Back-to-School Immune System Boosters for Kids (and Adults)
Ian Wahl, DAc, LAc
Kids are going back to school again in a few weeks. Although it may seem preposterous to talk about cold weather, ice, and snow right now, we all know it’s coming. And that means coughs, colds, seasonal flu, conjunctivitis, and other ailments our kids bring home from school. So, parents, let’s build a healthy immune system for your children before they start school. Here are 6 Simple Immune System Boosters for Kids (and Adults).
- Establish a sleep routine
Health experts agree that a good night’s sleep allows the immune system to regenerate itself and fight off disease. Especially in back-to-school season, a rigorous sleep schedule helps little energetic bodies wind down, and busy minds rest. A sleep routine involves consistent bedtimes and wake times – choose a time and stick to it. It may help incorporate consistent bath times and story times before lights-out, so your child gets used to these steps before sleeping. By the way, this also works for adults who have trouble sleeping.
- Get kids moving (appropriately)
Sitting around all day in class, then again at night doing homework or spending screen time alone or with friends, not only makes the body sluggish but the immune system sluggish as well. If your kids aren’t involved in sports already, make a point to sneak 20 minutes of exercise into your kid’s day at least three times a week. Give them physical chores to do. For example, make them help with the yard or ask them what they’d like to do outside (or inside) that will get their muscles moving and toned. You might be surprised.
- Unstructured Free Play
When you were a child, did you spend a ton of time in front of the TV or some other electronic device or screen?
Did you know that it is a proven, scientific fact that unstructured play develops the immune system, brain function, and interpersonal skills? Many parents will schedule kids with organized sports, dance, theater, music, etc., so that you may think there is no need for unstructured play. That is not necessarily true. The American Academy of Pediatrics says that unstructured play is healthy and essential for children to reach important social, emotional, and cognitive developmental milestones as well as helping them manage stress and become resilient. We all want our kids to grow into resilient adults who know how to handle the pressure they will encounter.
I was in elementary school during the Fifties. We played outside every day after school when homework was done (not that I had as much homework as today’s elementary students). Usually, we played baseball, tag, hide-and-seek, kick-the-can, or just made-up games until our parents went nuts that we were out too late.
The point is that most of us used our imagination playing with our friends more often than we used consumer products that only one person could play at a time, like today’s cell phones and tablets. Many parents purchase products marketed to them as “educational.” Often that marketing is to the parents’ ego and is not very productive to their child’s needs. I’m specifically talking about products we are told will produce intellectual “super-children.” I think it’s great that we have options today that help our children develop intellectually. However, if most of these products worked as advertised, we would see a plethora of baby Einsteins challenging the intellectual integrity of their pre-school, kindergarten, and first-grade teachers by now. Instead, we see first graders scheduled in more structured activities than many of us were doing in college, thereby increasing their stress levels and sometimes compromising their immune systems.
Kids need time to be kids, figuring out what they like to do, how they want to do it, and who they like to share their time with. Regardless of national or cultural background, kids everywhere in the world seem to be happiest when they are just playing and running around. Come to think of it…I am too!
- Balance treats with nutritious foods
Empty calories hurt the immune system since the body isn’t receiving the essential vitamins, minerals, and nutrients to fight disease. However, treats and sugary school snacks don’t have to be avoided altogether – they’re a fun part of growing up! Ensure each meal includes fresh fruits and vegetables, not the gummy, fried, baked, or processed junk food marketed as fruits and vegetables. Limit your child’s candy consumption in one sitting and give your child a glass of water with the candy so at least they’re well hydrated.
- Healthy Diets Still Need Supplementation
I’m talking about whole-food nutritional supplements (not the synthetic stuff they market as “natural”).
Even kids with the best diets don’t get all the nutrients they need from food—none of us can. We all know that Vitamin C and Vitamin B Complex are important for everyone’s health. But do you know how vital the supplements listed below are for our health?
Vitamin D3 is necessary for healthy immune function. Vitamin D works by activating T-cells to become killer cells that attack and destroy pathogens and activate helper cells that activate the body to recognize and remember those pathogens. During the summer months, kids get vitamin D from the sun if they play outside, and they don’t get sick as often. During the winter, lack of sun exposure results in less vitamin D availability for immune function. Every child should be taking vitamin D3 in the winter months.
