Herbs, vitamins, and minerals can support immune response during and before illness. Anyone can buy them – but are they safe? Do they work? How do you use them?
Like any prescription drug from your pediatrician , if you’re using the wrong dose, in the wrong context, at the wrong time, or with substances that don’t mix safely, immune supports can fail, or can trigger strong reactions that make your child feel worse.
New flash: Pediatricians don’t train in the use of non-prescription supports like herbs, foods, nutrients, or supplements. They do train in how to prescribe drugs and when to make specialist referrals. Odds are, if you ask your doctor how to use, say, olive leaf extract, caprylic acid, or the correct form of garlic for anti-viral support, they won’t know what you’re talking about.
Botanicals, herbal compounds, foods, and supplements have diverse actions on our brilliant and complex immune systems. Herbs and nutrients also have direct antimicrobial effects of their own. This means they can be potent allies in your quest to get your family through winter infection-free, by preventing illness, and by pumping up the body’s fight if colds and flu happen.
Here are my top five go-to’s for natural, non-drug ways to help children divert illnesses and infections:
1 – Eat lots, eat well! Data show that underweight kids (body mass index below 10th percentile) and overweight kids (body mass index over 90th percentile) get sick more often and stay sick longer than normal weight peers. Immune supports can’t work as well when the body is already struggling for energy and resources. Emphasize vegetable carbs over grains: Think pumpkin, parsnip, broccoli, cauliflower, sweet potato, spaghetti squash, butternut, beets, Brussel sprouts, and hearty greens like chard, kale, arugula or spinach. These are mineral-rich, phytonutrient powerhouse foods. For grain source carbs, mix it up. Don’t give the same processed simple starchy grain day in and day out. Vary grains to include quinoa (technically not a grain but more closely related to beets), buckwheat, different types of rice (black, brown, jasmine), or others. if your child can tolerate gluten, choose organic (US wheat is one of the most RoundUp-laden crops we grow, with the average rate of RoundUp applied to it having tripled in recent years). If your child is too picky to vary carbs as suggested here, we need to talk. That picky diet is one reason why your child may get sick more often. Work with me on strategies to change it.
Eat fats and oils, organic as often as affordable, and natural (unprocessed). Fats carry critical immune defense nutrients like vitamins A, D, and E into tissues. Grass fed butter like Kerrygold (available at Costco or most supermarkets), or at least organic butter or ghee, are great options, as is coconut oil, olive oil, avocado, eggs, meats, fish and nuts/seeds and their butters. Think in terms of giving the equivalent of 1 quarter cup daily of fats and oils from all foods (this includes fat in foods like eggs, meat, or fish) – that’s about how much a school aged child needs. Teens will need more.
Protein matters all day long for kids. Breakfast cereals and milk are thumbs down in my book – mostly sugar, little fat and weak protein that only comes from the milk. Not an auspicious start to a demanding school day! Homemade chicken broth, egg drop soup or broth, pumpkin pancakes, smoothies with protein powders – check my recipe archive for ideas and my breakfast post too. Give proteins throughout the day. If your kids are hungry, let them eat.
“But my kid eats like a horse, and still gets sick.” Right? So: Eating plenty can have a curve ball – and that is, in kids with rigid, starchy, addictive eating patterns for sugar, wheat, and dairy food. Not healthy. See Milk Addicted Kids for more info on that. Lastly, avoid offering too many tough-to-digest, raw, bulky, or fermented foods. Relax strict Paleo, Yeast Free, GAPS or other tight routines if your child’s body mass index is too low. Check my recipes for some ideas to gain and grow.
2 – Olive oil and olive leaf extract – These have several anti-microbial, antioxidant, and immune supporting components, including hydroxytyrosol, oleuropein, luteolin, and apigenin. Some have anti-inflammatory effects; oleuropein has gained popularity for its broad activity against viruses, bacteria, and fungal (yeast) microbes. Other bitter compounds in olive leaf, caffeic acid and verbascoside, have direct antimicrobial action too, against several bacteria and fungal species (yeasts). Human studies are few, but in vitro, oleuropein kills many bacteria, including Klebsiella pneumonia, Mycoplasma, Staphylococcus aureus, Pseudomonas aueruginosa, and others (but doesn’t harm beneficial stuff in the gut like Lactobacillus). As for viruses, oleuropein blocks viral protein production and interrupts replication – that is, the virus can’t stay alive and can’t reproduce itself in the presence of oleuropein, meaning it can’t easily survive in you or spread to others, when you’re eating oleuropein from olive leaf extract!
Good news: Olive leaf extract and olive oil are safe, with low toxicity. Side effects may include looser stools (a benefit for some) if eating a lot of oil at once. Oleuropein may also lower blood pressure, so this is a caution for kids with low tone, low blood pressure or fatigue. Animal studies on the extract have shown safety and efficacy at 8 mg/kg per day; this would be roughly 200 mg daily for a 55 pound child. For kids who can swallow capsules, I suggest Gaia brand Olive Leaf or Nature’s Way Standardized Olive Leaf extract because these are standardized to contain a minimum percentage of oleuropein and they are alcohol free (alcohol extractions don’t show the same potency as water extracts or oil infusions of olive leaf). For kids who don’t, Barlean’s Olive Leaf Complex is a good choice, as it also standardizes the amount of oleuropein in each serving and even has flavored options. Meanwhile eat at tablespoon or two of olive oil daily at room temperature or slightly warm; over heating it will reduce the power of its immune boosting components.
