Episode 21: Understanding & Supporting Your Child’s Immune System
Welcome to our first episode in our Kids immunity series!
As we head into winter here in the southern hemisphere, I am going to share inspiring information and practical tips on Kids’ immunity. Their immune system, so you can keep your kids healthy over the winter!
In this episode, I’ll be talking about how you can better understand your kids’ immune system so you can prevent and treat winter infections naturally.
Listen in as I delve deeper into:
- The two main branches of the immune system and how they work
- Inflammation as an immune system response
- Factors that affect the immune system: food and nutrition, environment, gut health, sleep and more
- Avoiding an over-reliance on antibiotics for kids’ health and immunity
- Get your copy of my Foods to Boost immunity cheat sheet
- Improve your kids’ gut and immune health with my free Kids’ Gut Health eBook
- Learn more about fever medication here
- Learn more about the antibiotic cycle and how to help your kids recover from antibiotics
Hello, hello! Welcome back to the podcast, Jessica Donovan here!
It’s great to be here with you today. I’m excited because we are starting an immunity series. The weather is starting to cool down here in the southern hemisphere, anyway. I know I have been getting messages from mums and clients and our Klub members. It’s a common recurring question in the Klub at the moment. You know, how can we boost our kids immune system and help them recover from illness? How can we treat their infections naturally this winter? These are the sorts of things that we are going to be covering throughout the next five or six weeks while we talk all about kids’ immune system.
This is really translatable to adults as well. Some of it is going to be specific to kids but what you learn here will help your own immune system too. So I’m excited to get stuck into this with you and I have a freebie for you. We have created a Foods To Boost Immunity Cheat Sheet. You can head on over to the show notes and download your copy for free. It’s a really easy-to-use cheat sheet, you can stick it on your fridge. It lists a whole heap of different foods that you can include in your family’s diet to improve their immune system and your own immune system.
As we’re going to be talking about over the next few weeks, food is one of the big factors. Food and nutrition in our kids’ immune system. So make sure you head on over and grab your copy of the cheat sheet. When you download it, we will also follow up with some really practical tips in emails over the week after you sign up for the Foods to Boost Immunity Cheat Sheet. You’ll learn a lot not just in the cheat sheet, but in the emails that follow the cheat sheet as well. Well worth your time to head on over and down load that for sure.
So the first topic I want to cover in this immune series is understanding your child’s immune system. As I said, a lot of this is relatable to adults as well. Now, immunity is one of the most complex and sophisticated systems of the human body. We don’t need to understand all of the different elements of immunity but I’m just going to go over some of the basics. The basics that I think is really helpful for you to understand as a parent.
So unlike other body systems, there’s no other place that the immune system lives. It’s made up of various organs, cells and chemicals that fight pathogens or disease-causing germs. This prevents damage to our cells and allows us to survive and thrive. Without an immune system, we would not survive for very long. The thing that I really want to break down for you to start off with is the main two branches of the immune system. They are the innate immune system and the adaptive immune system. This might bring back some memories from high school, you know, biology or uni subjects you might have done. So I want to give you a bit of an overview.
The innate immune system is a very basic and general form of immunity. It is one of the first lines of defense against any germ or any injury. The cells of this part of the immune system attack anything that is unfamiliar in the body. They are not selective, and our kids rely mostly on this form of immunity when they’re young. This is because the other branch, the adaptive immune system that we’re going to be talking about in a moment, is still very immature. So much of the innate basic immune system is inherited. We, as mothers, pass innate immunity onto our babies and it does strengthen as children age. It does develop. The main part of the immune system that our very young children and babies rely on is this innate immune system.
The other part of the immune system is the adaptive immune system. This is also known as acquired immunity, and that name kind of gives you a bit of a hint. So the cells of this branch of the immune system are the second responders. They take a little longer to kick in, but their effects are more specific to the invading germs. I’m going to give you some concrete examples of how this works in a moment. So the adaptive part of the immune system develops as we are exposed to pathogens. Babies are born with very little adaptive immunity, and it takes years for the adaptive immune system to strengthen.
The main reason that children, particularly young children fall sick all the time is because this adaptive immune system is still growing and developing. But the good news is that this allows our kids to develop a strong adaptive immune system. Every time they are exposed to a pathogen, a germ or an infection, that adaptive part of their immune system is developing. So we can celebrate those minor illnesses that our kids are having, because we know that it’s strengthening their immune systems.
If you feel frustrated dealing with constantly sick kids, it is reassuring to know that it’s normal. Even healthy for our kids to be picking up these germs and building up that adaptive part of their immune system. As long as your kids bounce back fairly quickly from illness, they’re on track. You can kind of be assured that they’re on track for building a robust immune system.
