There’s no question that with our current pandemic, immunity is back in the news. There’s lots of talk about natural immunity as opposed to the immunity we get from vaccination. And certainly, among the many “eat this/don’t eat that” ads you see on home web pages, you’re bound to spot a few that tout said food’s effect on the immune system.
With all this talk, you might get the feeling that having good immunity is important—and not just on reality TV shows! But are there right and wrong things to do in getting your little one’s immune system up and running? The answer is a definite yes, and we’ll go over some behaviors that are helpful in that regard. But first, a few words on the body’s immune system.
Immunity: A Few Basics
We use our body’s immune system to fight infection. Fighting infection is important for keeping us from getting sick, but good immunity has other benefits as well. Babies and young children need good immunity for good growth, and for all of us, it contributes to a feeling of well-being that goes beyond just avoiding illness. It’s definitely one of the body systems that has a big role in keeping us running.
The immune system has so many components that you could compose a song to pay homage to them all—something I actually tried to do for a medical student show many years ago. In fact, you’d probably need an opera now, since we are discovering more about the components every day. Many people have heard of some of the major players: B-cells produce proteins called antibodies that can destroy harmful cells or neutralize the toxic chemicals they produce. T-cells have a role in remembering harmful germs and in killing the cells themselves. Many other types of cells and proteins have their role as well, and it’s important that they’re maintained in tip-top shape.
What, you might wonder, are some things that might make a person have less-than-optimal immunity? Here are a few:
- Young infants, even young children, have lower immunity. The immune system develops over time, largely because we have to encounter things in the environment to get it to develop. (Elderly individuals, on the other hand, tend to lose immunity as part of the aging process.)
- Certain chemicals—including some medications—can depress one’s immune system.
- Genetic conditions. This term refers to inherited diseases that babies can be born with. While rare, they can have a devastating effect on immunity. A doctor might look for evidence of impaired immunity in a baby or young child who developed an unusual pattern of infections. (We’re not talking about those constant colds here! That’s usually normal. Physicians would be looking at more severe infections or, sometimes, impaired growth.)
- Certain germs—the HIV virus, for example—can temporarily or permanently destroy components of the immune system.
- Children need protein to provide the materials to construct a healthy immune system; while those of us in developed countries usually get more than enough of it, this can be a problem in developing countries.
OK, we’ve talked about a few basic regarding our immune systems and discussed a few things that might depress it. How can we improve it? Let’s look at a few suggestions, starting with two that you knew I was going to say:
- Immunizations are designed to work with our own immune systems to recognize harmful germs and attack and kill or neutralize them should they invade our bodies.
- Although babies aren’t born with well-developed immune systems, they can benefit from infection-fighting antibodies present in mother’s milk. Breast milk also contains other immune-boosting proteins and even some infection-fighting cells.
- Maintain good nutrition. Again, breastfeeding is optimal here for young infants. “Eat this/don’t eat that” ads notwithstanding (and mercifully, not too many of these homepage extravaganzas are aimed at kid nutrition), older children can benefit from a varied diet; if your kids are eating several servings of a protein source (meat or meat substitute), fruits and vegetables, dairy, and bread/cereal products with at least some whole-grain options, chances are they’re getting enough of everything for a good immune system. And although all nutrients have their role in maintaining good immunity, vitamins C and D and zinc are said by many to be particularly important.
- Reduce stress. Yes, kids and even infants get stressed and need our presence for them to feel less so. If your child is feeling particularly stressed during these uncertain times, give them opportunities to talk about it—or even draw or act out their feelings.
- All sorts of immune-boosting chemicals begin to circulate after being physically active, and doing so will have other benefits for your child’s health.
Finally, there are a couple of other things that are being looked at for their role in immunity, though it’s up for some discussion exactly what that role is:
- This term refers to added “good” bacteria to supplement those already in the gut. Many times they can be depleted during certain illnesses, particularly if antibiotics are used. While this is another compelling reason to avoid unnecessary antibiotics (say, for colds, or because you all are traveling and your child “might get sick”), it’s also a good topic for discussion with your provider.
- “Clean vs. dirty.” While it can’t be denied that good handwashing is one of the best things we can do to combat the spread of infection, from an immune standpoint, there’s some thinking that we are becoming too clean. The thought is that we need small doses of the environment to develop a healthy immune system. (Thinking varies as to whether this helps to fight infection or to stave off allergies.) This is yet another topic for discussion. Meanwhile, if you have a relatively hazard-free backyard and it’s warm enough, there’s likely no harm in having your little one go barefoot in the grass or even the mud! Some individuals who do so swear they rarely get sick, and let’s face it, they’ll be getting some exercise to boot!
The immune system is an area of active research and in recent years has spawned many treatments for a variety of diseases, including COVID-19. Fortunately, the bodies of the great majority of us contain lots of natural immunity and the capacity to develop even more if we pay attention to what works. Following the suggestions above will give the littlest immune systems in your life their best shot at developing well.