3 – Berberine – This herbal extract is found in many plants, including goldenseal, philodendron, and barberry. It has a wide range of antimicrobial activities; one of its skills is to make it harder for bacteria to attach to mucus membranes in lung or other tissue. Whole plant extracts that contain berberine have other components that create a synergistic effect, making them effective even against antibiotic resistant MSRA. Berberine’s ability to arrest Staphylococcus, Streptococcus, and Pseudomonas organisms was demonstrated years ago. Berberine has also been shown to increase immunoglobulin A (IgA) levels; IgA is the first line of defense in tissues that line the ear, nose, throat, lungs and gut. Like most herbs, its benefits go beyond immune support – it has been shown to benefit heart function and regulate menstrual pattern too. Tinctures and capsules are widely available. Cautionary note: Berberines are synergistic with several drugs, including Diflucan and ampicillin, so if your child is needing prescription drugs, talk with your care team before mixing these. A school aged child can typically safely use 200-600 mg berberine daily during acute illness, if not mixed with drugs. As always, if you’re not sure, get help from your licensed health care provider.
4 – Real Deal Chicken Broth – Recently my dad had a lingering cold, something that can be quite dangerous for the frail elderly (which he is). I suggested he sip broth daily – but my dad said he didn’t like it. At their house, I saw that my folks were using store bought broth that was indeed not very tasty. I roasted a chicken, and after we enjoyed the meat and pulled it off the bones, I made broth – which is not at all hard to do. In it went fresh bulbs of garlic, sage, thyme, rosemary, fresh ginger root (peeled and sliced), salt, a dash of dry white wine, and an entire lemon cut into quarters. After simmering for a day it was ready and my dad liked it a lot better than the store bought stuff. Good broth has an array of easy to absorb minerals and amino acids like proline, glycine, and glutamine, which are released from the collagen and ligaments in the chicken as it simmers. Its anti-inflammatory effect has even been verified with careful study. Ginger root adds an expectorant action on lung tissue, while lemon rind and pulp lend immune supportive bioflavonoids, minerals, vitamin C and limonene, which has been shown to boost white blood cells. Real chicken broth is so easy to make. Offer it plain or you can add your kids’ favorite noodles (yes, there are even gluten free Ramen noodles), drop in an egg to poach, or stir in a few raw greens (spinach, scallion, arugula, or basil leaves).
5 – Red Root (Ceanothus) – This is a powerful aid to help lymph nodes drain and clear debris created when we kill infections; all those dead microbes have to get out somehow, and after the immune system is done disabling them, it is our lymph system that is the clean up crew. Actually feeling sick is more about this debris clearing out through lymph, liver, spleen and kidney than the offending microbes themselves. Red root can act broadly on the lymph system to help clear this debris. Red root also has some direct anti fungal and antibacterial actions, antioxidant activity, and some evidence shows it can also boost white blood cells and T cells. Use just a couple of drops of tincture to start for a child; this is a potent tool and best used with oversight from your licensed naturopathic doctor.
This is a very short list, and I’ve skipped many obvious favorites – including nutrients like vitamins A, D, C, iron, or herbs like echinacea or elderberry – already widely known as great helps for colds and flu. There are many hundreds of possibilities to support us naturally, when it comes to colds and infections. Unlike antibiotics, herbs are difficult if not impossible for bacteria to gain resistance to, because rather than being single chemicals with a single action (like antibiotics). they are complex living entities with multiple components in their extracts or whole parts; and, they too can adapt in response to a microbe’s assault.
Prescription drugs for colds and infections have their place. Respect and engage them as needed with your doctor’s guidance. If antibiotics and other drugs fail your family, or if you simply wish to avoid them, natural tools can be important adjuncts. If you are just looking for tools to build your kids’ immune wellness, foods and herbs can go further than drugs – make good eating and natural supports a way of life, and your family will benefit!
Does your child get sick every winter? Can you prevent the annual colds, bugs, flu, croup? There are definitely some foods, herbs and supplements that help – a lot! One of the easiest things you can do is add supplements that help the immune system function more robustly. It’s no secret that dozens of nutrients, plant components, single herb extracts, or herbs in combination have potent, positive effects on the many layers of our busy, miraculous immune systems. Ayurvedic medicine, Chinese medicine, and countless other traditional cultures know this better than western physicians, who rely on drugs and surgery.
The right foods make an even bigger difference. When there is a commitment to eating whole “clean” (organic, unprocessed) food as a regular habit, especially less sugar, less processed stuff, and plenty of plant foods that give minerals, enzymes, antioxidants, and other beneficial compounds, it’s easier for your immune system to function. Viruses and microbes love sugar as much as you do. Eating sugar has an immediate suppressive effect on white blood cells’ ability to attack bacteria. And, the stress of constantly clearing toxins like heavy metals, chemicals, pesticides or GMO foods bogs your immune system down.
Popping pills can’t nourish your kids’ immune potential as much as a routine of whole food, less sugar, and less processed starchy food (pasta, bread, bagels, granola bars, crackers, chips). While you’re working on that, rotate these through winter to shore up your family’s immune systems. There are so many to choose from, not to mention items that your Traditional Chinese Medicine practitioner or Naturopath can offer you for acute illnesses, to lessen the duration and severity of symptoms. While prescription drugs generally suppress symptoms, traditional medicine practices do the opposite: They modulate the immune system in its effort to kill pathogens, and to aid organs and lymph in eliminating the consequent toxins.
