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Boosting your child’s immune system: the key to a successful school year

Resident Nutritionist, Magdalena Marvell, tackles the challenges faced when children return to school, where bugs and infections are quite common.

Heading back to school can be both exciting and stressful for children, especially with the challenges their immune system faces in a nursery or school environment where bugs and infections are quite common. Equipping your child with the best possible defence mechanisms for the new school year is essential, and a great place to start is by supporting their microbiome, where over 70% of the immune system resides.
 
Probiotics are living microorganisms that naturally exist in the human digestive system, primarily colonising the colon. These tiny helpers play a vital role in promoting digestive health and fortifying the immune response. When levels of beneficial bacteria and microorganisms in the colon are low, harmful pathogens can gain a foothold more easily.
 
For babies, probiotics can be especially beneficial in reducing the severity and occurrence of gastroenteritis, diarrhoea, and colic. In children, they also support the development of a robust immune system. However, it’s important to note that probiotics are not a cure-all and should not replace a healthy lifestyle or balanced diet.
 
To enhance probiotic levels in the colon, a nutritious diet rich in grains, fruits, and vegetables is essential. Additionally, probiotic supplementation can provide an extra boost, ensuring a well-balanced and thriving digestive system.
 
Various factors like diet, environment, lifestyle, hormones, and even exam stress can impact a child’s gut microbial composition, which, in turn, affects their overall wellbeing. Fortunately, certain probiotic strains have shown promising effects in assisting immune function. For instance, Lactobacillus rhamnosus GG® has been clinically proven to reduce the risk and duration of upper respiratory infections in children1.
 
Additionally, Bifidobacterium breve M-16V® has been extensively studied in over 4,000 infants and has been found to increase Bifidobacteria levels in the gut, which is associated with immune regulation and digestive health2.
 
So how can we support our children’s microbiome? 
1. The gut microbiome thrives on dietary fibre, which is abundant in complex carbohydrates found in plants. Research indicates that when the gut microbes are deprived of nourishment, they resort to consuming the protective mucus that lines the inner walls of the intestine. This situation can trigger an immune response, leading to chronic inflammation, and potentially contributing to autoimmune disorders like inflammatory bowel disease, allergies, and asthma.
 
To support your child’s developing microbiome, it’s essential to provide a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and legumes. These wholesome foods offer ample nourishment, ensuring the beneficial bacteria in the gut stay well-fed and promoting a healthier digestive system and overall wellbeing for your child. Giving kids probiotic supplements can also do wonders! These supplements can make their microbiome much more diverse and healthier, which is a big win for their overall well-being.
 
2. Let’s encourage healthier eating habits with familiar and imaginative choices! You can start by offering your child options like crunchy carrots dipped in creamy hummus, steamed edamame, or delicious black-bean quesadillas with avocado on wholesome whole-grain tortillas. Making these choices familiar and enjoyable can make a significant difference.
 
To make it even more engaging, you can introduce a fun concept to your child’s imagination. Tell them about their “pet” bacteria that live inside all of us and need proper care. Whenever you serve a plate full of vegetables, remind your child that their pets bacteria are hungry, and they are usually excited to help their pet bacteria by eating the veggies.
 
By combining familiar choices, storytelling, and playful elements, we can cultivate a positive and healthy relationship with food, making mealtime a fun experience for your child!
 
3. Research from Georgetown University Medical Centre suggests that incorporating live and active cultures, also known as good bacteria, found in various yogurts, may help reduce the frequency of illnesses in children, especially troublesome gastrointestinal infections3.
 
Another option for edible bacteria is the fermented dairy drink kefir, while miso and unpasteurised sauerkraut are also viable choices, though they might be less appealing to kids. When selecting yogurt for children, it’s important to be cautious as many marketed options are high in sugar, and some yogurt-based products like yogurt-covered raising may not contain live cultures at all.
 
To introduce unsweetened yogurt to children, a gradual approach can be effective. One way is to add a teaspoon of stevia or maple syrup initially and then slowly reduce the amount over a few weeks, allowing them to appreciate the unique tang of the yogurt without unnecessary sweetness.
 
4. Antibiotics are undoubtedly crucial for saving lives, but they do come with drawbacks. Since these drugs kill bacteria indiscriminately, they not only eliminate harmful bacteria but also the beneficial ones in your child’s microbiome. This loss can have far-reaching effects on your child’s long-term health, as research has shown.
 
A 2014 study from the University of Chicago, using mice as subjects, found a link between antibiotics and peanut allergies4. Similarly, a 2020 study conducted by Mayo Clinic researchers revealed that antibiotic use in children under two was associated with a higher risk of asthma, celiac disease, and excess weight gain5. These findings suggest that antibiotics may progressively alter the functionality of the microbiome, leading to such health implications.
 
Given this research, it is now more critical than ever for parents and paediatricians to use antibiotics only when necessary. By reserving antibiotics for illnesses that truly require them, we can help preserve the balance of the microbiome and safeguard our children’s long-term well-being.
 
5. Let your child engage in garden play and enjoy pet companionship. Encouraging your child to play in the garden and spend time with pets offers simple yet effective ways to expose them to beneficial bacteria while minimising the risk of harmful ones. Notably, a study published in JAMA found that babies raised in the presence of dogs are less likely to develop asthma before the age of six6. Additionally, gardening provides an opportunity for children to encounter bacteria from soil and animals, contributing to a diverse and healthy microbiome. 
 
6. Be mindful when sterilising for the sake of your child’s microbiome. According to a study published in CMAJ, commonly used household cleaners may have an impact on children’s gut microbiota, potentially leading to weight-related issues7. The research from Canada suggests that these cleaners might be altering the balance of beneficial bacteria in the gut, which could have implications for a child’s weight and overall health. 
 
To promote a healthier microbiome, it might be beneficial to exercise restraint with hand sanitiser use and explore alternatives to bleach-based cleaning products. Using excessive hand sanitiser and harsh cleaning chemicals can disrupt the balance of beneficial bacteria in the environment and on our hands. 
 
References
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