The kids are back in school and the lines will soon begin to blur between school season and cold season as kid pass around their illnesses. All told, an estimated 22 million school days are missed every year, just because of the common cold. (1)
Influenza claims another 38 million. (2) When kids are home sick, parents must be home as well – time that not many can afford to lose from work. Then, it cycles through the family…wouldn’t it be better to simply boost your child’s immune system from the get go?
Not only do we need to prevent common illnesses for the sake of time at school and work, but we want to avoid the need to treat these illnesses in our children, as well. The common cold, for example, is viral (which means antibiotics aren’t an option), and its symptoms are simply the immune system working to deactivate the virus.
Treatments are merely symptom-masking, which does nothing to end the illness and can even be damaging for younger children. (3) The flu is similar, another virus and not something that can be “cured,” merely alleviated until it runs its course.
Looking beyond the sniffles, a strong immune system in childhood is important to prevent long term chronic illnesses, including allergies and autoimmune conditions. A WebMD interview describes the importance of healthy immune function in childhood as follows:
Just as a baby’s brain needs stimulation, input, and interaction to develop normally, the young immune system is strengthened by exposure to everyday germs so that it can learn, adapt, and regulate itself, notes Thom McDade, PhD, associate professor and director of the Laboratory for Human Biology Research at Northwestern University…’We’re moving beyond this idea that the immune system is just involved in allergies, autoimmune diseases, and asthma to think about its role in inflammation and other degenerative diseases,’ McDade says. (4)
While we can never guarantee our children will be illness free, but the importance of a well-functioning immune system cannot be understated. Focusing on a few simple changes – controlled exposures, supplemented nutrition, reduced stress, and adequate rest – can make a significant difference to boost your child’s immune system and prevent more minor illnesses now and chronic ailments later.
Exercising the Immune System with Controlled Exposure
The interview above went on to describe McDade’s research, where he and his team noted that early exposures to animal feces and the occurrence of diarrhea in toddlerhood was correlated with less inflammation in adulthood.
Since that time, McDade and his team have added more to the growing body of evidence for beneficial exposures, including one published in 2012 by the American Journal of Human Microbiology.
They evaluated over 1,400 participants and their early environmental exposures, finding similar results. It seems that, by exercising the immune system in exposures to certain triggers, it can function better later in life. (5) This is part of a growing theory that our disturbing prevalence of auto-immune illnesses and chronic inflammation is at least in part the result of a “bored” immune system that has not been exercised, left to turn against itself. While basic hygiene is obviously important, we need to be careful not to go overboard in sanitization and sheltering our kids from normal environmental exposures.
Supplementing a Strong Immune System with Beta Glucan
The gut is a key player in the immune response, affected heavily by the foods that we – and our children – consume. A whole discipline has emerged in this field, called immunonutrition, evaluating the way that nutrient intake and foods affect the immune system and efficient responses. (6) As the science continues to emerge regarding the nuances of food intake, gut health, and immune response, we can feed our children varied nutrients in order to give them the best foundation possible.
Supplementing where dietary intake comes up short can be a valuable tool, as well, with a micronutrient blend improving illness duration in children over a fourteen month study. (7) Beta glucan stands out as one of the more prominent micronutrient supplements for immune system support, as demonstrated in 2013 by University of Kentucky researchers.
Beta glucan is noted in many studies for its ability to modulate the immune system. Children in this study also showed both reduced stress and improved mucosal immunity, key components of illness prevention. The “strong effects of glucan supplementation on the overall health status of all children in this group” indicate beta glucan as a safe and beneficial supplement to boost children’s immune systems. (8)
Reducing Stress to Free the Immune System
We think of stress in terms of bills and work and adult lives, but children are not exempt from its effects. Because a body weighed down by stress is limited in its ability to thrive, it’s important to help children reduce stress and regain both general health and the care-free feeling that childhood should bring!
Excessive homework is a major source of stress for children, beginning as young as Kindergarten and only increasing in workload into high school. Kids are expected to learn all throughout the school day, then come home to continue the work for hours each night.
A 2013 study from Stanford evaluated the effects that this kind of stress has on kids, finding 82% of respondents indicating at least one physical symptom related to it, including “sweating, headache, exhaustion, weight loss, weight gain, stomach problems, and/or sleeping difficulties.” (9) Helping children manage their time and expectations
Sleeping the Sick Away
Kids aren’t sleeping enough anymore, from homework overload to screen time obsession. A stable circadian rhythm is important for an efficient immune response, so when sleep is disturbed, our immune systems are as well. (10)
Encouraging stable bedtime routines and adequate sleep can give your child’s body the time it needs to recover before a long day of exposure to illness. Taking screens – TVs, tablets, devices, phones – out of a child’s room while they sleep is one of the best places to start. (11)