This list is for good daily maintenance. Use them consistently – the benefits build over time. As always, especially if your child uses medications, check with your doctor about adding supplements:
• N-acetyl cysteine (NAC) is widely available in capsules, but not found in food. We make it ourselves from protein we eat, when well nourished; it’s an amino acid the body uses to make glutathione, a major antioxidant. But extra stresses on the immune system can increase demand, and it’s easy to less than you may need – especially for kids I meet in my practice, who tend to have trouble eating good diets. NAC is especially helpful for lung tissue and has some pedigree for helping asthma, inflammatory conditions, and reducing bouts of flu and respiratory illnesses. 300 to 900 mg daily is a usual dose, depending on body weight. It is used in higher doses for obsessive compulsive symptoms, but lower doses are notable for helping lung tissue.
• Broad spectrum, high potency probiotic: Buy from a reputable brand devoted to high quality. Cheap probiotics aren’t worth it. Unless you’ve been given specific reasons not to from your GI doctor, most kids can use a potency between 25 to 75 billion CFUs daily per dose. Less won’t have much impact. Probiotics are emerging for not only supporting gut health, which many now regard as a cornerstone of immune health, but for aiding lung health too!
• Cod Liver Oil and Vitamin D: Kids can safely use a half teaspoon dose daily up to 100 pounds body weight or so. Heavier kids can use a teaspoon or two. Vitamin D should be checked with your doctor each fall. If it’s below 40, use 2000-5000 IU daily for kids. Debate continues on whether you ought to use fermented cod liver oil. I let parents choose whatever they can comply with daily, since, unless you pick a very poor product, some is better than none. For non-fermented, check Nordic Naturals or Pharmax. These are my preferences in that case. Enjoy free shipping and discounts off your Nordic Naturals purchases by ordering here and entering my practitioner ID 107159.
• Astragalus: This is a time honored herb in many traditions. For western herbalists, it is noted for its ability to boost B cells, T cells, and the body’s ability to identify bacteria and viruses. If your child tends to be sick often or have low energy, after you make sure his or her diet is adequate and fully nourishing, you can add a tool like astragalus to tone immune function. Capsules or tinctures are available. Peruse options here – over thirty of them as capsules or tinctures. For young kids, glycerite tinctures are ideal.
• Andrographis: Check out this list of benefits when andrographis is used for colds, flu, and infections. Shorter duration of illness and reducing severity are documented effects of using this herb. Both anti-inflammatory and immune stimulating, this herb can be a better choice than echinacea for kids who have chronic inflammation from conditions like rheumatoid arthritis, asthma, or allergies. If your child feels worse using this herb, it is possible that it is clearing a latent viral load that needs to go. Kids will feel sicker if this is done too quickly, so back down or withdraw the herb to a level that is tolerable.
• Vitamin C and Zinc: Use vitamin C to bowel tolerance daily, especially if your kids shun vitamin C rich foods daily. Buffered forms of C work may be easier to tolerate for kids who have normal digestion and who are not on reflux medicines; if your child uses reflux medicine, a non-buffered form may be best. If kids are eating a lot of sugary stuff (orange juice, fortified juice, fresh fruit, sweetened yogurt not to mention candy, ketchup, and obvious sources) then you may want to add more. Lozenges, capsules, liquids, powders – every option is out there. With zinc, this will support better white blood cell production for infection fighting. To dose vitamin C, start at 250 mg for young kids under 40 lbs and increase to one, two or three grams (1000-3000 mg). Loose watery stools mean too much C. Constipated kids may get relief by using high doses of buffered C. For zinc, 30-50 mg daily can be safely used in most cases, as long as your child’s iron status is normal. High doses of zinc can worsen iron status, so check with your doctor or contact me for guidance if you’re not sure (your child must become a patient of mine in order for me to give individual care).
• Iron and mineral-rich foods, with strong protein and plenty of healthy fats and oils: Snacks like pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, butters from nuts and seeds, any dark leafy greens your child will accept are perfect. Homemade broths are perfect as a start to a cold day or after school snack, because they give all of these good nutrients. See my blog on mineral rich snacks for kids here (these support adrenal glands, which will pump out more cortisol when your child gets sick). If your child struggles to eat protein rich foods, try powders in smoothies, puddings, broths, cocoa, or even tea. Check this blog for protein powders, here for all smoothie blogs, and here for a hot cocoa that avoids common allergens but tastes creamy and delicious. And of course.. if your child has an undiagnosed gluten or dairy sensitivity, infections will be more frequent and take longer to recover if they are eating those foods daily.
Gluten sensitivity can cause all sorts of noise
Be sure to visit my blog on immune boosting foods too. I love it when my clients tell me their kids are not getting sick for the first time in years, once we begin thorough and individualized nutrition support. If that sounds good, let’s talk soon! Contact me here or schedule your time to speak with me by choosing an option here.
How do you get a fast between-meal feed for your kids without (a) slaving in the kitchen or (b) selling out to processed starchy filler from a box? We don’t always have time to make the gluten free sweet potato brownies or Paleo salted chocolate bacon bark. And it’s not great to rely on chips or cheese crackers day in and day out, even if they’re the gluten-free, super cute organic bunny version (it’s still empty processed food).
