Doctor’s Tip: How to boost your child’s immune system
There are two issues that need to be discussed. One is how to make your child more resistant to childhood illnesses such as colds and ear infections. The second issue is how to prevent your child from eventually suffering from the chronic diseases that afflict so many American adults, such as heart disease, diabetes and cancer. Today’s column addresses the first issue.
The average young child gets 7 to 10 viral upper respiratory infections a year, often complicated by ear infections. To understand how you can boost your child’s immunity, you need to have a basic understanding of the immune system. In his book “How Not to Die,” Dr. Greger notes that “the first layer of protection against intruders are physical surface barriers” like your skin; the mucus membranes that line your nose and mouth; the layer of cells that lines the intestines; and the microbiome (billions of bacteria) in your mouth, upper respiratory tract and your GI tract. The next layer of defense are white blood cells called neutrophils that attack viruses and bacteria; another type of white blood cells known as B cells, that make antibodies that “home in like smart bombs” when pathogens appear; and “natural killer cells that put your cells out of their misery if they become cancerous or infected with a virus.”
What factors boost your child’s immunity?
• Vaginal secretions a baby gets during a vaginal birth colonize their gut with “good” bacteria, that help fight infection. If the child is delivered by caesarian, vaginal secretions wiped on the baby’s mouth accomplish the same thing.
• Breast feeding until age 2.
• In older children, adequate sleep, stress reduction and physical activity. (Note that too much physical activity such as training for competitive sports can lower immunity).
• Eating fruit and vegetables.
• Avoidance of unnecessary antibiotics.
Some examples of how eating fruit and vegetables improve immune function are the following: Kale dripped on white blood cells in a petri dish in the lab increases antibody production. Intensely-colored fruit such as berries boost numbers of killer cells. Cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts and cabbage contain compounds that boost intestinal defenses. Mushrooms boost blood levels of IgA antibodies.
The gut microbiome consists of billions of bacteria and has implications for several aspects of our health, including immunity. So-called pre-biotics such as fiber feed health-promoting bacteria in our gut microbiome; pre-biotics are found in plants but not animal products. Antibiotics can be life-saving in the setting of severe bacterial infections, but can also hamper immunity by causing antibiotic-resistant bacteria in our body and by killing health-promoting bacteria in our gut microbiome.
Joel Fuhrman, M.D., is one of the giants in plant-based nutrition. He wrote a book called “Disease-Proof Your Child.” In it he mentions that in general American children eat less than 2 percent of their diet from natural plant foods such as fruits and vegetables and that “25 percent of toddlers between ages one and two eat no fruits and vegetables at all.” Your mother had it right when she said “eat your veggies and go outside and play.”
Next week’s columns will discuss preventing chronic diseases that are common in older children and adults.
Dr. Feinsinger, who retired from Glenwood Medical Associates after 42 years as a family physician, has a nonprofit Center For Prevention and Treatment of Disease Through Nutrition. He is available for free consultations about heart attack prevention and any other medical concerns. Call 970-379-5718 for an appointment. For questions about his columns, email him at email@example.com.