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The topic of immunity has garnered extra attention throughout the pandemic. However, having a healthy immune system is important all year round, and not just during higher-risk seasons. The immunity conversation understandably has many parents and caregivers wondering what they can do at home to support their child’s natural immunity from the start.
What is immunity?
The immune system consists of all the organs and processes in the body that work to help keep us safe from disease and fight off any harmful germs we may be exposed to throughout life. This includes things like our mucus(digestion system), blood, and lymph nodes, which work together to help prevent and limit illness and infection.
There are two main parts that make up the immune system. The innate, or general, immune system is the first line of defense to help keep harmful germs from entering the body. It acts quickly and uses things like skin and mucus membranes.
The adaptive immune system fights germs directly and takes over when the innate immune system isn’t able to destroy the germs. It’s made up of things like antibodies and lymphocytes, or B cells and T cells, in the blood.
Immunity to illnesses is a result of building up antibodies to problematic germs. Antibodies are disease-specific and are made by the body to destroy disease-causing bacteria, viruses, and other germs.
There are two types of immunity:
- Active Immunity: This type of immunity is achieved when we’re exposed to germs that trigger the production of antibodies to them. This may be a result of kids being exposed naturally to germs through play, socialization, and everyday life, as well as immunity achieved from receiving vaccines. Active immunity can last for a child’s entire life, and their body will remember how to fight off the germs previously exposed to.
- Passive Immunity: This type of immunity results when someone is given antibodies to disease-causing organisms, rather than achieving them on their own. The best example of passive immunity is when a baby is born. At birth, they receive antibodies from their mother through the placenta.
As you can see, building a strong immune system starts inside the womb and continues throughout life. Much of the immune system is established in early childhood as kids are exposed to life outside of the world.
While immunity is achieved through the processes listed above, there are also ways to help keep your immune system working at its best when germs come along. We’ll cover some of these in this article.
Signs of a weakened immune system
Children can experience a weakened immune system for a number of reasons. For instance, some kids are born with abnormalities in their immune system, while many others may have an underlying chronic disease, autoimmune disease, or take medications that reduce immune defense, like certain steroids or immunosuppressants. Children who have undergone an organ transplant or have been infected with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) also experience weakened immunity.
In general, it’s natural for people to have different immune responses, and for immunity to wax and wane during different seasons of life, like pregnancy. Some immunity acquired early in life is long-lasting, while some may not be. Overall, there may be some signs to look out for in your child’s general health that may suggest that their immunity is weakened.
The biggest indicator of a weakened immune system is an increase in illness. For instance, if your child is experiencing more frequent sickness, and those bouts of illness are more prolonged or severe, it could mean that their immune defenses are low.
If you have an infant, you may be feeling like they’re always sick. Keep in mind that it’s normal for babies, toddlers, and young kids to experience upwards of 10 colds per year. This number can be higher in your child is often around other kids, like in a daycare or preschool setting.
Along similar lines, if you notice that your child heals from bumps, bruises, scratches, and other wounds more slowly than usual, this could be a sign of impaired immunity.
If you’re at all concerned about your child’s immune health, it’s always best to speak with their doctor for an appropriate evaluation.
In addition, families can incorporate everyday healthy habits at home to help support their child’s natural immunity.
Nutrients to support a healthy immune system
Nutrition is a key player in optimal health and disease prevention, as well as helping your child’s immune system develop and become as strong as possible. In order to design the most immune-supportive diet, it’s important to understand what nutrients play key roles in the immune system and where to find these vitamins in everyday meals.
Some of the nutrients that help support healthy immunity include the following.
Zinc is a mineral that’s essential for the growth, development, and proper function of the immune system, so it’s important to get enough of it on a regular basis. Zinc interacts with all the cells and organs within the body and has been shown to have strong antiviral activities.
Despite its importance, many people experience zinc deficiency around the world. While not getting enough zinc can be caused by a number of factors, one reason is often due to low intake in the diet.
