How do you boost a child’s immune system? The short answer is, you can’t. “You cannot boost or increase your immune system. This is something that develops after birth. You can, however, support the function of the immune system throughout life,” explains Jordana Smith, dietician at Genesis Dubai.
And you can grow the immune system’s resilience or rate at which it can bounce back from illness. This reinforcement begins with the plate. Farah Hillou, Integrative and Functional Nutrition Certified Practitioner based in Dubai, explains: “Micronutrients, such as vitamins (A, B6, B12, folate, C, D, E) and minerals (zinc, selenium, copper, magnesium) influence and support every stage of the immune response and deficiencies in these can increase susceptibility to infections.”
Here are 10 habits to support a resilient immune system.
1. Colour on the plate: “Boost intake of antioxidant rich colourful fruits and vegetables,” says Hillou. “Each colour provides a range of bioactive functional compounds that prevent oxidative stress and support cellular health.”
2. Research, then serve: Choose foods rich in micronutrients and include them in your diet by making smoothies, stews or soups. Try this:
- For vitamin C, which is necessary for the growth, development and repair of tissues, add broccoli, spinach, bell peppers, citrus fruit and berries to the menu;
- For beta-carotene, which is great for skin protection, add carrots, pumpkin, spinach, sweet potato, bell peppers and melon to your meals; and
- For quercetin, a natural anti-histamine, eat a diet rich in tomato, onion, kale, apple and berries.
3. Fat can be good: “Omega-3 essential fatty acids help lower inflammation, support a healthy immune response, optimise brain development and function, and boost attention, focus and mood,” explains Hillou. Foods rich in omega-3 include fatty fish such as salmon can be offered to kids as a fish burger or salmon nuggets. Other sources of healthy fats include:
- Chia seeds, and
“These can be added into smoothies, oatmeal and healthier pancakes/muffins,” she adds.
Sugar can negatively impact a child’s immune system and reduce the body’s ability to fight off infections. Watch out for sugar content in packaged foods (one teaspoon is equivalent to about 5 grams).
4. A dose of vitamin D: “This vitamin can help modulate the immune response, inhibit pro-inflammatory cytokines and reduce overall inflammation. Vitamin D deficiency is common and can therefore affect proper functioning of the immune system,” explains Hillou. “The main dietary sources of vitamin D are:
- Fatty fish,
- Egg yolk,
- Cheese, and
- Vitamin D-fortified foods.”
Sometimes, supplements may be needed if a deficiency is detected.
5. Take care of gut health: Hillou says: “Taking into consideration that our immune system is linked to our digestive system, a healthy and balanced gut that is rich in beneficial bacteria can promote stronger immune function. Promoting a diverse and abundant gut microbial population can be achieved by:
- Increasing the intake of probiotic-rich foods such as yogurt, kefir and fermented vegetables like sauerkraut;
- Consuming prebiotic-rich foods such as oats, apples, asparagus, celery, lentils; and
- Eating polyphenol-rich foods like berries, pomegranate and olive oil. A multi-stain probiotic supplement may be given to children or added to their food to boost gut microbiota.”
6. Say no to sugar: “Sugar can negatively impact a child’s immune system and reduce the body’s ability to fight off infections. Watch out for sugar content in packaged foods (one teaspoon is equivalent to about 5 grams). Look for hidden sources of sugar in the ingredients list such as ‘syrup’, ‘nectar’ and ‘juice’,” says Hillou, who also recommends using natural sweeteners when baking at home. Some natural sweeteners include:
- Organic honey,
- Homemade apple sauce, or
“If there is sugar or any associated word (such as glucose, maltose and fructose) in the label, these foods should be avoided, particularly if they are mentioned as the top three ingredients. Other important words to look for are high fructose corn syrup, any seed oils or palm oil - these should be avoided. The fewer labels a product has, the better it is going to be for you,” she says.
7. Say yes to more water: Hydration is key to boosting energy and focus. “Adequate hydration can help prevent constipation,” adds Hillou. “Depending on a child’s age, size and activity levels, their fluid needs will differ. In general, children below the age of eight need four to six cups of water a day while children above eight need six to eight cups a day.”
8. Focus on emotional well-being: A stressed child will likely have a poorer immune system as stress increases production of pro-inflammatory cytokines and reduces the ability of white blood cells to get rid of pathogenic microbes. Incorporating more movement and exercise, kid’s yoga, deep breathing, meditation techniques, as well as gratitude-based practices can promote emotional and mental health, and in turn boost immune resilience, she explains.
If your child refuses water, try diluting fresh fruit juice to flavour the water (this should be at the most a 75:25 dilution, but ideally even less, with water being the highest concentration.
9. Nap time is essential: Poor sleep can impact the body’s ability to fight off infections and increase inflammation. “Setting a bedtime routine and promoting relaxation before sleep (such as having an Epsom salt bubble bath to induce relaxation and using child-friendly essential oils like lavender) can help improve sleep quality. Moreover, ensure that the child sleeps in a comfortable environment i.e. a cool, dark room.”
10. Supplements for some: While it’s best to get all the macro- and micro-nutrients one needs from food, some kids are just really picky eaters. However, this may still not warrant a pill. “If a child were eating less than 20 foods, then I would be recommending a multivitamin, but not in all situations. Multivitamins may stimulate appetite. I would assess iron status after I had completed a food diary with the parents before recommending that,” explains Smith.
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