When I hear a parent tell me that their kids get ear infections, upper respiratory infections, stomach bugs, and need antibiotics more than once a year, I wonder why. Is this your house too? Are your kids passing colds back and forth all winter long? Sniffles and fevers every month, for someone in the house? It can be better.
It didn’t used to be this way. Are kids less healthy?
The answer is yes. More kids than ever before have chronic illness, obesity, and/or disability in the US – in fact, over half of them do. And more US children are in poverty now than in the last fifty years – which means many, many kids are eating poorly and falling into mild to moderate malnutrition.
Kids spend more time indoors and in front of screens, less time moving and playing outside in fresh air, and are swimming in electromagnetic forces (EMFs) from wireless devices, 24/7. They can barely escape the flow of media targeted at them.
Their stress is unprecedented too, as schools dial up testing, homework, and extracurricular activities.
Add to this unprecedented use of prescription drugs for kids – from reflux medicines to more vaccine doses to Tylenol, anti-inflammatories, steroids, psychiatric medicines, and antibiotics – and you’ve got even more toxicity for the body to clear. Flu shots in particular may add to this problem – are they spreading more infection than they prevent? Viruses from vaccines can shed and spread; this is called “secondary transmission“, and flu shots are among the most common culprits for this effect. The data are not very supportive of annual flu shots – read more here.
Lousy food. More stress. Less sleep. More toxicity. It’s a perfect recipe for dropping an immune system!
Luckily, what kids eat makes a huge difference, possibly the most important difference, and you can work with that. There are “extensive, synergistic, antagonistic, and cyclical interactions” between nutrition and infection (source here). Infants and children in strong nutrition status get sick less often and recover faster than kids who are underweight, overweight, or who are marginal for key nutrients. Marginal or low status for even one vitamin, mineral, or macronutrient can lower the immune system’s power! Give your kids the building blocks they need to fight infections.
Think of it this way: When the rains come, you want your roof to be strong and water tight. You don’t start repairing the leaks after it starts raining. Food and nutrition is like that roof. If it’s leaky to begin with, your child will stay sick longer, get sick more often, and may have complications. Sure, you can give your child supplements to support clearing of infection and fighting fever when they are sick. But you can also prevent leaks to assure that the roof weathers the storms.
Get these in, day in and day out, year round:
Enough Food – Simple, right? But if your child is picky with a narrow, weak appetite, this is a problem to fix. Kids who are too thin for their height (weight for length, weight for stature, or body mass index below 10th percentile) will get sick more often and stay sick longer. Appetite can be suppressed by reflux, mineral deficiencies, antibody reactions to foods, or latent gut overgrowth of Candida, yeast, parasites, or unfriendly bacteria like Klebsiella oxytoca and others. Contact me for an appointment if you would like to troubleshoot this and turn your child’s appetite around, so they can eat enough to thrive.
Varied Food – Kids need carbs, protein, fats, oils, plus minerals and vitamins – the works – most every day. Many parents I meet in my practice have become afraid of certain foods. Some over-restrict carbs, others over-restrict fats and oils, while still others give only one or two protein sources (usually, dairy). Using a Flintstone’s chewable won’t go far to overcome a poor diet. Most over the counter kids multivitamins are just that – a few low potency vitamins. No minerals, and if any, they’re at irrelevant dosages. If your child is picky and eats mostly dairy for protein, s/he is probably missing a number of key nutrients that the immune system needs to build its defense mechanisms. Plus, whole fresh foods offer antioxidants and phytochemicals that aren’t classified as “essential” nutrients but are notable for their beneficial immune modulating effects. Variety is so essential to fueling a strong growth pattern and strong foundation for your child’s immune system to run its many moving parts. Even if growth status is good and your child eats enough quantity, if the quality is sub-par, s/he will be more vulnerable to infection.
