One of the silver linings of the COVID pandemic is that we are collectively beginning to understand the importance of building and sustaining a strong immune system. The media has mostly focused on the outer protective shield, which includes, but not limited to, hand washing with soap and water for 20 seconds, alcohol sanitizers, disinfectants, and wearing masks. In addition to these, we also need to build our best inner shield, otherwise known as the immune system.
The immune system is the microscopic army that stands guard just under the surface of your mouth, nose, lungs, skin, and gut (nearly 80% of your immune system lives in your gut!). There’s also an intricate network of stations throughout the body where more troops await orders to mobilize against an invasion, such as bacteria, a virus, or some unknown pathogen.
What does a healthy immune system look like?
If you have a strong, well-functioning immune system, this means your body is resilient and has the capacity to bounce back and restore balance after an acute illness. Some people have underactive or weakened immune systems, and may potentially become immunocompromised, and some people have overactive immune systems, often resulting in autoimmune disease. The key is balance so that your immune system only attacks what it needs to, and when it needs to.
Many products will claim that you can boost your immunity, whether through capsules or powders, but this concept of boosting your immunity is misleading and isn’t strongly supported by research. You can achieve a balanced, well-functioning immune system by making diet and lifestyle shifts that strengthen its capacity to fight pathogens.
When it comes to children, most have strong immune systems, as they are exposed to other children as well as dirt, pets, etc. But it’s still important to teach them immune-supporting habits while they are young!
Strategies for stronger immune systems in children
1. Focus on nutrition
What we feed our children, and what we choose to eliminate from their diets, can greatly impact immune function. One way to begin fortifying your child’s immunity is to nourish them with real foods. There is no single perfect diet that works for everyone - that’s IIN’s concept of bio-individuality - but most experts agree on the following pillars of a healthy diet:
- Eat whole foods while eliminating processed foods wherever possible
- Include a wide variety of rainbow-colored fruits and vegetables (They contain carotenoids and other important immune-supporting phytonutrients and antioxidants)
- Add in nuts and seeds, such as walnuts, cashews, and flaxseeds
- If your child eats meat and fish, try to find quality meat and prioritize oily fish such as salmon
- Consider using spices, if your child can tolerate, such as turmeric, oregano, and cinnamon
- Sweeteners such as sugar and any processed foods should be avoided as much as possible. If you desire to use a sweetener, opt for raw honey, maple syrup, or even fresh or frozen fruit.
Prioritize the following foods that are strong immune supporters:
- Apples: They contain a compound called quercetin, which helps regulate the immune system. Apples are also a great source of fiber, which is excellent for the gut. My children’s favorite snack is apples dipped in nut butter!
- Onions: They are high in immune-supporting minerals like selenium and zinc, as well as sulfur that helps detoxify the body.
- Lemons: These are high in antioxidants, especially vitamin C. Have your kids drink warm water with lemon first thing in the morning.
- Garlic: Garlic contains a compound called allicin, which has been shown to be active in fighting infections.
- Bone broth: These are packed with amino acids like glycine, which has been shown to fight viral infections.
- Foods with gut friendly-bacteria: Think yogurt, kimchi, sauerkraut, and kombucha (though be wary of added sugar). These naturally-fermented products are rich in probiotic bacteria that are beneficial to our overall intestinal flora, improving the health of the microbiome and digestive systems.
- Water: Staying hydrated is key for not only immunity, but overall well-being.
Even better, involve your children in the cooking process by making it a fun and interactive activity. Educate them on the foods they are eating and why they are important for them. Allow them to get tactile and messy, experiment with flavors, and give them ownership over what they are fueling their own bodies with. If you are able to plant and grow your own fruits and vegetables, this is a great way to model the cycle of life and show them where our real and whole foods come from.
In my home, we pick a new recipe each Sunday and make a ritual out of it. We shop, cook, and clean together. But the most wonderful part is sitting down and enjoying the meal with love and comradery.
2. Get out in nature and soak up some sunshine
Vitamin D, the essential nutrient that supports bone, muscle, and immune health, can be found not only in fortified products, but in sunshine! For a dose of vitamin D, get your kids out into nature and breathing in fresh air, hugging trees, and building sandcastles by the seaside (don’t forget the sunscreen, though).
Spending time in nature is a great way to activate their senses and teach them how to connect with Mother Earth. If for any reason you cannot get out into nature, create a space in your home filled with nature images and you can always play sounds of the ocean, rain, or forest.
When my children were younger, I would fill up the bathtub with a few drops of lavender essential oils, play rainforest sounds, and replace the light with a night light which displayed stars all around the bathroom. We would pretend to be on a fantastical adventure somewhere in the Amazon Jungle and make up stories together!
