Last week I blogged about different ways you can support your child’s immune system using supplements, but today I want to spend some time discussing my top 5 strategies to support your family’s immune system through diet and lifestyle (plus 1 bonus strategy you may not have ever considered!). I am a big believer that small changes make big differences and knowledge is power! Understanding what changes you make and how they can impact your family’s health can be extremely motivating and empowering. My goal is to provide you with simple tips that can be easily incorporated into your day-to-day life.
1. Eat The Rainbow
Colourful fruits and vegetables offer nutrients such as beta-carotene, vitamin C, vitamin E and zinc. These are powerful antioxidants and minerals that can help reduce inflammation, fight off free radicals and boost the body’s natural immune system response. Consuming whole fruits and vegetables as well as foods such as garlic and herbs such as thyme, ginger, oregano, turmeric and licorice root can provide your child (and you) with high quality phytochemicals that can be easily absorbed and used by the body to ward off infection. Foods containing pre and probiotics such as fermented foods like yogurt, kefir and sauerkraut can optimize the gut microbiome also improving immune functioning. Basically, when you eat healthy foods you feel healthy.
Beta-Carotene Containing Foods: Leafy green vegetables such as broccoli and spinach, carrots, sweet potato and eggs.
Vitamin C Containing Foods: Broccoli, brussel sprouts, cauliflower, green and red peppers, spinach, cabbage, turnip greens and other green leafy vegetables, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, apples, oranges and other citrus fruits.
Vitamin E Containing Foods: Spinach, broccoli, almonds, avocado, butternut squash, kiwi, trout, and olive oil
Zinc containing foods: Pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, nuts, beans and lentils
2. Limit Refined Sugar Intake
Research shows that consuming white sugar and other forms of refined sugar can hinder the body’s natural immune response by essentially putting white blood cells into a coma. In fact, one study found that sugar consumption decreased white blood cells up to 50% for up to 5 hours! Pretty crazy, right? The biggest challenge with kids is that so many prepackaged snacks are filled with refined sugars, making limiting sugar intake extremely difficult. If you rely on prepackaged snacks, start reading the ingredients on food packages and try substituting for healthier options but be aware of misleading marketing.
Some of my favourite snacks choices are: Nomz energy bites, seaweed snacks, Fit Fit fruit and nut bites, flourish harvest kale or toasted cauliflower veggie chips, Mary crackers with almond butter and grapes (I know I know, this isn’t prepackaged but the Mary crackers are so it counts, right?), and veggies with homemade chocolate chickpea spread (see what I did there?! This is one of my daughter’s favourite ways of eating veggies – it’s a win-win for everyone).
Examples of refined sugar you want to avoid: white flour, white sugar, evaporated cane juice, corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, fructose and processed artificial sweeteners
3. Make Sure Everyone is Getting Adequate Sleep
Believe it or not but sleep is fundamental to immune system functioning. Research on sleep has found that adequate sleep has a positive direct impact on the production undifferentiated T-cells. Several studies conclude that sleep influences the production of cytokines that promote the interaction between antigen presenting cells (that is, cells that present an antigen to T-cells so that they can mount an immune response) and helper T-cells as well as their possible redistribution to the lymph nodes. Lack of sleep can depress the immune system and increase the likelihood of becoming sick when exposed to a virus. It’s no wonder when your child is sick they feel fatigue; it’s literally their body’s way of working hard to combat an infection.
How much sleep do you need to boost your immune system? School-aged children may need 10 or more hours a night and teenagers need between 9-10 hours.
4. Manage Stress Levels
It is well known that stress, loneliness and depression can increase a person’s likelihood of developing an infection. The topic of “psychoneuroimmunology” has long been studied, as far back as the 1980’s. A 10-year study between 1982-1992 found that simple exam related stress over a 3-day period resulted in reduced immunity, specifically finding that students ended up having fewer natural killer cells, immune cells that are essential for fighting viral infections. These students also stopped producing important immune boosting cytokines and T-cell responses became significantly weaker. Years later, in 2004, researchers found that regardless of the duration, whether a few days to a few months to a few years, stress resulted in reduced immunity. Today it is widely recognized and accepted that chronic stress can wreck havoc on the immune system. 2020 has been a particularly difficult year and the medical and mental health communities are really emphasizing the importance of addressing mental health challenges that kids (and adults) may be experiencing. Months of physical distancing, social isolation and general uncertainty about the future have resulted in more people experiencing depression, anxiety and suicidal ideation. It is essential that parents recognize warning signs of mental illness and seek appropriate care as soon as possible.
Simple ideas for helping kids manage stress: Make time for play, especially outdoors, prepare your kids to deal with mistakes and failure by letting them know it’s OK to be imperfect, encourage your child to face his/her fears (I am a big believer that FEAR is simply False Expectations Appearing Real), focus on the positive, reward your child’s behaviour, set realistic expectations, make time for physical activity such as yoga, schedule time for relaxation and manage your own stress (yes parents, I’m talking to you),