Keeping well is a balancing act. Should you be using antibacterial soaps and hand sanitizers? Or playing in the dirt and eating mud pies? The answer lies somewhere in the middle and even then, we will get many a cold for sure.
Our immune systems are made up of a complex combination of processes, and trillions of individual cells. While in the womb we rely on our mother’s immunity and it takes a couple of years of exposure to various microbes for our own immune systems to develop completely.
After being delivered from the safety of the womb, we are faced with a myriad of immunological challenges and the task of fighting them off.
This immune development starts at birth with our transit through the vaginal tract. The child collects mum’s microbial flora on her way through, and this flora will act as the founding population of bacteria in her digestive tract. This ‘good’ bacteria will contribute to healthy immunity as 70% of our immune system actually resides in the gut. After all, most pathogens (read nasties) enter our bodies through the mouth, so it makes sense to have most of our immune cells poised for attack here. Babies born via C-section can require a little help in this area.
Developing robust immunity continues with the introduction of breast milk and all the important immunological components that it provides.
Colostrum and breast milk contain a variety of substances that contribute specifically to an infant’s immunity. Immunoglobulin A (IgA) is an abundant immune cell that protects us from digestive bacteria and is found in large amounts in colostrum and breast milk. It has a local effect in the digestive tract but is also absorbed into baby’s bloodstream where it exerts a broader protective effect. This helps ward off potentially life threatening diseases.
Cold after cold? What’s normal?
As their immune systems develop, children are definitely more susceptible to the viruses that cause colds and ‘flu. The general consensus for what’s normal is 8 colds a year. Yes 8! I wouldn’t like to see any of my little patients getting 8 colds a year, although it really isn’t how many, but rather how long the illness is lasting that matters. A sniffle that lasts 2-4 days and doesn’t leave behind ear infections or persistent coughs is quite acceptable. When the illness lingers or leads to secondary bacterial infections, immunity needs to be addressed.
The basics of immune health
Once your child is onto solids it is important to give them a wide variety of veggies. Sometimes I see parents focussing too much on grain-based meals, when veggies would do a better job. Here is a good list of beneficial nutrients for the immune system, and the foods to get them from:
Carotenes and Vitamin A
Well known for immune support and especially important for protecting the linings of the respiratory, digestive and urinary tract against infection.
Orange and yellow vegetables and fruits contain high levels. Try carrots, butternut squash, sweet potatoes, cantaloupe melons and apricots. Also include liver (I dare you!), dark green leafy vegetables, salmon, egg yolks, and poultry for extra Vitamin A.
More common in children than you might think, iron deficiency impairs the immune systems capacity to fight infections. It is especially needed during the growth spurts of infancy and adolescence and pregnancy.
Good sources are: red meat, green leafy vegetables, blackstrap molasses, brewers yeast, eggs, kelp, and millet.
Poor wound healing and frequent infections may reflect a deficiency in zinc. It is said that our soil levels of zinc are very low and may be contributing to an increase in the incidence of zinc deficiency.
Apart from oysters, which may not be popular, sources of zinc include fish, red meat, wholegrains, nuts and seeds, and legumes.
Vitamin C plays an essential role in human health and one of its most important functions is within the immune system. Among other things it enhances white blood cell function and activity.
Best foods for vitamin C: Capsicum, kiwifruit, broccoli, citrus fruits, brussel sprouts, berries, and green leafy vegetables.
Nurture immunity naturally
Prevention really is the best cure where immunity is concerned. And if getting the right foods into your child causes world war 3 every night, you may want to supplement, or use herbal medicine. For kids under five see a registered naturopath for good advice on what’s appropriate for your child. Choosing the wrong medicine or giving the wrong dose may do more harm than good.