Let’s have a little look at what this looks like in action, because it can be a little bit to get your head around. Say your child is exposed to a pathogen through a friend at school, or kindy. Let’s say that that virus makes contact with the skin on their hand. The first layer of immune defense is the natural barriers of the body. These include the skin, the mucous membranes in areas such as the respiratory tract and the gut. Because of these barriers, many germs never even make it into the body. So we have these kind of natural barriers that keep out germs as well. But once the virus does make it into the body, the first response comes from the innate immune system. That one that babies are born with, the very general and nonspecific.
White blood cells, such as neutrophils and natural killer cells circulate through the bloodstream. They’re basically cruising around looking for any invading germs or foreign objects. And when these cells find invading germs, they will try to control it by eating or consuming. We call it Phagocytosis in science terms, that the virus or the invading organism. But because viruses and other germs multiply quickly, the innate response is often not enough to get on top of that infection. So this is where the adaptive immune system comes in. Immune cells, such as T cells and B cells come along. They produce antibodies to fight that specific germ. These antibodies will remember that pathogen and how to fight it.
So the next time that the virus makes it into the body, the immune system knows exactly what to do to defeat it. If you think about young kids particularly, are coming in contact with a whole heap of germs that their bodies have never seen before. But as we get older, we’re more likely to have experienced that germ before and the adaptive immune system kicks in quickly. Once the adaptive immune system is built up, the immune system can fight off germs without reaching the stage of causing symptoms. Have you ever wondered how you can have kids in your bed coughing and sneezing on you when they’re sick, but you don’t get sick?
It’s probably because the germ did get into your body, but your adaptive immunity knew that germ. It was familiar with that germ, and it got rid of it before infection set in. So I know lots of mums get confused about that. I mean, lots of mums do get their kids germs as well. But the reason kids get more sick more often than adults is because their adaptive immune system has had all the years to build up, whereas the kids haven’t. So hopefully that makes sense.
I want to move on now to talk a bit about inflammation. Inflammation is a response of the immune system. It’s important to know that short term inflammation is normal and it’s a natural part of defending against infection. So inflammation is how our immune cells communicate with each other. It helps to coordinate the response of the immune system. Chronic inflammation is not a good thing but we are supposed to be having an increase in inflammation when we are fighting off an infection. The downside of inflammation is that it’s also why we feel so unwell when we catch a bug.
So symptoms such as aches and pains, fever and fatigue, and generally feeling miserable when we’re sick. They’re caused by the inflammation, not the germs themselves. Parents often reach for fever medication, whether it be paracetamol or ibuprofen to ease the symptoms of their sick kids. But these can suppress the inflammatory response and slow the communication of the immune system. Of course, there’s a time and a place for these sorts of medications but if we rush for them too quick, we’re actually not doing the immune system any favours. So I am going to talk a bit a bit more about that towards the end of the podcast episode.
There is a time and a place for using medicine for infections, as I said. We know that inflammation can go too far with some infections such as Coronavirus. Lead to a cytokine storm, which is where it can become pretty dangerous. But if your child is alert and responsive when they’re unwell and they’ve got a fever, they’re generally unlikely to need medication. So it actually can reduce the immune response when we are too quick to give fever medications to our kids. We want to be thinking about that.
Let’s talk about some of the factors that affect the immune system. There are a lot of different factors that can affect our immune system both positively and negatively. As I said earlier, one of the big factors for our immune system is food and nutrition. This can have both a positive and a negative effect on our immune system. Our immune system relies on nutrients to function properly. If our kids are not eating food that contains these important nutrients such as zinc and vitamin C and antioxidants, then the immune system is not going to be functioning at its best. So we want to be getting lots of good whole foods into our kids systems throughout the winter, particularly. So that our kids’ immune systems are well powered.
We do have a free download. You are welcome to head on over to the show notes and grab a copy for yourself. It’s all about foods to boost immunity. We list a whole heap of foods that are high in these immune powering nutrients that are important to get into your kids. It doesn’t have to be big shifts that you make to your kids’ diet, just including more of these healthy immune foods into your family’s diet can make a huge difference to how their immune system functions throughout the winter. So food and nutrition, really important. I’m going to be delving into this in more detail on next week’s episode. But just know that food and nutrition has a profound impact on your family’s immune system.
Environment also has a big impact on immunity. Particularly, the exposure to microbes. As I have talked about, that adaptive immunity is built up through exposure to different germs and bugs. Our kids’ immune defenses are built up by exposure to microbes within our environment. I’ve delved into this topic in the podcast in earlier episodes. If you’re interested to know more about how environmental exposure to microbes can affect our kids’ immune system and also their gut health, have a listen to Episode 6. This is where I talk about the hygiene hypothesis. Episode 7 is where I talk about some really fascinating forest floor research.
