Now that we're in autumn, it's officially cold and flu season—a time of year parents know all too well. Thankfully, before the first runny nose or sore throat, there are ways you can prepare. Here are a few natural (and simple) tips to strengthen your child's immune system—and your own—while balancing stress and modulating inflammation. Several of these tips mention incorporating herbs into your routine, and when doing so, it's important to choose reputable brands that provide ample due diligence, such as traceability and testing for purity.
1. Get a good night's sleep.
Getting back on a school-year schedule can be a struggle, but ensuring that you and your little ones get enough rest will help your immune systems stay in tiptop shape. Sleep is the time we repair immune function, balance inflammation, and restore general circadian rhythm, and, for growing bodies, it's especially important. Stress over a new school year is normal. In kids it manifests as tummy aches, mood disruptions, and irritability, which can translate into difficulty sleeping. Passionflower supports sleep and generalized anxiety in kids1 and adults, both acute and ongoing. It was traditionally combined with nervines like hops, American skullcap, and valerian. For kids, an alcohol-free liquid extract can be mixed into a bit of juice 30 minutes before bedtime. (Especially when using herbal products with children, choose brands that do not use toxic solvents and that can offer proof that what's in the bottle is what's on the label.) For adults, passionflower is available in teas, liquid extracts, or capsules.
2. Calm jittery energy.
Put a positive spin on any nervousness your child has about school by emphasizing how exciting this time can be and introduce self-care techniques like deep breathing, visualization, and yoga. It's never too early! And there's really something to the advice about taking vitamin C. The adrenals, which keep our stress in check, require a great deal of it. When they work overtime, they use up our supply. Vitamin C does support the immune system but doesn't prevent colds, so load up on food-based sources and supplements combined with bioflavonoids to help enhance our use of the vitamin C. Beyond orange juice, other good sources include bell peppers, broccoli, and strawberries.
And then there are the herbs known as adaptogens, which help the adrenals and endocrine and nervous systems during stressful times. These herbs—including ashwagandha, rhodiola, and holy basil—help with stress, allowing the immune system to continue to function normally, and many adaptogens also modulate the inflammatory system. Ashwagandha, for example, is restorative to the nerves, aiding with fatigue, insomnia, and appetite loss related to stress, in addition to having immunomodulating qualities. Be sure to read dosage instructions and dose appropriately for your child's age and size, and chat with your doctor, of course.
3. Eat what's in season.
A healthy diet is the foundation of wellness and overall health. As the weather cools, take this as a hint to eat what you crave: warm meals, hearty root vegetables, and pungent herbs like rosemary, sage, and thyme. These herbs come into season at the end of summer, just as we need their respiratory support and immunoprotective qualities. They're really pleasant, even to finicky eaters. Warming, fragrant soups and stews are a good way to nurture the whole family during cold and flu season. Try chicken soup with that trio of herbs, plus ginger for antioxidant and digestive support. Or try warm coconut milk with honey, turmeric (a powerful immune modulator), and other supportive herbs. (Avoid dairy milk, which can exacerbate congestion and increase phlegm.) We also need good, healthy fats—think: coconut, nuts, and seeds—to help the cells hold water and insulate the body in winter.
4. Have a real tea party.
Think back to childhood tea parties. They weren't about the tea, imaginary or not. They were about the experience. (Re)introduce children to the ritual of teatime. Holy basil and lemon balm make kid-friendly teas, especially with black elderberry syrup for sweetness and antioxidant support. Holy basil does double duty: Its traditional use is to support a healthy stress response, and it also helps support the respiratory system. (Overtaxed adrenals sometimes represent stress as respiratory infections.) Sipping tea together can create a family tradition and provide a safe space for kids to share their daily stresses and successes.
5. Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate.
Heating systems tend to dry out the air, so it becomes even more imperative to drink plenty of water. Staying hydrated keeps our protective linings in the nasal and respiratory passages moist and healthy. Make drinking water fun by providing kids with their own special water bottle that they get to pick. Or, add herbal infusions like fresh mint, slices of orange, or another fruit. Ward off dry skin and nosebleeds with a humidifier, adding essential oils—lemon balm, rosemary, or lavender—depending on your mood and health.
Fall is naturally a time of transition, and with these simple tips, your family can enjoy the change of seasons with healthy, happy immune systems.
Mary Bove, N.D., is a pioneer in modern herbal medicine in the West. A naturopathic physician, she is the Director of Medical Education for Gaia Herbs and a founding member of Gaia’s Scientific Advisory Board. Mary received her doctorate of naturopathic medicine and midwifery certification from Bastyr College of Nature Health Sciences in Seattle, Washington. She received her diploma of cytotherapy and herbal medicine at the School of Cytotherapy in Great Britain. Before coming to Gaia Herbs, Mary practiced naturopathic family medicine for 25 years. She is the author of "Encyclopedia of Natural Healing for Children and Infants" and the co-author of “Herbs for Women’s Health.” She has been published in many magazines, journals and other collaborative books on botanical and natural medicine. She also lectures and teaches internationally and is the formulator of the GaiaKids® line.