How to boost your child's immune system as they head back to school

As children head back to their classrooms, Dr Michelle O'Driscoll shares some tips on how you can help your child's immune system
How to boost your child's immune system as they head back to school

Sleep is recognised as an important immune booster. Picture: Stock

IT’S that time of year again — the end of August, the Sunday night of the summer, you can almost hear the Glenroe music playing as you put final preparations in place for uniforms, lunchboxes and school books!

While the school routine is welcomed by many, our children are going to be busy, as are their immune systems; heading back to busy classrooms, full timetables and increased contact with others, along with a looming winter of bugs and germs. Here are some things that you can do as a parent to help boost and support your child’s immune system at this time.

Probiotics

The gut is full of bacteria, both good and bad. The aim is that the good bacteria are present in sufficient numbers to allow the gut lining to work as it should, preventing the bad bacteria or pathogens from entering the bloodstream and causing health issues.

There are ways to boost the good bacteria naturally, primarily by getting children to eat a probiotic food. The easiest one to incorporate is natural yogurt, but something called kefir in smoothies, or other fermented foods will also give a boost. Alternatively, you can speak to your pharmacist about probiotic supplements for which there are some evidence of benefit, depending on the strain in question.

Take advantage of the final days of holidays, and any sunlight left after school, before winter creeps in. Picture: Stock
Take advantage of the final days of holidays, and any sunlight left after school, before winter creeps in. Picture: Stock

Vitamin D

Sunshine is the primary way of making this vitamin, giving a great excuse to take advantage of the final days of holidays, and any sunlight left after school. Get your children out and about to soak it up (being mindful of UV protection too) as Vitamin D helps to modulate the immune system and fight infection more effectively.

However, from November until March we are unable to make enough of it, and need to draw on food sources to obtain 400IU of it if over the age of 5. Foods like oily fish, eggs and fortified foods can help to reach that target. Getting little ones to eat enough of these can be challenging however, especially if you have a picky eater. Supplementation is also possible, so speak to your pharmacist about this.

Omega-3 Fatty Acids

These occur in foods only, we cannot make them ourselves. Their benefits include heart and brain health, and increased immunity and anti-inflammatory properties. While nuts are not allowed in schools due to allergies, encourage your child to eat them at home (not whole nuts if under the age of five due to choking hazards), along with seeds such as chia seeds and fish such as salmon and tuna. Twice weekly ingestion of these fatty acids will ensure they’re getting the required benefits of them. Potato fish cakes or fish fingers are a way to get at least some of this type of food into the menu.

Aim to eat all the colours when it comes to fruit and veg. Picture: Stock
Aim to eat all the colours when it comes to fruit and veg. Picture: Stock

Fruits and vegetables

The battles can be real, but any of these that you can encourage your child to consume will benefit them. The fibre in particular is good for the gut and helps to keep everything moving, linking back to those good gut bacteria mentioned earlier.

Aim to eat all colours. Red, yellow and orange hues indicate the presence of phytogens in these foods that help to increase the levels of white blood cells being produced to fight infection.

Get creative by blending them into sauces, or creating smoothies or ice lollies with hidden treats. They can be dried, frozen or tinned, any format will do.

Balanced exposure

In this Covid era, hand washing and good cough and sneeze etiquette are becoming second nature to our little ones, and this is reducing the presentation of other viruses also.

Gentle reminders to children to follow public health guidelines are helpful. Make the process fun by using songs, rhymes or illustrations to prompt them, so that fear or anxiety around it is minimised.

Bear in mind also that, Covid aside, our children are bound to come into contact with germs in their day to day play; at home, outside, engaging with each other and with pets. This is healthy.

Research shows that hyper-vigilance in relation to cleanliness can reduce the immune system’s opportunity to recognise and build defences to common germs. So don’t sweat it if your floors aren’t being washed daily — a little exposure is welcome, balance is key.

Sleep

Perhaps surprisingly, sleep is recognised as an important immune booster as sleep deprivation leads to a reduced production of natural killer cells that are a key part of the immune system. As a guideline, children age 3-12 require twelve hours of sleep per night.

Achieve this with a regular routine, which our little people thrive on. Make bedtime relaxed, predictable and low-stimulation (free from screens or high activity play) to allow the sleep hormones to be triggered, and support a gentle transition to the land of nod. This will further serve to support their brain health, concentration and mood too.

Get your kids involved

By explaining the benefits of different foods and routines, getting kids involved in age-appropriate food choices such as what fruit they want in their lunchbox and making the hygiene elements fun, our children are more likely to buy into what it is you’re hoping to achieve — boosting and supporting their immunity as they prepare for the trip back to school.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Dr Michelle O’Driscoll is a pharmacist, researcher and founder of InTuition, a health and wellness education company.

Her research lies in the area of mental health education, and through InTuition she delivers health promotion workshops to corporate and academic organisations nationally.

See www.intuition.ie

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