The immune system is our body's first line of defense when it comes to fighting off diseases and infections.
Given how regularly our little ones seem to come home with a runny nose (or worse), it would be nice if we could give their immune systems a helping hand.
And maybe we can. Below are six suggestions that may help boost a child's natural defenses.
Studies have shown that breastfeeding provides crucial support for a child's immune system. In addition to providing immediate protection against GI and respiratory diseases, a review of research by Kelly M. Jackson and Andrea M. Nazar in the Journal of the American Osteopathic Association suggests that because breastfeeding also promotes immune system development, it may provide significant health benefits well into adulthood, too.
PLAY IN THE DIRT
Dirt has become an, ahem, dirty word. Yet children need to be exposed to dirt in order for their immune systems to fully develop as they should. Children who grow up on farms, for example, or who are raised around pets, tend to exhibit lower rates of asthma and other respiratory diseases.
Gardening can also help give your immune system a lift. Sharyn Clough of the University of Oregon has even suggested that the socialization of girls to be neat and tidy may be a factor in higher rates of allergies among women than men.
Exactly why exposure to dirt is beneficial remains a topic of much debate, but researchers suggest that a combination of factors may be at play. On the one hand, exposure to trace amounts of pathogens can give the immune system a workout, on the other, exposure to the outdoors may mean children come into contact with more potentially beneficial microorganisms that can support their bodies' own cells in fighting infection.
It goes without saying that anyone who is already immunocompromised should seek medical advice before exposing themselves to dirt or other potential sources of infection.
As if we needed more reasons to encourage our children to sleep…
Research published in Nature by Penelope A. Bryant, John Trinder and Nigel Curtis suggests that there is a “reciprocal relationship between sleep and immunity.” And because sleep is a learned behavior that we carry on into adulthood, it makes sense that teaching your child the importance of getting enough sleep will benefit them later in life.
EAT SOUR MILK
The immune system used to be thought of like a defensive army – fighting off any invaders that dared to cross its borders. As our understanding of our bodies has improved, however, we've learned that we are literally teeming with foreign microbes, many of which work in symbiosis with our bodies' own cells to perform vital functions such as digestion of food or transfer of nutrients.
This paradigm shift has led some to speculate that “live” foods, which are already cherished in many traditions as health-giving, may help boost our inner biodiversity. Fermented milk products like kefir and yogurt, for example, have been shown to offer health benefits including improving lactose digestion and preventing antibiotic-associated diarrhea. Research into sauerkraut has revealed enzymes and microbes, which may aid digestion, and even isothiocyanates, which may prevent the growth of cancer cells.
It is, however, early days for research into the health benefits of live foods, and they are by no means a magic bullet. Many researchers warn against putting too much faith in some of the wilder claims being made by advocates until further studies can be carried out.
ANTIBIOTICS, PROS AND CONS
Antibiotics are a remarkable gift and have doubtless saved many lives. The routine use of antibiotics, however, may be leading us into trouble.
The problem of drug-resistant bacteria is already one good reason for exercising moderation in the use of these medicines, with a strong case being made that it is our collective responsibility to reduce the routine use of antibiotics both in health care and farming in a collective effort to reduce the risk of superbugs.
But this isn't just a question of the common good. Studies also have linked childhood use of antibiotics by individuals with a significantly increased risk of allergic asthma later in life.
EAT MORE FRUITS AND VEGETABLES
Of all the ways we can boost our body's immune system, eating a healthy diet rich in fruits and vegetables remains among the most important. Whether it's the vitamin C in your oranges or leafy green vegetables, or the antiseptic properties in garlic, if your child eats a broad range of plant-based foods, you likely will be giving their immune system a healthy jump start. And while health food stores may be clamoring to sell you the latest infant probiotic with wild claims for immune system improvements, the “elixir” may be a lot more accessible and closer to home than you might think.
As detailed in a recent article by Michael Pollan in the New York Times, it's been shown that a diet rich in a variety of whole grains, raw vegetables and less cooked foods (al dente pasta, for example) promotes fermentation in the lower intestine, which in turn is a key function for encouraging healthy gut microbes.
Ultimately, there is no one answer to an improved immune system. And the ideas presented here should not be considered an alternative to medical treatment. But pursuing a well-rounded lifestyle rich in exercise, sleep, good food and an enjoyment of the great outdoors seems as good a place as any to start. It also sounds like a whole lot of fun.