Make sure you pop those on your listening wish list because again, I’m not going to go into too much detail about that. But our kids’ environment can definitely have an impact on their immune system as can their lifestyle. Kids are spending a lot more time indoors than they ever have before. So they’re not getting that exposure to different microbes that they do in the outdoor environment. They’re not getting exposure to as much fresh air. Sunshine where a lot of our vitamin D comes, which is one of those really important immune powering nutrients. So thinking about your kids’ environment and their lifestyle is really important as well.
The other thing that can have a real positive and negative effect on our kids’ immune system is their gut health. So the gut has a significant influence on the immune system. By supporting a healthy gut, you support healthy immune development. There’s no doubt about it. When I see kids that are constantly sick, particularly kids with recurrent infections (this is going to be something I delve into in an episode in a few weeks). Gut health is one of the big things that I am looking at in those kids, because they’ve often been on antibiotics. And so, that can have a detrimental effect on the gut. There’s so many other things that can affect gut as well.
A healthy gut is really crucial for a healthy immune system. So we want to be thinking of those things first and foremost. Diet and nutrition, environment and lifestyle, and gut health when we’re thinking about improving our kids’ immune systems. Now, we have another freebie, which is a Gut Health eBook. I’ll pop a link to that in the show notes because that talks you through a step by step approach of improving your child’s gut health. That will be really handy if that’s an area that you are looking to focus on.
So what about things that have a negative effect on our kids’ immune systems? Well, the wrong food and nutrition can have a negative effect on our kids’ immune system. Spending too much time indoors and not enough time outdoors also has a negative effect. Poor gut health as well. When we think about the modern diet, it’s full of sugar, processed food and low in nutrients and fibre. And this is not having a good influence on our children’s immune system. Poor sleep is another thing that can negatively affect our kids’ and adults’ immune systems. Stress is a big no-no, when it comes to healthy immunity. High level ongoing stress leads to a depleted immune system.
Environmental toxins can have a negative effect on our kids’ immune system. Over-sanitation and hygiene, this is what I delve into in that Episode 6, the hygiene hypothesis. So, overly focusing on hygiene and sanitation leads to a reduction in the microbes that our kids are exposed to. This is not good for their immune system. So we want to minimise these negative factors that have an impact on our kids’ immune systems. A lot of mums get frustrated with constant sickness in their kids. Hopefully from listening to this episode, you’re a little bit more comfortable with your kids picking up those minor infections. Those little colds and sniffles throughout the winter.
I know it can be really inconvenient but I wanted to talk a little bit about how we can spot if our child does have a healthy immune system. I mean, if they’re sick after sickness, after sickness, then there’s probably something that we can do to help boost their immune system. But unlike adults, a child falling sick frequently doesn’t necessarily mean that they have poor immunity. It’s common for kids to catch multiple bugs, you know, throughout a winter. Particularly in that first year that they’re in care, whether that’s childcare or kindy. I remember my kids had a pretty awful year of kindy because they never went to childcare. They weren’t exposed to all those childcare bugs, which made those years very much easier for me.
But that first year of kindy, they certainly picked up their fair share of minor kind of bugs and sniffles. So that’s pretty normal and as I said, we can celebrate that their adaptive immunity is building up. The true deciding factor whether your child has a healthy immune system or not, is how quickly your child bounces back from illness. A child with a healthy robust immune system will recover quickly from bugs. They won’t have the runny nose on winter or the cough for months after catching a cold. Obviously, depending on the particular bug that they’ve had. So how quickly they respond can vary depending on the infection. It may take a week or so to get over the flu, but only a day or two to get over a minor cold.
If symptoms are lingering for weeks or even months after a child is falling ill, you need to look at supporting their immune system health. The first point of call for this apart from what we’ve been talking about during this podcast episode, is to get a copy of that Foods To Boost Immunity Cheat Sheet. That’s really going to help to start to get more of those really important nutrients into your family’s diet. We can learn to look at our kids’ sickness in a bit of a different light. Of course, it can be frustrating when your kids fall sick. You have to take days off work and you’re up all night because they’re coughing.
I just hope that this makes you a little bit more comfortable with slowing down when it comes to reaching for medications to ease your kids’ sickness symptoms. To get them back to school, kindy or childcare quicker. You know, it’s really important that kids rest, they stay hydrated when they’re sick. I know because of our busy lifestyles, often kids are rushed back to school or care quicker than they really should be. So it’s perfectly normal for our kids to fall sick quickly and fairly frequently. To feel tired and grumpy when sick, to lose their appetite while their body focuses on fighting the germs. Lots of mums get really stressed about the fact that their kids aren’t eating much when they’re sick, and they’ve got a fever.