Vitamin A is needed for proper mucous membrane function. Did you know that every cell in the respiratory, digestive, and urinary tracts requires vitamin A? It’s challenging to get enough vitamin A from food alone, so a supplement is essential. Contrary to popular opinion, the beta-carotene form of vitamin A from vegetable sources (think carrots) is not absorbed. The retinoid forms of vitamin A from animal and fish sources.
An Omega-3 fat supplement in fish oil or flaxseed oil will establish healthy cell membranes that prevent inflammation and resist toxins and pathogens.
Vitamin E will ensure that essential fatty acids are maintained at optimum efficiency once absorbed into cells. In addition, vitamin E has anti-inflammatory effects and increases resistance to infection. The caveat is to use only natural vitamin E (d-alpha-tocopherol), not the synthetic form (dl-alpha-tocopherol). Check the labels to make sure you and your child are taking the natural, not artificial, forms of vitamins.
For babies, breastfeeding is still the best preventive. Breast milk contains immunoglobulins and other nutrients that inhibit pathogens and even have anti-bacterial, anti-viral, and anti-inflammatory effects.
To sum up, while kids need lots of fresh fruits and vegetables, they also need whole-food-based supplements to become healthy and stay healthy, as do adults.
- Watch for signs of stress
When your body is under constant stress, hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline race through your body and weaken your immune system. Little kids aren’t developed enough emotionally to express how or why they are stressed. As parents, you need to watch your child’s mood, daily patterns, and school performance. While they may not be able to—or perhaps may not want to—tell you if something is wrong, your careful eye will catch if your kid is stressed out. Here are some signs to watch for:
Physical and Emotional Signs of Stress in Children (BGCA.org)
- Stomach issues
- Sleep problems
- Changes in appetite
- Pretending to be sick to avoid school or activities
- Mood swings
- New or recurring fears
- Increased crying, anger, stubbornness, or aggression
- Decreased concentration or motivation
- Emotional overreactions to minor incidents
- Regressing toward comforting behaviors from early childhood (i.e. thumb-sucking, nail-biting, sleeping with a stuffed animal)
- Social isolation, withdrawal, or unwillingness to participate in formerly enjoyed activities
Pediatricians and child psychologists recommend talking to your child, their teachers, and your doctor to find out what is wrong and how to manage the source of your child’s stress, especially now with the additional stress of Covid.
After raising three children, I know first-hand that “experts” make it sound easier than it is. However, parents have another role in managing their child’s stress levels. Whereas play protects children’s emotional development (when there isn’t bullying involved), a loss of free time combined with a hurried lifestyle can be a source of stress and anxiety. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), it can contribute to depression for many children who do not want to disappoint their parents, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).
The AAP claims that the most valuable character traits that will prepare children for success come not from their participation in extracurricular activities nor their academic achievements, nor parental over-protection, but from a firm grounding in parental love, role modeling, and guidance.
Today, many parents are afraid to slow their child’s pace for fear their children will fall behind. They feel as if they would fail as a parent if they do not allow their child to participate in every activity they are interested in—regardless of the hurried lifestyle that may create. Believe it or not, kids don’t need to excel in multiple areas to be considered successful or prepared to compete in the real world. Such pressure on them and you can prepare everyone for a lifetime of stress and stress-related health problems.
No one said being a parent is easy. All parents have all wondered if they were up to the task. But as my wife, Beverly, and I can tell you—once you’re a grandparent, it makes all that hard work, all the headaches, and all the heartaches well worth it. Besides, it’s fun to pamper your grandchildren and then watch your children say with exasperation, “You never let us do that!”
Ian Wahl is the Clinic Director of St. Louis Allergy Relief Center, specializing in the testing and treating pediatric and adult allergies holistically without pain, pills, or shots. They provide detailed treatment plans after comprehensive testing and assessment to determine seasonal, environmental, food, and chemical stressors that may be triggering allergies or allergy-like symptoms. Visit https://stlouisallergyrelief.com to learn more or call their patient coordinator, Beverly, at 314-384-9304 for more information or to schedule an appointment.