While zinc is widely found in animal products, like dairy, eggs, meat, and seafood, it’s also found in these plant foods:
- Legumes, like lentils, peas, beans, and chickpeas
- Seeds, especially pumpkin, squash, sesame, and hemp seeds
- Nuts, like pine nuts, peanuts, cashews, and almonds
- Whole grains, like quinoa, brown rice, and barley
The recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for zinc among children aged 1-3 years old is 3 mg per day.
The best way to get zinc in your child’s diet is to offer a wide array of the foods listed above, but you can also find zinc in most multivitamin supplements for children to help make sure their needs are met.
Many people take a vitamin C lozenge when they feel a cold coming on. It’s a strong antioxidant known to help support normal wound healing and protect cells from stress-related damage.
Getting enough vitamin C is also important for fighting off viral infections. In fact, more recent research has suggested vitamin C as a natural therapy for potentially shortening the duration of respiratory illnesses, such as those related to COVID-19.
Vitamin C may be most commonly associated with orange juice, but this isn’t the only place this nutrient is found. Plus, it’s best not to serve fruit juice to kids under age 2 due to its highly concentrated sugar content.
Fortunately, vitamin C is found in a wide array of kid-friendly plant foods, such as:
- Bell peppers
- Dark leafy greens
- Citrus fruits, like lemons, limes, grapefruit, and oranges
- Brussels sprouts
The RDA for vitamin C among kids aged 1-3 years old is 400 mg per day.
Kids who consume a variety of fruits and vegetables are unlikely to experience true vitamin C deficiency. However, vitamin C is generally included in most multivitamins for kids and is another way to meet their needs.
Most commonly referred to as “the sunshine vitamin”, vitamin D is primarily formed in the skin when you’re exposed to direct sunlight. It’s also a critical nutrient for immune health. Vitamin D deficiency has been associated with a higher risk for numerous negative outcomes from illness and disease.
As such, it’s incredibly important to make sure your child gets enough of this nutrient. Kids generally don’t get enough direct sunlight to produce enough vitamin D themselves, partly because it’s important to practice sun safety and their skin is often blocked with protective clothing or sunscreen.
The best food sources of vitamin D include fatty fish (like salmon, tuna, and mackerel), eggs, and dairy products. However, there are some plant-based sources as well.
For plant-based kids, vitamin D can be found in fortified plant milk. Vitamin D can also be found in certain mushrooms that have been grown using ultraviolet light, but these aren’t always easy to find and may not be the most reliable way to meet needs for kids.
Instead, it’s best to provide a vitamin D supplement to make sure they meet their needs.
In fact, it’s recommended that vitamin D supplementation begins in infancy for most kids. While formula-fed babies will receive vitamin D through their formula, exclusively breastfed babies should begin receiving a liquid supplement of 400 IU per day shortly after birth.
Once a baby reaches 12 months of age, the RDA for vitamin D increases from 400 IU to 600 IU per day.
Vitamin E is a fat-soluble vitamin and an antioxidant. It’s been shown to help support everyday health as well as help the body in times of illness.
Vitamin E can be found in these foods:
- Wheat germ or wheat germ oil
- Almonds or almond butter
- Sunflower seeds or sunflower butter
- Sunflower, soybean, or safflower oils
- Peanut butter
- Dark leafy greens, like spinach
The RDA for vitamin E (alpha-tocopherol) among kids aged 1-3 years old is 6 mg per day.
Vitamin E deficiency is generally rare, but the best way to prevent it is by offering your child a variety of the foods listed above. Vitamin E is also usually included in children’s multivitamins if you choose to use them.
Vitamin A is another fat-soluble vitamin and antioxidant with a key role in immune function. It also supports the body’s normal inflammation response and has been therapeutic in the treatment of various infectious diseases.
