There is a lot of talk about immunity, the immune system and “boosting” health. Headlines like “Boost Your Immunity” are not hard to find, particularly in recent months. With plenty of online “click bait” it is important to know that our immune systems as well as illnesses are complex; and what we can do to support our bodies to be functioning at their best.
Our immune system is made up of many components. The big parts such as skin, saliva, and tears are easy to understand. These parts act as barriers to pathogens (nasties). Then there are the smaller parts, made-up of tiny cells that we can’t see. The smaller-guys job is to act less as a physical barrier and instead “scare off” nasties on the inside of our bodies. Good food and good nutrition are one piece of a very large puzzle that can have some influence on someone’s immune system; both the big and little parts.
Infants and children have less mature immune systems than most adults. The larger parts of their immune system are more susceptible to pathogens and the cellular parts respond less quickly to ward off nasties. As parents and carers there are things that can be done to support your child’s immunity. Some of these include:
Breast milk contains lots of components that support and develop an infant’s immune system. One of the very clever things that breast feeding allows for the “fighting cells” that a mother produces after coming into contact with pathogens to be passed onto her baby for their protection.
The benefits of breastfeeding extend beyond pregnancy and into the toddler years if a mother chooses to continue to breast feed for this time.
· Storing expressed breast milk safely
This means in a sealed container for up to 72 hours in the fridge or between 2 weeks – 12 months in the freezer (depending on the temperature). Defrost in the refrigerator for later use, or in warm water for immediate use. If an infant is provided with expressed breast milk that’s been incorrectly stored, it can mean they’ll be directly exposed to “nasties”.
· Prepare bottles carefully
This means washing hands with soap before preparing a bottle. Washing bottles thoroughly and sterilising after every use; making up formula with water that has been boiled and then cooled and discarding unused formula at the end of a feed. If an infant is provided with expressed breast milk that’s been incorrectly prepared or stored it can mean they’ll be directly exposed to “nasties
· Wash fruits and vegetables
Washing fruits and vegetables before eating helps remove any nasties that may present a problem to immature immune systems. This include fruits and vegetables classified as organic as they can be touched by others in shops and be exposed to pathogens during transport from the farm to the home.
· Serve, encourage and show kids how to enjoy a range of fruits and vegetables everyday
There are a whole range of vitamins and minerals that are important for a well-functioning immune system. Vitamin C is probably the best known but others such as folate are found in different types of fruits and vegetables. Aim for at least 3 different “colours” at main meals and offer fruits and vegetables for snacks
· Serve meat, legumes, poultry, seafood, egg, nuts and seeds.
These foods are all good sources of iron, zinc and selenium. These nutrients all have important roles within the immune system. Serve in easy to chew textures such as minced meats, soft boneless fish or scrambled eggs for those still learning to eat.
What about supplements?
Supplements will not “boost” someone’s immune system functioning beyond what a good diet will. In fact, some supplements (such as iron) can be harmful and even fatal if taken in high doses. Excessive intake of others, such as Vitamin C can cause cramps, diarrhoea and/or nausea.
Supplements should be provided under the guidance of a medical practitioner or dietitian and not as a replacement to encouraging your child to eat a well-balanced diet
Like most things in health, the best approach for most people for a well-functioning immune system is a balanced one. Aim to eat a variety of unprocessed foods; keep food safe through washing and good food handling; breastfeed when able and prepare formula safely if providing formula.
Safe, healthy and happy eating to you all.