Kids need food and plenty of water all day long. They’re growing; both the athletes and the couch potatoes are burning more fuel per pound than you or I as adults. Many of my clients forget that their kids aren’t little adults. Sure, they can (usually) grow on the processed stuff: Mac and cheese, pasta, pizza, crackers, chips, fruit leather, cookies, power bars, cereal, squeezable yogurt, candy here and there. But you may be amazed at how different your kids act, grow, behave, and function, when you commit to less processed food and more real food.
One of the “meh” things about processed snacks for kids is that they’re mostly starch, and weak on minerals, protein, or healthy fats. Doesn’t matter if they’re organic, gluten free, vegan, or blessed by your favorite guru. It’s still simple processed starch – which rushes blood sugar up. In response, an insulin kick soon follows, to bring blood sugar back down and help it into cells.
Snacking on starchy sugary stuff day after day can lead to adrenal fatigue, because of the yo yo effect this drops on the pancreas, adrenals, and gut over and over. When insulin jumps to adjust a sudden sugar bolt from a starchy snack, next thing you know, blood sugar can drop too fast. That’s when adrenal glands help by popping out some cortisol. Cortisol is a fight or flight hormone that keeps blood sugar at the ready and suppresses insulin. Cortisol is released when we are under extreme stress; it sets off a cascade of metabolic effects to get you wide eyed and ready to do combat or flee. One of its jobs is to keep blood glucose on the level, when we really need it.
Normally, we have a steady daily cortisol rhythm that helps us sleep at night, maintain mostly level energy during the day, and feel alert in the morning. But with a routine of starchy processed food (or chronic stress, anxiety, or illness), kids are thrown into that metabolic yo yo every day. Kids who are prone to anxiety and relying on starchy grainy food can suffer undue angst with this eating pattern, because it triggers bigger pendulum swings in mood, energy, and self regulation.
Over time, this is a debilitating scenario. Chronically elevated cortisol feels exhausting. It also suppresses immune function, escalates anxiety, and can make your child more prone to infections. Though usual lab tests for adrenal function have reference ranges too wide to detect early adrenal fatigue, many providers can use symptoms and more sensitive saliva tests to check this more precisely.
How does this show up? Tantrums, crashes when hungry, can’t get moving in the morning, difficulty sleeping through the night, ongoing anxiety, chronic fatigue, frequent illnesses and infections (cortisol is released with illness too), hyperactivity followed by meltdowns… all of these signal a need for support for those hard working adrenal glands, which need minerals from whole food (not pills, though those are better than nothing!).. and some soothing healthy fats and oils.
Rotate in these actual-food snacks to avoid the insulin-cortisol roller coaster. and give your kids extra minerals, fats, oils and maybe a little protein too. Much better than chips every single day, though there’s no problem with having them in the rotation sometimes too. These can travel in zip lock bags or travel cup, or thermos for lunches. You’ll notice that fresh fruits don’t feature big in this list. That’s because they are great sources of vitamins, fiber, and phytonutrients that may have immune modulating benefits… but are not so great for the soothing minerals that our adrenal glands love.
Roasted Pumpkin Seeds – The favorite in my house are the spicy roasted ones (we need gluten free; they’re available plain, seasoned, raw, or roasted – check seasoning ingredients). Potassium, iron, and magnesium are the stand out minerals here. Kids who like really salty, spicy foods may go for these. Fine to work in some raisins, almonds, or cashews if trail mix suits your gang better.
Popcorn – What? Not the microwave stuff…
Buy a jar of organic, non-GMO popping corn. Use a heavy flat bottom skillet with vertical sides. Cover the bottom of the skillet with 1/8″ to 1/4″ (not more!) of a good quality high heat organic oil, like non GMO canola or safflower oil. Then cover the bottom with a single layer of kernels – with some room in between. Cover, turn on high heat… and listen. In about the same time you would microwave a bag of corn, you have fresh, real-thing popcorn in a much healthier version and no toxic chemicals from a microwave bag. Remove the popped corn from the skillet to bowl once it stops popping – don’t wait or it will burn. Place a 1-2 Tablespoon blob of organic coconut oil in the skillet with the heat off. Let it melt. You can either pour the popped corn back into the skillet to coat it with the oil, or vice versa – pour the oil on the corn – and toss with good culinary sea or Himalayan salt. You can also use ghee for those sensitive to coconut. This is a more delicious treat than you’d expect. Though it’s not as fabulous on minerals as pumpkin seeds, it makes up for it with healthy fats, some protein, fiber, and cancer-fighting polyphenols. An easy do-ahead, if you need to pack some in the car or school lunch.
Cherry or Grape Tomatoes – In summer, you can’t go wrong. These are the ultimate finger food and the juicy squish-in-your-mouth is a plus for some kids. Local, organic ones often taste so sweet they almost feel like candy. Put these out and you may be surprised how they disappear. Fun to find different colors – from sunny yellow to orange to deep red, see which ones your kids like best. Skip the mega market non-organic ones, which lack flavor and feel like dry bullets to eat (IMHO!). Natural source for vitamins A and C, a smidge of calcium and iron, and sodium – which your adrenal glands actually need.