While the best source of vitamin A is beef liver, there are plenty of plant sources of this nutrient. For instance, find vitamin A in these orange, red, yellow, and green foods:
- Sweet potatoes
- Dark leafy greens, like spinach
- Pumpkin purée
- Bell peppers
Daily needs for vitamin A are measured in mcg RAE, or retinol activity equivalents, to account for the different forms it may be found in and their activity in the body. The RDA for vitamin A among kids aged 1-3 years old is 300 mcg RAE.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
While the richest food sources of omega-3s are fatty fish and seafood, there are also some plant sources. These include:
- Chia seed
- Hemp seed
However, the amounts of omega-3s in these sources can vary. While many people take fish oil or krill oil omega-3 supplements to meet their needs, there are also plant-based supplements made using algae instead. As omega-3s generally aren’t included in a children’s multivitamin, you might opt to get a separate DHA + EPA gummy or liquid supplement for your child instead.
There’s no standard dosage for omega-3s, but many experts think a good guideline is somewhere around 250-500 mg per day of combined EPA and DHA.
DHA accumulates in the brain of children quickly, up until age 2 years. There’s not a lot of evidence regarding whether supplementation is necessary after that, but there doesn’t appear to be any major reason to stop providing these fatty acids to plant-based kids who may not be getting many in their diet.
Fiber is only found in plant foods and is important for things like heart health and bowel regularity. Eating fiber also makes the gut happy, promoting healthy levels of bacteria in the digestive system.
How does this relate to immunity? Much of our health starts in the gut, including our immune function. That means it’s super important to feed your child’s gut well, and fiber is an important piece.
Some of the best high-fiber foods include:
- Fruits and vegetables
- Whole grains
- Nuts and seeds
Aim for at least 19 grams of fiber per day for toddlers.
What about supplements?
If you think your child would benefit from additional nutrients to support their diet, certain supplements may be worth considering.
Take a look at your child’s overall diet pattern, including the types of foods that they’re more willing to eat on a regular basis. After all, it’s not beneficial for their immune system or health if it sits untouched on their plate.
It’s important for children who follow a plant-based diet to receive certain supplements as it is, to help prevent nutrient deficiencies and support overall health.
In general, kids who consume a totally plant-based diet should be receiving vitamin B12, vitamin D, and omega-3 fatty acids. Some kids may also benefit from iron and iodine supplementation, depending on what their diet pattern looks like.
Some parents choose to provide their child a multivitamin, which will contain a range of standard vitamins and minerals meant to help meet their daily needs.
Overall, the best way to help support your child’s immune system with nutrition is to offer a wide variety of healthy, colorful plant foods and consider certain supplements where needed. No single nutrient is a quick fix for immunity. The best approach is to help your child meet regular nutrition needs with a wide range of sources.
More tips for a healthy immune system
Wondering what are natural immune boosters for kids? In addition to a healthy, nutrient-packed diet, here are a few other tips.
One great way to help support a child’s natural immunity is through natural exposures. This means socializing with other people of all ages, pets if you don’t have your own, and playing in different environments.
Good health hygiene practices are also great to teach kids beginning at a young age, as these can minimize the spread of germs on a daily basis. For example, proper hand-washing is a tried and true way to help prevent colds and flu as much as possible. Show your child how to wash their hands, using warm water and soap, scrubbing for 20 seconds before rinsing. Covering their nose and mouth when sneezing and coughing is also important for hygiene. Leave a window slightly open for fresh air even on winter days, and clean AC filters at least twice a year.
Helping your child get enough sleep at night will also help support immune health.
Demonstrating these practices at home, as well as offering a healthful diet full of important nutrients, are great ways to naturally support your child’s immune system as they continue to grow and develop.
Supporting your child’s immunity
Overall, incorporating a wide variety of nutrients into their diet, using many types of colorful whole plant foods, is the best way to support your child’s natural immune development. Supplementation of certain key nutrients, particularly for plant-based kids, is essential to make sure they get everything they need. This may include individual supplements or using a multivitamin with minerals and an omega-3 supplement. Additionally, practicing health hygiene practices at home, supporting good sleep habits, and allowing environmental and social exposures can help your child develop and maintain a healthy immune system.
The content and advice provided in this article is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for medical diagnosis, treatment, advice for specific medical conditions. Always consult a pediatrician to understand the individual needs of your child.