Protein – Our immune systems are extraordinary intelligence if nothing else. They are comprised of countless molecules that we manufacture and “remember”, moment to moment, in response to our environments. These molecules are almost entirely proteins. They need a lot of building material! So do bones, skin, and every other tissue, as well as hormones and neurotransmitters that help your kid sleep, pay attention at school, or calm down in the evening. Protein demands are high in kids, who are growing, playing, and learning. Being sick increases protein demands. Not only do kids need enough protein, they need enough fats and carbs around that protein in their diets, to protect the protein so that it isn’t just burned up as fuel. Sure signs that too little protein is on board include slowed growth for height, brittle hair, peeling soft nails… and getting sick often. Protein needs to be good quantity and good quality: Use varied sources that don’t trigger inflammatory reactions. If your kids have eczema, stuffy noses, seasonal allergies, or picky bloated bellies, rule out food allergy (IgE reactions) and food sensitivity (IgG reactions). Making antibodies to food is one thing that will drag your kids’ infection fight down for sure. If they’re eating triggering foods all year, expect more colds and flu in the winter season.
Iron – …It’s complicated. We need it. But, iron is toxic if we have too much; in fact, it’s potentially lethal, so don’t give your kids iron supplements without professional guidance. Guess what else needs iron? Bacteria. Viruses may also target iron toting cells in the body for their own needs as well. This is why you don’t supplement iron when a child is sick. It’s like fertilizing the weeds, and your child may get sicker as they bloom in his body! Because of this, humans evolved with a number of tricks to sequester iron away from harmful infectious agents – like hoarding iron away from serum and into storage proteins like ferritin. Clever… but this can create a sort of anemia, or other problems. I help parents get blood work done to identify iron status for kids, and your pediatrician can do this too. If your child is teetering on the edge of anemia, has pre-anemia, or weak iron stores, then the next bug that comes along may have a better shot at your kid. Every time a child gets sick, iron stores are drawn upon to help fight infection. Read my blog on iron and anemia here – and get on iron rich foods like pumpkin seeds, hemp hearts, sesame tahini or seeds, lentils, dark meats, red meats, eggs, and dark greens. Kids with chronic inflammatory conditions or chronic infection especially need attention on this problem, as these circumstances change iron kinetics in the body.
Vitamin A – Before vaccines were available, a lot of effort was made to identify why some kids breezed through infections like measles while others had stark complications, died, or suffered vision loss from it. One of the first things researchers noted, as far back as the 1920s, was that animals with weak vitamin A intakes got sick and died a lot more often. Vitamin A has been studied extensively since. It has multiple immune modulating effects and exerts a protective effect against viral infections. It is specifically protective against measles and has been used as a treatment for measles in high doses by the World Health Organization. It maintains the integrity of tissues lining the gut and throat, so they can keep pathogens out. Kids low in vitamin A have more respiratory and ear infections. Give your kids vitamin A rich foods every day: Sweet potato, carrot, dark greens like chard, spinach, kale, or romaine lettuce; mango, apricot or dried apricot, peaches, cantaloupe, peas, grass fed butter or ghee, butternut squash; a half teaspoon cod liver oil daily is sufficient to keep vitamin A levels up for most kids. More is not better. Too much vitamin A can be hard on liver tissue, so don’t use more than two teaspoons cod liver oil daily for a child for more than one or two weeks. If your child is 0kay with dairy, use full fat organic grass fed milk or yogurt if you can, for best vitamin A value – it is a fat soluble vitamin and resides in the fatty part of the milk.
Sugar – Eating sugary food can suppress white blood cells, one of our most important defenses. Save it for special occasions, not for daily consumption. Lose the hidden sugars: Juice, processed punch drinks, processed snacks (crackers, chips, cereal, cereal bars, energy bars, power bars), fruits every day without vegetables, and a surplus of breads and pasta can translate into too much starchy, sugary food that drags immune defenses down. Any processed food is likely to have excess sugar or simple starches added to it, from ketchup to Pediasure. Use those foods infrequently and replace them with healthier alternatives. Explore healthy Pediasure alternatives here.
Pediatricians today mostly focus on drugs and vaccines, not food and nutrition, when it comes to fighting infections and illnesses. But the fact is, food and nutrients really, really matter for immune defense – especially for kids. From zinc, to vitamins C, D, and E, to omega three fats and everything in between, there is research to back it up. Help your kids defend themselves with whole unprocessed foods, and potent supplements if needed. Want care advice for your child? I can’t give it here – but would be glad to help you in an appointment. I look forward to hearing from you!