Fall is officially here, bringing with it cozy sweaters, comfort food (pumpkin anyone?) and beautiful crisp but sunny weather. Fall also means a return to school, and the beginning of the dreaded cold and flu season.
Tyson started full-time daycare as of September. I received warnings from other moms that he would soon be coming home with every sickness out there – and that our whole household would be battling illness for a month or two. Great. Rather than just accept this fate, I’ve been working hard to prepare his immune system for the cold and flu season.
Think of your kids’ immune system like a little army, poised to defend them from all those icky bacteria and viruses that are lurking around, particularly during this time of year. It is your job to make sure that there are enough “soldiers” (high numbers of lymphocytes and antibodies), and that they are well nourished, that they have the right weapons and enough energy to fight those enemies. By boosting kids’ immune systems, they can fight off illness before it starts and avoid dealing with those nasty cold and flu symptoms. Like they say, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”.
So in the name of prevention, I’ve prepared a series of posts with immune boosting tips for kids that will help their little army prepare for war.
In Part 1, I’m looking at vitamins and nutrients!
Immune Boosting Nutrients
The immune system is made-up of a complex system of cells, proteins, tissues and organs that are influenced by a number of vitamins and nutrients. Our body can produce some of them, but not enough, so it needs some outside help. To make sure the immune system is running at peak performance, it is critical that kids eat a wide variety of foods to avoid being deficient in any one nutrient.
However, there are some nutrients that are particularly important to immune system function:
1) Vitamin C
We’ve all heard that vitamin C is important in preventing colds and flu and it’s definitely true. Vitamin C helps strengthen the body’s resistance to pathogens. Vitamin C is also quickly depleted during illness, so it’s important to make sure kids continue to get enough of it if they do end up sick. There is vitamin C in oranges, lemons and grapefruit but did you know that there is even more vitamin C in bell peppers, papaya, strawberries and broccoli? (And if you’re considering a big glass of Tropicana as a good way to get vitamin C into your kids, read my post about juice first!)
2) Vitamin A
Not only does vitamin A stimulate immune processes, it protects the lining of the gastrointestinal tract (the body’s first line of defence against invaders). Vitamin A is found in high levels in carrots, sweet potatoes, and leafy greens
3) Vitamin D
More and more research is showing the link between low vitamin D levels and higher incidence of illness. The best way to get more vitamin D? Spend 10-15 minutes per day in the sun! Applying sunscreen right away can make it difficult for your body to get vitamin D (obviously be aware not to get burned) and sun exposure is particularly difficult in the fall and winter months. Food sources include salmon, milk and eggs. If you feel like your kids are not getting enough vitamin D, you may want to consider supplementation.
Zinc deficiency is not something you often hear about but lack of zinc can compromise white blood cell numbers and immune response. A common sign of a lack of zinc is an impaired sense of taste and/or smell. Mushrooms are particularly high in zinc, as is spinach, grass-fed beef, scallops and sesame and pumpkin seeds.
This little known mineral, when deficient, can greatly suppress the immune system. In fact, recent research is showing that added supplementation (above normal dietary intake) may even be beneficial. To get more selenium into your kids’ diet, serve them seafood – halibut, tuna, cod, sardines, shrimp and salmon are high in selenium. It is also found in barley, turkey and lamb.
Now the purpose of this post is not to get you all stressed out about making sure your kids are eating the exact right amount of each vitamin and mineral. I know kids can be picky and they may not love some of the foods mentioned above. Luckily, most foods contain a wide range of vitamins and minerals, and the human body is surprisingly good at finding what it needs to stay healthy. The main takeaway from this post is that you should try to ensure that your child eats a variety of vegetables, fruit, protein, whole grains, and fats. By eating a number of different whole foods (processed foods are seriously lacking in nutrients), they are likely to get the nutrients they need.
Of course, there are other factors that impact the immune system and the body’s ability to utilize nutrients - and I will discuss these in Part 2.