It is September, and very soon cooler weather in most parts of the country and wet weather in some others, will bring on the flu season and an onslaught of common infections. So this is the right time to start working on boosting your children’s defences so they do not easily fall prey to infections.
What does immunity actually mean?
Immunity is our body’s ability to fight against infections or unwanted intruders. There is a whole army at work — the immune system — to help the body, and this army is equipped with multiple weapons — special cells, proteins, tissues, and organs — which work everyday, 24/7, to defend us from germs. The main cells in the immune system are ‘white blood cells’, and the number and type of white blood cells (as measured in a blood test) can give a good indication of a person’s immune status — for example, in case of bacterial infection the numbers may rise rapidly.
Generally the immune system does a great job of keeping us healthy. But there are occasions when it fails, leading to illness and infections.
What causes poor immunity?
In both adults and children there are a number of underlying factors that affect the immune status. For instance, our genes play a role in determining how strong or weak our immune system is — some people are blessed with a good immune system while others may have to work hard to keep infections at bay.
Types of Immunity
- Innate – the immunity we are born with. This includes our first layer of protection, our skin. For example, if we have a cut, the cells in the immune system work to repair it quickly so germs do not enter.
- Adaptive or Acquired – the immunity we acquire depending on where we live, the exposure we get to various infections, and the vaccinations or immunisationsthat we get.
- Passive Immunity – the immunity we get from another source. A good example of this is the immunity that the child gets from the mother’s breast milk — temporary protection to infections the mother has been exposed to, thus laying a better foundation for good health in early childhood.
So what weakens the immune system?
- Insufficient protein intake: Protein is an essential component of the immune system and inadequate protein in the diet can make the child more susceptible to infections.
- Insufficient intake of certain vitamins and minerals: Vitamins A, C, D and E are needed forhe proper functioning of the immune system, along with the minerals iron and zinc (for wound healing). Unfortunately micronutrient deficiency — the impact of an inadequate intake of these — does not show immediately, but in the long run has numerous repercussions — one of them being a poor immune system.
- High fat diet: A high fat diet especially high in saturated fat (bad fat found in full-fat milk, butter, cheese, ghee, paneer, red meats andtropical oils like coconut and palm) can weaken the immune system along with contributing to obesity and high cholesterol levels!
- High sugar intake: There is some evidence to show that sugar negatively impacts the functioning of the immune system by suppressing immune cellsresponsible for attacking bacteria. This effect is seen for at least a few hours after consuming a sugary drink.
- Skipping meals: Children must adhere to meal times and not skip meals.Often times it is breakfast, the most important meal of the day, which is compromised, and skipping this meal can have a negative effect on the immune system.
- Obesity: The immune response in obese hildren may be poorer compared to their leaner peers, making them more prone to some infections.
- Sleep deprivation: Children need more sleep than adults. Not getting enough sleep can reduce the number of fighter cells, making our children more prone to cold and other infections. Also, when battling an infection it is important that the child gets enough sleep; for example, fevers usually rise in the night to fight against the infection, but if the child is not sleeping enough, the body cannot fight the infection well. Even vaccines have a weakened protective effect if the child is sleep deprived.
- Stress: Separation anxiety amongst pre-schoolers, younger children juggling school and extra-curricular activities, and adolescents trying to conform tothe peer group and cope with high school exams — these are some typical stressors. When the body is stressed it produces a ‘stress hormone’ which suppresses the immune system.
- Indiscriminate use of antibiotics/ over medication: Indiscriminate usewithout proper supervision can lead to some bugs developing resistance even to these lifesaving drugs. The child’s immune system must learn to fight against germs; if antibiotics areadministered for every infection, the immune system may forget how to do its job!
- Pollution and toxins: Air pollution, pesticides, and passive smoking are other factors which can weaken theimmune system. While the liver helps to detoxify the body, over-exposure to toxins can stress the liver; and whentoxins are not removed from the body they attack healthy and immune cells.
How do we keep the immune system healthy?
While we cannot control many of the factors that affect our immune system, there aresome simple measures we can take to keep the immune system up and about. The tips we read on inculcating healthy habits in children holds good for strengthening their immune system as well.
- Include a variety of fruits and vegetables in your child’s diet: This will ensure an adequate intake of the vitamins — for example, oranges, guava, lemons, gooseberry, and colourful capsicum are good sources of vitamin C. It is not advisable to take mega-dosesof vitamin C supplements to help the immune system — the effect of this practice is yet to be researched completely. Carrots, mangoes and green leafy vegetables are good sources of vitamin A.
- Eat lean meat and fish rich in omega fatty acids: It is easy to meet therequirement for good quality protein, omegas, zinc and iron if the family’s dietary habits include meat. Forvegetarians, including walnuts, dates, eggs, milk, spinach, peanuts, rajma, black eyed peas and soya in your dietcan help to fulfill this requirement. (Read our Nutrition and Wellness articles on fats (Issue 11, Mar-Apr 2013), protein (Issue 12, May-Jun2013) and balanced diets (Issue 13, Jul-Aug 2013) to know more.)
- Know the foods that boost immunity: Many foods boost immunity as they have anti-inflammatory (work against cells which exaggerate the inflammatory response, or help to reduce the inflammation, redness, pain and swelling) or antimicrobial properties. In our country, the remedial properties of certain herbs and spices have been known for centuries. Turmeric, ginger, tulsi and cardamom are often used in home remedies to fight infections. In Ayurveda, amla, aswagandha, licorice, tulsi, honey and many other spices and herbs are used to prepare Chyawanprash, a concoction known to enhance immunity – the recipe for this has been given in the ancient Ayurveda texts. Yogurt/curds are a storehouse of good bacteria and can give a boost to the immune system. Green tea and foods with soluble fibre are getting some attention these days as they are believed to enhance immunity.
- Limit junk food intake: Any food that is high in calories and bad nutrients like saturated fat, trans fat, sugar and salt should be consumed very rarely. Many packaged snacks and bakery products fall in this category. The sugar and fat can suppress the immune system, and the empty calories contribute to weight gain, resulting in a weaker immune system.
- Increase water intake: Water keeps the body hydrated, carries nutrients and helps to remove toxins. It is important that your child drinks 6-8 glasses of water in a day.
- Adhere to mealtimes: Stick to mealtimes as the body needs nutrients and energy to ward off or fight infections. There is definitely enormous merit in sticking to routine, be it mealtimes or sleep time.
- Exercise regularly: Research shows that regular exercise can increase the number of cells that fight infection. Outdoor exercise will also ensure that your child gets the sunshine vitamin (D) as well.
- Increase sleep time: Getting enough sleep can go a long way in helping your child fight infections. 3-6 year olds need 10-12 hours of sleep, children in the age group of 7–12 years need 10- 11 hours and 12-18 year olds need 8-9 hours of sleep.
- Reduce stress: Behavioural changes like mood swings, temper tantrums, change in sleep patterns and bed wetting, and physical changes like headaches and stomach aches, are good indicators of stress in children. You can help enhance your child’s coping skills by ensuring that she gets enough rest and good nutrition.
- Check for germs, but don’t over protect: While it is important to wash hands before eating, wash fruits and vegetables thoroughly and avoid foods cooked in unhygienic conditions, overprotection, at the same time, can be counterproductive — your child needs to be exposed to germs to build immunity. Early exposure to infections may actually help your child.
- Reduce toxins and the use of antibiotics: You may not be able to do much about environmental pollution, but banish smoking inside the house. Also do not be overwhelmed by your child’s every sickness and pressurise the paediatrician into prescribing antibiotics — it is best to trust the doctor’s judgment and give the body an opportunity to fight the infection by itself.