Kale Chips – You can actually buy these now (expensive): Oven roasted, salted kale chips are handy for feeding our adrenals with calcium, potassium, sodium, and phosphorus. They are simple to make too, if you have the chance, and really yummy when hot from the oven. Rinse and chop kale, removing the chewiest stems. Pat it dry and place it in a bowl. Work melted coconut oil or melted ghee with your fingers throughout the kale, rubbing both sides of the leaves to coat with oil. Toss with good quality salt and bake in a 350 degree oven for about 12 minutes, or until crisp and darkened. Even the staunchest vegetable-haters may melt for these salty, crispy treats.
Sweet Bell Peppers – Take advantage of these in season and buy crisp organic brightly colored orange, red, or yellow sweet peppers. Wash, remove seeds and membranes, and lay out strips for crunching on. They’re juicy, sweet, crisp, and play well with all sorts of dips, from hummus to Ranch to lime aioli. Big on beta carotene, vitamin A, and vitamin C but still a good option for potassium and a sprinkling of phosphorus, magnesium, and calcium. Also good for crunchy snap and sweetness: Sugar snap pea pods (open shell and pop raw peas in mouth!) and young asparagus tips (young and narrow tips and stems are good eating, with or without a dip).
Avocado – Stock up on these and eat when the stem plug drops off with an easy press of your thumb. Avocados have magnesium, potassium, a good bit of fiber, and even a little protein. And the ample fats in an avocado are excellent for avoiding the sugar roller coaster and calming kids with a steady, slow release energy source. Toss ripe soft chunks with olive oil, lemon juice, salt, and sunflower seeds for even more minerals, protein, fiber and fats. Or you can make guacamole in a heartbeat by mashing it with a little garlic (fresh minced or garlic salt), salsa, and lemon juice, to boost your kids’ favorite chips into a better snack.
Got Broth? – As cooler temps approach, I like to have a jar or two of homemade broth on hand, and I make this from whole chicken (after roasting and enjoying the meat, keep the carcass, bones, and innards; simmer for a day with rosemary, thyme, sage, garlic, black pepper, some lemon or white wine, and good salt). Pour some out on a chilly afternoon, and sip plain. Broth gives soothing minerals plus a bit of protein and fats. This also makes a fair breakfast for kids who are slow movers and not keen on eating early in the morning. Or for more heft, stir in some left over quinoa, fresh minced cilantro, scallion, some baby bok choy, Thai basil… and you have a reasonable facsimile of pho that makes ramen noodles look like… ramen noodles. Once again, adrenal-favorite minerals abound in this quick after-school soup for a cold day: Potassium, magnesium, calcium, and phosphorous. If making broth isn’t your thing, good quality organic stocks like Imagine or Pacific brands – beef, chicken, and vegetable – are readily available in quart boxes that don’t need refrigeration til opened. You can stir in that left over pasta, rice, or whatever your kid likes.
Like Juicing? Have A VitaMix? – Add celery, cucumber, fresh leaves of cilantro, parsley, or basil, raw ginger root, whole lemon, apple, or any dark leafy greens to your kids’ favorite smoothies. If your juicer does not have a strainer, peel the cucumber and ginger root before juicing. These foods and herbs are soothers for stressed adrenals too. Good to combine with carrot, berries, peaches, pears, melon – let your kids choose and experiment for more buy-in.
Enjoy! I’m sure I’ve forgotten so many other good ideas for mineral-rich snacks… we didn’t even get to chocolate. Add your ideas and thanks for stopping by my blog.
Protein supplement powders line the shelves now just about anywhere groceries are sold – from Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods to conventional supermarket chains. The choices on-line are even more complex and infinitely varied. Can they work for your kids? Do your kids need them? Are they safe? Yes, maybe, and yes. Here’s the scoop on knowing which ones to use, how, and when.
Do they work? Depends on what you mean by “work”. They do work if your kid needs the support, if your kid uses them consistently (daily), and if you match your kid’s nutrition needs to what’s in the product you’re using. They can help your child grow and gain better, behave and function better, and fight infection better.
But…they don’t work if you choose one your child just won’t eat. Another fail is to choose the wrong protein for your child’s nutritional needs. Ever try a soy or rice protein supplement powder, only to be disappointed? It’s common for these proteins to cause more trouble for kids who don’t tolerate them well. Protein supplements don’t work if you’re using a source that worsens an undiagnosed allergy or sensitivity. This is something I see so often in practice, it’s alarming: Kids will be placed on milk and soy based formulas like Pediasure, Boost, Pepdite, or Ensure when no on screened for allergies first! This can worsen growth, feeding, and progress, not help it. Knowing what type of protein (soy? dairy? egg? hemp? pea? amino acids? meats?) your child needs is important.
They also don’t work if your child doesn’t need the supplement; they probably won’t add any value in that case, and aren’t worth the extra hassle or money, unless your kids just like the stuff and it gives them a fun option to have a daily smoothie boost. Kids who eat a varied diet with plenty of protein sources probably don’t need a supplement. “Varied” means eating more than just one kind of protein. It means your child gets protein from different foods every day, like eggs, green beans, peas, other legumes, or beans …to meats, poultry, nuts, seeds, or grains like quinoa. In contrast, kids who only eat dairy protein all day long (yogurt, milk, cheese, mac and cheese, pizza) are usually not getting an adequate diet. Even when they eat enough total protein daily, if it’s from just one type of food, they can easily drop nutrition in other areas and will suffer deficits as a result.
