As warm weather fades and autumn brings in the cool air, immune systems are on many parents’ radars. I keep hearing, “How can I boost my kids’ immune systems?” So I compiled a few things that are helpful for any sized human being.
1) Adequate rest
Have you ever gotten a really crappy night’s sleep and woken up a couple days later with a cold? This very well might be connected to your little one’s cold. Rest is fundamental to health. When we’re awake, our body is busy focusing on keeping us mentally active, walking, standing, sitting, digesting, and all those other things our body does for us. When we sleep, our body systems are able to rest and repair to remain strong.
2) Food is medicine
Food is another fundamental to health. When we eat nourishing foods—from the earth, whether it’s plant based, or from a healthy animal who grazes the earth—the vitamins, minerals, amino acids, etc. keep our body systems strong and healthy, and that translates to less stress on our immune system. When we’re filling up with more processed foods, we don’t get the nutrients our bodies need to function effectively. When our body is weakened due to nutrient deficiency, it’s easier for pathogens, like viruses or bacteria, to take hold, because our immune systems are working in overdrive to support weakened systems.
Consider local food when possible, as nutrient levels are higher (you get them much closer to harvest time when mineral levels are at their peak). Organic food will have higher nutrient levels due to greater care given to soil. Naturally fed and raised animals means nutrient levels of the meat are higher. Cattle that graze on grass, which contains 92 vitamins and minerals, is significantly healthier than cattle that is fed grains. Free-range animals are also significantly healthier than animals packed into a factory farm who are routinely given antibiotics to fight infections that easily spread through close-quarters and poor diets. In turn, we consume the antibiotics and these impact our immune systems.
Let your kids get dirty. Celebrate dirty feet and mud-caked hands. There are beneficial microbes in the soil that boost immune systems.
4) Bone Broth
Nothing compares to homemade broth. When you simmer chicken bones for a day or two, the nutrients that make the bone are extracted into your broth. While this is wonderful for strong bones, healthy joints and skin, the nutrients and other compounds in chicken broth boost your immune system to prevent you from getting sick or nurse you back to health while you are. When we’re sick, digestion slows down enabling that energy to go into the immune system. That’s why we usually don’t feel like eating when we’re sick. Bone broth is a great way to get some nourishment despite little appetite.
5) Immune-Stimulating Herbs
Elderberries contain antiviral compounds and is a great way to stimulate the immune system when a virus hits. Although this herbal medicine is like dessert, it’s not an immune-building herb, so taking it every day isn’t necessary. Save it for when you need it. Take a tablespoon or so every hour or two when sick. Here’s a delicious recipe. (Avoid this honey based recipe for children under a one-year old, and instead use tincture or tea.)
Another immune stimulating herb is echinacea. Despite its notoriety as an immune building herb, it’s not true. Echinacea stimulates the defense mechanisms of the white blood cells, so it doesn’t make sense to use it before you’re sick. Use it at the first sign of sickness or if you go into a space where you may be exposed to viruses, like an airplane.
Herbalist Jim McDonald compares its use to a kitchen fire. It’d be silly to think, “oh, ho hum, I’ll get to that in a couple hours,” or “I’ll stop by the store for a fire extinguisher on my way home from work.” By that point, it’s going to be too late. You’d put a kitchen fire out immediately. Echinacea acts similarly. At the first sign of a sore throat, for example, take it immediately. Not a few hours later when you’re feeling worse off. Not on your way home from work. At 4 a.m. when you’re awoken with that ick feeling would be a perfect time to pull it from your medicine cabinet and take a dropperful.
6) Immune-Building Herbs
If your little one consistently has an immune system that struggles, incorporate immune-building herbs like astragalus, burdock, garlic and mushrooms. While it’s best to start in the summer, at least a month, before entering the back-to-school season that seems to affect so many, it’s never too late to start.
Each of these herbs work to strengthen a depleted immune system. Much of the immune system resides in our gut, and burdock is a trophorestorative with an affinity to the intestinal tract. What that means is that it works over a longer period of time to repair damaged tissue. You can take these as tinctures daily or add the dried roots into bone broth.
In Chinese medicine, astragalus is known as a lung chi tonic. For those who frequently come down with colds or flu or have difficulty breathing, this herb is beneficial. Herbalist Paul Bernger says, “In Chinese medical terms, astragalus builds up the protective chi. Imagine that there is a protective shield around your body, just below the surface of the skin, that keep out cold and other external influences. It vitalizes the non-specific immune defenses and wards off infections. This is the protective chi, and astragalus is the premier herb in Chinese herbalism to strengthen it.”
Cooked, raw, tea, tinctured or infused in oil, garlic is also an immune system supporter. Even just the aroma of it helps. Garlic protects against bacteria, viruses, fungi and parasites.
Medicinal mushrooms like reishi and shiitake are well known for their immune system benefits. They, too, protect against pathogens, like bacteria and viruses and bring the benefit of vitality. While you can take capsules, it’s best to take them mixed with liquid. The water extracts their medicinal compounds.
Probiotic-rich food helps boost the immune system. Probiotics are the beneficial bacteria in our gut, the seat of our immune system, that can become depleted when bad bacteria are out of balance. Bad bacteria thrive on processed food and sugar and can quickly throw off the balance of probiotic. Antibiotic use, even just once, wipes out both bad and good bacteria and the bad bacteria tends to thrive much more easily in an undernourished body. In the event you do need an antibiotic, supplementing with a probiotic is a really good idea. (But talk to us first…there are many herbal remedies that can be used in place of antibiotics.)
Fermented foods are a great source of probiotics. Kombucha, kimchee, milk kefir, water kefir and sauerkraut are all tasty sources that you can easily make at home. Check out the books Wild Fermentation by Sandra Katz and Nourishing Traditions by Sally Fallon or Google fermented food recipes.
8) Vitamin D
Vitamin D plays a critical role in the strength of our immune systems. It contains many antimicrobial agents and fights off a wide range of pathogens. Sunlight is the best source of D. In our society, too many of us do not get enough exposure to the sun, which diminishes our vitamin D levels.
Exposing your skin to sunlight on a daily basis is the best source of vitamin D. Sit in the summer sun until your skin turns just pink. Sunscreen prohibits our skin to convert sunshine into vitamin D.
9) And finally…Getting sick is normal.
Remember that getting sick sometimes is ok. When I get sick, it’s like a wake-up call that says, “Hey Kara, it’s time to slow down and take care of you.” Is there something in you or your child’s life that needs slowing down?
Some parents feel frustrated that they do everything “right” yet their little one still gets hit with a cold, the flu or something else. We’re all exposed to bugs and viruses regularly and the symptoms we may experience means our bodies are doing their job.
When it comes to the impact of these pathogens, remember every little human is different, which means their constitutions may be stronger or weaker than another’s. Keep nourishing your kids, but offer yourself some compassion while you compassionately snuggle your baby back to health.
Herbs and homeopathic remedies can help your child feel more comfortable or move through the sick more quickly. Recurring sicknesses, however, may indicate that something is out of balance and a more specific regime can help restore the body system.
About: Kara McNabb is a naturopathic practitioner who focuses on the mind-body connection and uses a variety of modalities and remedies to assist in wellness. She works with adults and children.