Lange T, Born J. Sleep and immune function. Pflugers Archiv : European journal of physiology. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3256323/. Published January 2012.
- Rodrigo, Silva, Gonçalves SA, et al. Effect of exercise on immune system: response, adaptation and cell signaling. Revista Brasileira de Medicina do Esporte. http://www.scielo.br/scielo.php?script=sci_arttext&pid=S1517-86922012000300015
- Hart PH, Gorman S. Exposure to UV Wavelengths in Sunlight Suppresses Immunity. To What Extent is UV-induced Vitamin D3 the Mediator Responsible? The Clinical biochemist. Reviews. Published February 2013. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3626364
- Yan F, Polk DB. Probiotics and immune health. Current opinion in gastroenterology. Published October 2011. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4006993
- Breastfeeding. World Health Organization. Published August 6, 2018. https://www.who.int/topics/breastfeeding/en