But, you know, we’ve got to think about the body only has a certain amount of resources. So nearly all of those resources, or a significant portion of those resources are going into fighting off the germ. Which leaves less resources for digestive processes. If it’s only a day or two that your kids aren’t eating, or not eating a lot, don’t worry too much about it. Keep them hydrated and let them rest. They’re that two most important things. But it is also normal for kids to bounce back quickly from illness. So if your kids aren’t doing that, then their immune system probably needs a bit of attention.
Most kids don’t need antibiotics and fever medication every time they are sick. These are the sorts of kids that I see in my work as a Naturopath. Those kids that are constantly on antibiotics because mum and dad don’t know what else to do. And that’s the only answer they’re given when they visit the doctor, when their child has another infection. But we’ve got to trust that our kids’ bodies know what to do a little bit more. Of course, there is a time and a place for antibiotics. There’s a time and a place for fever medications. But these things can be detrimental short and long term to a child’s immune functions and immune response. So let me talk a little bit more about that.
Say your child has an infection and you get prescribed some antibiotics, and your child starts taking those antibiotics. Yes, that’s going to kill the infection if it’s a bacterial infection only. A lot of antibiotics are prescribed for viral infections, and they’re not going to be very efficient at killing viruses at all. They are designed to kill bacteria. Antibiotics are very efficient at killing bacteria and getting rid of symptoms of illness fairly fast. But what they also do is they deplete the good healthy bacteria within the gut. These healthy bacterias have a really important role to play in the immune system. And so you end up on this kind of antibiotic cycle where you’re giving your kids antibiotics for the infection.
It’s wiping out the good bacteria, which is leaving their immune systems depleted. So then they are more likely to catch the next bug that’s going around and the cycle continues. Obviously as I’ve said, there is a time and a place for antibiotics for sure. But a lot of antibiotics are taken unnecessarily and lead to further and further problems and with a child’s immune system. So we want to be thinking about, are antibiotics really necessary? And getting some professional advice around that, of course. Fever medications such as paracetamol or ibuprofen are often taken way too quickly. Again, there’s a time and a place.
If your child is unresponsive. If their temperature is over 39 degrees as a good sort of general rule for a period of time, then we might want to think about using something to bring that fever down. But we need to rethink fever as well. Fever is a healthy response to infection. It actually helps to stimulate immune function and it slows down the infectious microbe that’s causing the infection. So it’s actually helping to fight off that particular infection in a couple of different ways. As I said, it’s stimulating our own immune response. It’s slowing down the infectious microbe that is causing the illness.
The other thing it does is it slows down our kids so that they are able to rest adequately to try and recover from the illness. I will link to an article that goes into a bit more detail about fever, and some natural approaches to fever. It gives you a bit more context and information about fever medications, and when they may and may not be necessary. So I think it’s really important to avoid rushing to the pharmaceutical medications. There are other things that we can do, and we’re going to be talking about some of those in the upcoming weeks. So please make sure, your one action step for today. Your number one action step for today is to download your copy of the Foods to Boost Immunity Cheat Sheet that is in the show notes.
Don’t just download it, print it out and stick that on your fridge or save it on your computer somewhere. Actually, take action to include more of these immune boosting foods into your family’s diet. It’ll do you all the world of good. Don’t wait until you know the sickness hits. Start doing it now because these things take a bit of time to build up that immune function. There are also foods on there that can be really helpful to give to your kids when they are actually sick. So make sure you download that Foods to Boost Immunity Cheat Sheet.
I really hope that this episode has helped you to understand your child’s immune system. Helped you to understand inflammation and its role in infection. Given you a bit of an idea of those factors that can affect your immune your family’s immune system, both positively and negatively. And hopefully, you’ve also learned to celebrate those minor illnesses that your kids get because it is helping to build up their immune system. Next week, I am going to be going into more depth about foods and nutrition that helps to boost your kids’ immune system. I hope that you will tune in then! I will see you and in the meantime, please send me a DM on Instagram at Natural Super Kids telling me what you learned in this episode.
What action you are going to take based on what you learned in this episode? I really love to hear from you in my Instagram DMs. So yeah, that’s a great place to connect. If you listen to this podcast episode and you enjoy it, please share it with your friends you can share on your Instagram stories. We always share little snippets of the podcast over on our Instagram at Natural Super Kids. You can literally just share one of our posts or you can take a screenshot of your phone while you’re listening to the episode. Share it on your own Instagram or Facebook. Just be sure to tag us Natural Super Kids on both Instagram and Facebook we are, so we can connect with you.
Okay, I will see you next week!