How much is enough? School age kids who are healthy and growing normally need a bit more than half their weight daily, in grams of protein. So, a child weighing 70 pounds needs at least 40-50 grams of high value protein every day, spread through out the day. Growth failure, allergies, frequent illness, inflammatory conditions change protein needs. Getting professional nutrition guidance will assure your child gets the best food for his or her best health and ability potential. Toddlers and infants have different needs; don’t use off the shelf protein supplements for kids under three, unless you have a knowledgeable pediatric nutritionist or specialist guiding you on what’s best.
When do kids need protein supplements? So often, this can can really help a child out. Several circumstances can drop a child’s protein intake so that they falter, grow weakly, get sick too often, or just can’t function to potential. Functioning to potential means they can grow as expected (they don’t drop more than fifteen percentile points on a growth chart for weight or height). It also means they can do important things like sleep well, play energetically, behave in age appropriate ways, pay attention and focus appropriately for age, handily fight off usual infections, have few infections, and have fun. If your kid struggles in any of these areas more than you think is their “normal”, or if you just have a hunch something is off kilter, the right protein support may make a huge difference. Check this list of reasons to consider supplemental protein powders. Does your toddler, child, or teen fit any of these?
…Refuses protein-rich foods due to texture aversions (gags or vomits or spits out meats, eggs, ground meats, mixed dishes like chili or stews with meats)
…Has a picky appetite, tends to eat only dairy for protein, or only wheat (bagels, pasta, bread, pizza, crackers)
…Has food allergies, sensitivities, or any reactions that limit access to proteins (can’t eat dairy, egg, nuts, gluten, etc)
…Has a history of growth failure or slow growth pattern, is shorter than expected, or has been called “just small” by your doctors
…Has anxiety, poor sleep, night terrors, frequent waking, mood disorders, or conduct disorders
…Lost a school placement due to disruptive behavior
…Gets colds, bugs, sniffy nose often, and takes longer than siblings or friends to shake it off
…Has hair that looks thin or dull, or nails that crack and peel easily
…Cuts seem to heal more slowly than usual
The right protein support can shift all of these problems, sometimes in itself. Other cases may need total nutrition overhaul (such as kids who have low protein, poor total intake, and are deep into an oppositional, aggressive, or ADHD pattern). But starting with strong protein can get your child feeling better. Here’s some ideas.
Whey Protein Powders – About 20% of the protein in cow’s milk is whey, with 80% is casein. You’ve probably seen those giant tubs of whey on store shelves, with muscles all over the label, to appeal to body builders. Skip those. They usually have other ingredients your child doesn’t need (especially sugar, or minerals and vitamins at excessive potencies). You can buy plain, organic, unsweetened whey protein powder (like this) and mix it with cold or warm foods, or even add it to baking recipes. It blends well in smoothies and adds a pleasant fluffy texture. Whey protein – with its good amino acid profile and immunoglobulins – has strong evidence for helping muscle mass and immune function. Babies and kids who don’t do well with casein may do fine with whey, but not always. Blood tests can discern this, when elimination diets are too cumbersome or time consuming to work through; I use both IgG and IgE testing to whey and casein in my practice.
Whey protein is where nature puts the immune power pack, when it comes to milk. In human milk, the ratio is the nearly opposite of cow’s milk: We make milk with only about 40% casein, but 60% whey. Whey has lactalbumin, lactoglobulin, lactoferrin, and other immunoglobulins that fight infection and build immune strength. These cysteine-rich proteins are also excellent glutathione precursors. Glutathione is our go-to molecule to remove toxins, reduce inflammation, and support vigorous immunity. Buying whey that is not denatured ensures that these delicate but potent proteins stay viable. Denatured proteins are proteins that are heated or processed so much, they lose their original shape – and, their original actions as immune modulators. They may also become more allergenic, since their shapes differ from what the body may be able to digest. For my patients, I like Well Wisdom whey protein from grass fed, non-GMO milk.
Soy Protein Powders – Whether it’s in a power bar, a powder, infant formula, or a protein boosted juice drink, I’m not a fan. Soy in the US is overwhelmingly genetically modified. GMO foods are not allowed for human consumption in most the developed world. They are under scrutiny for causing more allergy and many other ill health effects. Soy crops may also concentrate glyphosate, the pesticide recently dubbed “probably” carcinogenic by the World Health Organization.
There are so many reasons why I don’t like concentrated processed GMO soy protein, especially for babies, who are busy developing a healthy gut biome in their first years (glyphosate kills healthy gut bacteria in humans). Healthy gut flora are critical for preventing allergy, asthma, and other vulnerabilities later in childhood or even later in life. Eating food crops engineered to produce their own glyphosate (which is what GMO food crops do) is perhaps one of the most devastating thing we can do to a baby human gut!
More reasons I don’t like soy protein supplements: Unfermented, highly processed, and concentrated soy protein is hard to digest, can bind other nutrients, disrupts thyroid and estrogen function, and may trigger allergy just as often as casein from cow’s milk. I don’t recommend it as daily protein for kids. Eaten from an organic source, in small amounts, in its natural state or fermented, such as in tempeh, miso, shoyu, tamari, or natto – this is fine, but your child will need other proteins. Tofu and edamame are not fermented and I also do not suggest using these as the bulk of daily protein for children. I know opinions vary; this is my take, after nearly twenty years in practice with infants and children.
