Disclaimer: The following is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. You should refer to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the World Health Organization (WHO), or other credentialed public health authorities for up-to-date information for proper measures to reduce your risk of exposure to COVID-19.
The immune system consists of proteins, cells, tissues, and organs that work together to fight off microorganisms and illness-causing pathogens that may enter our bodies.
While we are infants living in our mother’s womb we are protected by her immunity. This immunity is partially passed along from mother to infant in a process called passive immunity by being transferred across the placenta as well as through exposure to the mother’s microflora during delivery and through breastmilk.
This immunity helps to protect an infant during the first months of life. However, as soon as a baby is born, its immune system starts to change dramatically in response to exposure from bacteria, viruses and the infant’s environment. While the immune system begins to mature during infancy, it does not become fully developed until early childhood, or around 7 to 8 years of age.
As children become more exposed through increased environment and social interactions, the chance of getting colds and viruses increase. For a majority of children, this exposure helps to build the immune system. Yet, children and young adults may still be prone to contract a viral infection and take longer to recover fully since they lack the same level of an efficient immune response compared to adults. Just like adults, factors such as stress, inadequate sleep, and proper nutrition, can make an impact on a child’s immune system.
While there isn’t a single solution to boosting immunity, there are many healthy choices we can help kids make to strengthen their immune systems. Here are some suggestions to help strengthen your child’s immune systems year round.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Immune function is significantly impacted by our omega-3 fatty acid status. Omega-3 fatty acids are a type of fat that the body cannot produce on its own, so it is important to get them in our diet to stay healthy. Food sources include seafood such as salmon, walnuts, chia seeds, or flaxseeds.
A large part of our immune system falls in our gut. So support a healthy microbiome with foods that contain probiotics such as yogurt and kefir. Fermented foods such as sauerkraut and kimchi are also great sources of probiotics. Additionally, eating foods that contain prebiotics (foods and fiber compounds that support the growth of healthy bacteria) such as garlic, onions, barley, apples, and oats.
Talk with your health care provider before starting any probiotic supplements, as there may be considerations for those who are immunocompromised or have certain health conditions.
There are Vitamin D receptors and activating enzymes on the surfaces of all white blood cells - the cells that help fight infection. Studies have shown that children with adequate Vitamin D levels are less likely to get the flu. Sources of Vitamin D include fatty fish such as salmon or herring or fortified milk products.
Vitamin C is an antioxidant that is very involved with many avenues to fight infection, including stimulating immune-fighting cell production, keeping our inflammation in line, and supporting the integrity of the mucus membranes and lung function. The best sources of vitamin C include fruits and vegetables such as oranges, bell peppers, strawberries, and broccoli.
Vitamin A is needed for normal cell functions, including the cells in our immune system. Good sources of Vitamin A includes dark leafy vegetables, fortified milk products, and yellow-orange fruits and vegetables.
Vitamin E is an important antioxidant that helps protect the body against infections by preventing cells from getting damaged or repairing damaged cells. It is commonly found in plant oils, nuts and seeds, seafoods, and leafy vegetables.
Vitamin K activates proteins that remove undesirable cells and generate new, healthy cells which helps keep our immune system balanced. The best sources of Vitamin K are green leafy vegetables.
The B vitamins have many functions, including helping our body utilize energy and to support the production of cells in our immune system.
Proper hand washing is an easy way to help prevent illness and decrease likelihood of spreading illness to others. Using running water, soap, and lathering all parts of the hands, nails, and fingers is important to get rid of germs. Aim for 20 seconds of lathering, or singing “happy birthday” two times through!
Sleep is necessary for keeping a healthy immune system. Certain proteins that can help fight infections called cytokines are released during sleep, so less sleep can mean less cytokines. Additionally, we produce less infection-fighting antibodies when we are sleep deprived. Children may need 10 hours or more each night to stay healthy.
Children are prone to stress just like adults. School can be stressful as well as disruptions to their normal schedule or learning to navigate social situations with their peers. Regardless of age, when we are stressed, our immune system produces fewer germ-fighting white blood cells than normal, which puts us at higher risk for being sick.
You can help your child learn to better deal with stress by allowing them a dedicated time each day to unwind, engage in exercise, or to practice mindfulness as well as simple breathing exercises just to allow them to focus and calm down.
Exercise can decrease our levels of stress hormones and give a boost of the “feel good” hormones. There are also theories that exercise can help circulate our white blood cells which fight infections, as well as flush bacteria from the lungs and airways. Since many schools are closed or have extended breaks, exercise may be less structured without gym class or recess. Finding ways to safely get some exercise is important. Whether it’s doing at-home workouts such as dancing to your favorite family tunes or taking the dog for a walk, try to find a way to get the family moving!
Regular Sanitization of Surfaces and Toy/Play Areas
Keep toys and play areas clean, as children tend to be explorers and touch many surfaces. Gather kid toys that are washable and do not have porous or plush surfaces.
Mix ½ cup of bleach with 1 gallon of water. Soak the toys for five minutes to sanitize. Rinse and let air dry. You can also use disinfectant wipes or spray. For plush toys, consider putting them in a gentle-cycle washing machine (you can protect them by first putting them in a pillowcase) and then in a heated dryer.
Yours in health,
Sherry Zhang, Ph.D.
Founder & CEO
Now that you've learned a bit about how nutrition can impact your immune system, you can do a couple of different things:
1. Read the next installment of our Immunity Series: Nutrition, Immunity, & Young Children to continue learning.
2. Discover the best foods for your genes and start Eating For Your Genes through our Nutrition DNA Test