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6 things parents can do now to supports kids' immune systems for fall

As kids go back to school, a nutritionist shares things you can do as a parent to help focus on their overall health.

Millions of Americans are getting back-to-school ready. Yet amongst the new school supplies and excitement looms a pandemic that we just can’t seem to get rid of. Additionally, the bulk of grade-school children are heading back without the opportunity to get vaccinated. Therefore, a focus on what’s best for the immune system should be added to our back-to-school list of priorities.

Handwashing, limiting exposure to high-risk situations and avoiding contact with individuals who are sick is key, but there are six more things you can do to help your entire family's immune systems thrive.

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1. Focus on dietary color.

Research indicates that colorful plants, especially green leafy vegetables, cruciferous vegetables, citrus fruits, deeply hued berries, sweet potatoes and tomatoes may help to enhance the function of immune cells. They are also high in nutrients associated with better immune systems such as vitamins C and D and minerals zinc and selenium.

Easy ways to get more colorful plants in your little one include adding berries or carrots to packed lunches, focusing on fruit with proteins or healthy fats as snacks (such as an apple with peanut butter) and adding veggies to soups and stews. Consider including your child in purchasing and food preparation activities, which could help with interest in consuming healthy foods.

2. Give your kids a good gut.

The majority of your immune system resides in the gut. If gut health is strong, then the immune system will be more likely to follow. Colorful plants not only have immune-boosting properties, they are also high in fiber. Adequate dietary fiber has been associated with better gut health and in turn, more balanced immune function. Additionally, encouraging foods that are high in prebiotics and probiotics can also help in developing a good microbiota.

One way to achieve this is by serving foods like bananas and whole-grain bread (for prebiotics) or cheese and yogurt (for probiotics) to your child’s diet. Choose unsweetened plain versions and add in berries or a little honey for natural sweetness.

3. Create a healthy sleep environment.

Adequate sleep is the centerpiece of a healthy immune system. A 2019 study showed that sleep enhances the efficiency of T-cells, a type of cell involved in the body’s immune response. Another study in identical twins found that the twin with the greatest sleep deprivation had the most impact on suppression of the immune system.

To encourage adequate sleep, first focus on setting the bedroom stage. You can do this by providing a comfortable temperature and shades that omit light from getting in the room. As an added benefit, creating a stimulus-free environment will also go a long way to better sleep. That means no TVs or cell phones allowed when it’s time for bed and preferably, even a few hours before. This helps to ensure good sleep quality.

As far as quantity, The American Academy of Sleep Medicine recommend that school-age children between the ages of 6-12 get at least nine to 12 hours each night and teenagers age 13-18 get eight to 10 hours each night.

4. Start stress management early.

Several aspects of parenting can be associated with an increase in stress. As adults, we feel it, and our body shows it. It’s no different for children. Studies show that when the body experiences chronic stress, it loses the ability to regulate normal inflammatory responses which can adversely impact the immune system. Studies further show that kids experiencing high psychological stress in their family may have depressed immunity and difficulty in warding off infections.

5. Encourage movement.

The debate between exercise and immunity continues. Does exercise do more harm for the immune system than good? Research shows that long-term, heavy exercise may in fact work against a healthy immune system. Kids, however, are less likely to be engaging in intense exercise though. New research indicates that any movement is better for the immune system than no movement at all. For kids, this means taking them off the couch and onto the trail (or pavement or grass). Taking a family walk every day can help not only your children’s immune system but yours as well.

6. Quit YOUR bad habits.

Studies show that the most powerful predictor of your kid’s healthy habits is you. If you eat colorful plants, and limit refined grains, ultra-processed foods and added sugars, they will most likely follow. Modeling good eating and exercise behaviors are critical, but in terms of immune function, one habit in particular may be detrimental to immune health: smoking. Environmental toxins have been found to have a major impact on immune function. A 2018 study in animals found that secondhand smoke increased inflammatory factors in the body and reduced immunity, especially for respiratory infections. If there was ever a time to quit smoking, clearly, it’s now.

Should you add in supplements?

While it may be tempting to add in some zinc, vitamin C or echinacea gummies to your child’s diet, studies show that their interaction to immune function does not compare to the impact that foods with these components will provide.

Finally, it’s important to recognize the fact that no food, herb, root or supplement will actually “boost” the immune system and experts believe that this concept of “boosting” is not exactly what you want in the first place. Instead, a healthy immune system is about generating the appropriate response at the right time. Keeping good personal hygiene, maintaining a healthy weight, consuming a healthy diet, limiting toxins and getting adequate sleep and exercise will help your immune system work as well as it can. Focus on habits that will reduce overall inflammation and provide balance (not too much, and not too little) to your immune system.