Rice Protein Powders – Rice lacks lysine, an essential amino acid. That means that by itself, rice is not a good protein source (because humans must eat lysine; we can’t make it ourselves), so most manufacturers add lysine and possibly other amino acids to beef it up. Even rice protein powders that say they are “concentrated” or raw and sprouted can’t match the amino acid profile of animal proteins like whey, meat, or eggs. Rice protein still must to be augmented with some amino acids to work, especially for kids needing a strong protein boost. Besides this drawback, rice protein powders in my experience can feel gritty or grainy, have a strong taste (especially brown rice source), and are often rejected by kids with oral texture issues. Workable if your child is eating some other sources of complete protein, if your or if child just likes the taste of a rice protein product. Best rice option… find an organic sprouted source – here’s a few rice protein product reviews to consider. Or, buy a rice protein that is combined with pea protein, for a more complete, better tasting protein powder.
Pea Protein – On the scene more recently, this may be more palatable than rice protein powders for texture (not gritty or sandy) and for taste (more invisible to lightly sweet). It’s a more complete protein (with lysine and arginine amino acids). Like any plant protein, it has no immune modulators in it as whey does. But for some kids, it may be more digestible than rice protein, and can help get minerals like calcium into bones thanks to its lysine content. It also offers a bit of iron. Down side: Some kids who are soy-sensitive may not tolerate concentrated pea protein very well, as these plants are similar – if your child has loose stools on a pea protein supplement, this can mean an allergy or sensitivity is brewing to soy, pea, or other legumes. Blood test for ELISA IgG can find out.
Hemp Protein – Helpful for kids who can’t manage other proteins due to sensitivity or allergy, but there are mixed reviews on whether it is enough of a boost for kids needing strong support. How the hemp is grown and processed affects its amino acid profile; some hemp protein products claim to have all amino acids essential to humans in them, some don’t. Hemp is rich for amino’s that help us make globulins, similar to proteins we make for immune function; other peptides in it may have beneficial antioxidant effects. Either way, two heaping tablespoons may only add 5-8 grams of protein, which is less than most other protein supplements. Hemp has more essential fats and more fiber than other protein powders, which is good and bad: Good for the nutrients (hens fed hemp seeds lay eggs with more healthy fats in them), but maybe too much texture for picky eaters who are used to smooth. Hemp protein powder is also dark green, so it won’t hide well in concoctions for kids who are averse to fruits or vegetables in their smoothies. There is a nice profile of minerals like magnesium and zinc in hemp protein powder, and it’s more digestible than soy. If your child is good with the texture of nuts and seeds, but has allergy to these, try whole hemp seeds in snacks instead. They’re tiny like sesame seeds, but soft and chewy, and can work in smoothies, granola, or sprinkled on salads. They can have a strong taste.
Spirulina and Blue Green Algae – Yes, it was used by the Aztecs centuries ago, when they harvested and dried spirulina from lakes in a then-pristine environment. How about now? It is a complete protein, also rich in vitamins and minerals, but falls somewhere between egg and lower value plant proteins for its amino acid profile. Because of this, more if it has to be eaten to get enough for the tissue re-build young kids need when struggling with protein intake and absorption (same problem as hemp protein on that score); this can trigger loose stools. Bonuses: Spirulina has shown some capacity to reduce histamine (less allergy); it has carotenoids in it that can promote eye health; and other phytochemicals in it may have protective effects against certain cancers. Many other health claims are out there for it, but these aren’t well studied in people. It’s decidedly green, and will add that color to anything you stir it into, which can once again really throw kids sensitized to texture or color changes in food. Whether or not blue green algae protein powder can be had today minus the pollutants and toxins everywhere in our environment (heavy metals, pesticides) is up to the manufacturer to monitor and declare (don’t wait for the FDA to do that for you!). Not to be confused with Spirutein, which is a soy protein concentrate mixed with some spirulina from algae; some Spirutein offerings also blend in pea and rice.
Collagen – This is one of my new favorites. Collagen protein from “clean” sources (organic, non-GMO, grass fed) is fine enough to easily dissolve even in water or tea. Brands like BulletProof and Zint Hydrolysate are workable in smoothies, soft foods, or juices without adding grit or any strong flavor.
Free Amino Acids – I’ve said “amino” a lot in this post. Amino acids are the building blocks of protein molecules. Nature created about 22 of these amino building blocks, and we must eat a certain 8-11 of these every day from foods to survive, because we can’t make them ourselves. So, proteins are compared based on their amino acid profiles. Any protein will usually have all of the amino acids present in some amount. The question is, how much of each one? Proteins like egg are high in all of the essential amino’s that we have to eat. No plant proteins are, unless they are augmented or processed to boost their profiles, or unless you eat a lot of that one protein (as would be true for eating hemp or blue green algae proteins). Eating plant proteins with other plant proteins that fill in the missing amino’s for each other is how vegetarians and vegans eat well, and this is also how some of the protein supplement products out there are boosted – they’re paired up.
So what about eating free amino acids, instead of protein that must be broken down? You can do that too, and this can be a very good tool for kids with injured, inflamed, or delicate guts. Multiple food allergy children can benefit here too. I use free amino acid supplements often for these children. The FDA regulates these as “medical foods”, and you can buy them over the counter, as in a product like Thorne Amino Plex, or in specialized formulas, like Neocate, Elecare, or just as pharmaceutical grade amino acid powder. I have used all of the above with impressive results in infants, toddlers, and kids – with a total, integrated nutrition are plan in place. In some cases, free amino acids can be prescribed and covered on insurance.
