Worried About Your Child's Immune Health? Here Are The Keys To Better Immune Function
During uncertain times, keeping our children safe is our top priority. Among changing routines, questions around school and social time, there is one constant that can benefit each child. And that's a healthy immune system.
Unfortunately, modern life isn't all that friendly to a robust immune system. Kids miss out on crucial sleep, eat a lot of high-sugar foods, and don't spend as much time being active as they should. They also experience more stress, and are exposed to more environmental toxins, which can interrupt not only immune function but also a healthy digestive system.
In my experience as an integrative M.D., I've narrowed down key components of a great immune system, along with ways to limit damaging behaviors and stay proactive about kids' health.
Factors that affect your child's immune health.
Your child's immune system is a complex system of proteins, signaling molecules, and hormones that all work closely together to identify, attack, and destroy particles it deems harmful. And there's never been a better time to focus on the factors that keep your kids healthy.
I've narrowed down five key systems that affect immune health in kids:
1. Digestive health
The role of food allergies, food intolerances, and fat malabsorption all affect the immune function and overall health of your child. A healthy gut works to help us absorb nutrients, process minerals, and provide all organ systems with what they need. The bacteria in the gut, or the microbiome, we now know regulate almost a million different pathways in the body, including those critical to immune health.
2. Nutritional support
Poor nutrition triggers immune dysfunction and inflammation. Deficiencies in vitamin D, vitamin C, B vitamins, and fats affect the gut, the brain, and overall immune health.
Sleep is the body’s opportunity to reboot and repair, and many children do not get the sleep they need. With so much overscheduling, electronic stimulation, and anxiety in our society, many children miss out on sleep, making them more susceptible to inflammation and infection.
4. Electronic / Wi-Fi exposure
Electronics, blue light, and constant Wi-Fi exposure are inflammatory for the eyes and brain. Emerging studies show the effects of neuroinflammation on sleep and mental health. This is a critical area for children of this generation that needs more discussion, as many parents simply do not realize the long-term impact many devices could have on their children's health and, subsequently, their child's immune system.
5. Emotional support and stress management
Helping our children through their emotional ups and downs and creating an environment for them to learn emotional regulation is so important and often just as difficult (trust me—I know a little too well!). But without the right support, our children stay in a state of chronic stress and adrenal dysfunction, which in turn, triggers inflammation.
This is why kids' immune systems are so much at risk. They're being bombarded from almost every angle by too much sugar, stress, not enough sleep, and inadequate nutrients.
How to support a child's immune system.
To support the key systems involved in immune function, keep the following in mind:
Added sugars and refined starches might be the biggest immune offenders kids struggle with today. High-sugar diets can create immune dysfunction and also contribute heavily to an overgrowth of Candida, or yeast.
Unfortunately, Candida overgrowth often goes undiagnosed, or misdiagnosed, but I see many children in my clinic who have rampant yeast overgrowth. The presence of too much Candida creates chronic inflammation and also sensitivity to environmental and internal triggers, manifesting as uncomfortable digestion, brain fog, and even an increase in things like asthma attacks and eczema.
Get enough protein.
Protein is critical for immune function, and inadequate protein can increase the risk of worse outcomes due to infection. Most proteins are also great sources of nutrients, such as B vitamins, omega-3s, and zinc, which the immune system also needs.
Most Americans consume adequate protein, but if you have a picky eater at home, or follow a vegetarian or vegan diet, you'll need to keep a close eye on protein intake.
Aim for about 1 gram of protein per kilogram of bodyweight, sourced from high-quality, clean animal proteins (grass-fed beef, naturally raised poultry, or wild-caught fish). Plant-based options like nuts, seeds, beans, or legumes are great, and you can also incorporate non-GMO soy or tempeh into dishes.
Eat foods for a healthy microbiome.
About 75% of your child’s immune system resides in their gut. A healthy intestinal lining and the "good" bacteria that colonize it help determine friend from foe and communicate with immune cells to mount a response if necessary.
Fermented foods such as grass-fed yogurt (plant-based if necessary), kefir, kimchi, sauerkraut, tempeh, and miso help to support healthy gut bacteria and digestion.
Promote quality sleep.
As a parent, you've seen the subsequent train wreck that happens after a couple of nights of poor sleep. This includes your younger kids, all the way through to your teenagers. They're irritable, quick to get upset, and it's impossible to get them to focus on anything.
Device usage can play a significant role here, as well. The combination of not enough sunlight during the day, plus more blue light in the evening can alter melatonin production and disrupt circadian rhythm.
What you often can't see is that, beneath the surface, their immune function has taken a significant hit, too. My best advice:
- Keep devices out of the bedroom
- Limit screen time during the day (adjust for virtual learning)
- Give your kids time for adequate physical activity (outside, temperature permitting)
- Stick to a consistent waking and sleeping schedule
- Have a nighttime routine (reading a book, setting a diffuser with lavender oil, etc.)
Younger children need closer to 12 hours while older children need about 10 hours of consistent sleep.
Kids today are more stressed than ever before, and I see this present in various ways in my clinic. Sometimes they can't focus, have difficulty sleeping, or have poor digestive function. And the available data is very clear: high stress levels increase susceptibility to infection.
Teaching kids emotional resiliency isn't something we do with one action, or even a few, but with every aspect of their lives—from the food they eat, to the ways they cope with "big" feelings, and everything in between.
At home, I make sure my kids know I'm there to help them through their emotional ups and downs, and I prioritize physical activity, a well-rounded diet, and plenty of time to decompress after a busy day.
What to remember about immune health, from an integrative M.D.
As you can see, supporting the immune system can feel like a big job, but there's no need to feel overwhelmed. No matter where you're starting from, there are always steps you can take toward better immune health for your kids.
Incorporate as many fruits and veggies as you can, make sure they're getting plenty of activity and good sleep, and try to keep stress levels low.
If you take care of your loved ones and encourage those around you to do the same, I know that together we can make sure our immune systems are robust, ready, and able.