3. Build in daily movement
The lymphatic system, a complex network of channels and nodes woven throughout the body, plays a critical role in immune function, shuttling white blood cells and antibodies where they’re most needed. The lymphatic channels are largely passive, which means that we need to prompt their function.
This is achieved by getting your muscles moving, pumping lymph fluid around the body and flowing more efficiently. By moving our muscles on a consistent basis, we are able to decrease risk for illness and reduce bodily inflammation.
Some options to get your kids moving daily:
- Go for a long walk or run with your dog
- Turn the lights down, put on your favorite music, and throw a dance party
- Take a bike ride
- Walk as many places as you can instead of driving
- Invest in a trampoline (like a mini one with a handle bar if you have small kids)
Just moving for 20 minutes a day can make a huge difference!
4. Practice mindfulness
From an increase in antibody response to the numbers of circulating immune cells, there is real potential for mindfulness to both prevent illness and manage the symptoms of infections. Integrating a mindfulness practice with your children at a young age teaches them how to stimulate the vagus nerve, a critical component of the autonomic nervous system that greatly impacts immune function, inflammation, and stress.
Mindfulness can be a very personal practice, so exploring different methods of practicing mindfulness will go a long way in encouraging your children to stick with it. As most children struggle with sitting still in silent meditation, you can begin by using guided meditations, visualization exercises such as qigong, breathing exercises, meditative drawing, or mindful eating.
If your child is able to sit in silent meditation, you can create mantras together. Try one minute for each year up until the age of 15. After 15, your child could meditate for up to 20-30 minutes if they choose to do so.
5. Create better sleep habits
Establishing a consistent sleep/wake cycle is a powerful habit. When our children are very young, we are often on top of this, but as they hit the double digits, we begin to slack off and trust they will listen to their own circadian rhythms. Sadly, because of technology addictions, many of our children struggle with “turning off” their devices and tend to ignore their own innate calling to settle down into a restful sleep.
Sleep is when our immune systems produce many of our white blood cells, so without enough rest, kids may be more likely to get sick. Sleep also enhances relaxation chemicals, lowers stress hormones, and clears the nervous system of chemicals that accumulated during the day. These synergistic effects can have a huge impact on our capacity to fight illness.
If your children are still doing homework or spend time on their devices after the sun goes down, consider investing in blue light-blocking glasses, as exposure to blue light suppresses melatonin production. Ideally, all electronics are put away at least a couple of hours before bedtime.
Try using a communal basket where everyone places their devices in at a designated time, including parents and guardians!
6. Foster creativity
Studies show that people who activate their creativity daily actually have stronger immune system function as there is an increase in their CD4+ T lymphocyte counts. If you don’t think you have a creative bone in your body, think again! There are many opportunities to explore creativity, especially alongside your children.
Creativity increases happiness and puts you into a state of flow, which means you are completely absorbed by something and lose all sense of self and time. This state can reduce anxiety, boost emotional health, and even slow your heart rate. This decrease in anxiety and stress, and a boost of emotional well-being, can support the health of your immune system immensely.
Try these fun, creative activities with your children:
- Collect and press leaves to hang around the house in the fall
- Create homemade holiday cards during the holiday seasons
- Cook and bake together – let your kids choose foods that are colorful
- Spend time journaling
- Document family excursions and experiences with scrapbooks
- Listen and dance to music – see who can come up with the craziest dance moves
7. Find time to laugh more
Did you know that laughter is associated with increases in immune cells and infection-fighting antibodies? When you laugh, you’re likely in a great mood and not stressed, which means laughing, humor, and having a good attitude indirectly leads to a better overall immune response.
Here are some suggestions to get your children laughing:
- Watch funny movies together as a family
- Start a laugh fest when one person laughs and then others join in
- Play “Try Not to Laugh”, which ultimately ends up with everyone giggling
- Plan a family game night
- Make up silly songs
- Play with a pet
- Dress up and do a family talent show
- Simply put a smile on your face and a release a laugh from your belly
Integrating these primary foods into your life for better health
By integrating some of these strategies into your child’s daily life, they will become second nature. When we encourage these practices early on, we are modeling to our children that by actively participating in our lives, we can actively reduce not only illness, but also the fear surrounding getting sick.
The areas of our lives that we addressed here – laughter and joy, movement, our environment – are what IIN refers to as primary foods, or the things in our lives that nourish us just as much as the (nutritious) food on our plates. When we show our children that health can look and feel different for everyone based on these areas, their understanding of how best to care for themselves will only grow as they get older.