Take away? Kids who have anything on my bullet list above need nutrition support. Is a protein powder going to help? Maybe. Need to talk? Schedule it now, I look forward to hearing from you!
Many parents come in asking me about salt cravings in their kids. Seen any of these moves? Kids who lick salt, shake salt heavily onto everything including into water or other drinks, drink pickle juice, love olives and pickles, snack only on salty chips or pretzels, prefer starchy salty food to real food, or will eat meat only if it’s cured (bacon, pepperoni, salami…) are showing that their cells may need something. What does this mean?
To the body, salt isn’t just sodium and chloride. “Salt” can mean other minerals too, like potassium, calcium, magnesium, iron, manganese, copper, and many others. In fact, using just sodium chloride (which is ordinary table salt, like Morton’s), may deplete other minerals, and cause you to crave more salt – when your body may need other minerals as well. And if you truly lack sodium (an essential mineral that we need every day) then you will crave it, to the point where your taste buds will be altered to “like” a lot more salt than usual.
Salt in the US is mostly eaten from processed foods – pasta, bread, baked goods, yogurt, cheese, soft drinks, fast food, microwaveable frozen meals, condiments, sauces, mac and cheese from a box, soup from a can – you name it, it has salt in it. Even without salting food, unless you are scratch cooking everything and controlling your seasonings, your kids are probably eating a lot of salt. Salt in processed foods is typically sodium chloride, and not the healthier blend of minerals found in natural sources like sea salt or Himalayan salt – either of which I recommend for your kitchen.
Salt cravings are a tip that your child’s body might need more minerals, or that some minerals, including sodium, are being depleted too quickly. Common causes of wasting minerals are anxiety, stress (physical exertion, like a soccer game; or emotional stress, like nightmares, homework, school problems, family tensions), illnesses or infections, night sweats, or fever.
If your child has a chronic inflammatory condition like asthma or food allergies, this too may induce a desire for salty foods – because when there is inflammation, the body releases more coritsol and other hormones from the adrenal glands. These hormones both rely on and regulate minerals, and influence everything from blood volume to urine output and stress response. Salt cravings can mean minerals are lacking or imbalanced, or that the adrenal glands are struggling to keep up. Cortisol is vital to our well being – but too much of it is draining, depleting, and immunosuppressive. Too little of it leaves us extremely fatigued, dizzy, or confused. Besides craving salty stuff, you might see these signs too:
– muscle cramping easily on exertion
– dizzy when changing position (sitting to standing)
– low mood
Making sure your kids get mineral-rich foods every day can help. Filling up on sugary or starchy processed food displaces mineral rich foods. It also takes a lot of mineral co-factors to digest and process sugar. Eat more mineral rich foods, and add a good mineral supplement if your child isn’t eating enough of those. Foods like homemade soup or bone broths, stews, vegetables, sea weeds, nuts and seeds (or their butters), greens, pork, eggs, scallops (if you can find them and are comfortable with eating them), and fresh herbs are great ways to add minerals every day. Think arugula, basil, thyme, mint, cilantro, red butter lettuce, chard, beet greens, or kale. All of these work fresh and raw in smoothies, seared or roasted with vegetables, or simmered in stews and broths. Even dried thyme will add notable amounts of iron, calcium, and manganese to food. Fruits are less of a go-to for minerals than vegetables, so if you’re doing fruit smoothies often, great – now add some greens!
Use a variety of culinary salts in your kitchen for more minerals in your food
For a supplement, you may need to add a multi-mineral for your child. Kids’ multivitamins often have either no minerals or only very low doses of just one or two minerals. Here’s an example: Kids need anywhere from 10 to 30 mg or more zinc daily, depending on what they already eat and what their health conditions are. If your child uses a chewable multi and it has only 2 mg of zinc, get them eating nuts, seeds, pork, and other zinc-rich foods or add a multi-mineral option. Products with or without copper or iron are available, if your child needs to minimize those two minerals. Have a look at Klaire LDA Trace Mineral Complex or Vital Nutrients Multi-Mineral Citrate (without copper or iron) for starters. For a well rounded multivitamin that also has minerals, one of my top choices is Kirkman Thera Response. I use these for children and like that the capsules are small enough for even young kids to swallow in many cases. You can order any of these sold-to-provider-only products by logging in to the Emerson Ecologics website with access code MyNCFC and password 80303, or just call them at 1-800-654-4432. They will give you a 10% discount on anything you order, when using my log in information.
What about those adrenal glands? Salt cravings may mean these glands are drained and depleted. These are tiny thumb-sized glands that sit atop the kidneys – but they are your body’s main “shock absorbers” – and they work hard. They regulate just about everything in the body, directly or indirectly. They need an array of minerals to manage fluid balance and blood pressure. They also directly control stress responses, by manufacturing hormones like cortisol, epinephrine, norepinephrine, and aldosterone. Your adrenal glands rely on a steady flow of varied minerals, fats, and protein to build this stuff and make it all work.
Don’t skimp on healthy salt in your kids’ diets, but leave the processed sodium chloride foods behind. Add culinary sea salt or Himalayan salt to your meals and let your kids salt their food. If they continue to have big cravings, let’s talk – there may be underlying issues that need attention, so their adrenal glands can function better. And have a look at Chris Kresser’s great piece on why salt restriction is not a good thing.