by Dr. Elisa Song – Healthy Kids- Happy Kids
As the flu season approaches, every parent wants to know the same thing…
What can I do to keep my family healthy?
As of the middle of November, flu activity across the United States is minimal, and below baseline activity compared with other years. While I can only hope that it stays this way for the rest of the flu season, one thing is true. There should be plenty of time to boost your family’s immune system to prepare for if and when the flu season hits. So let’s get on it! 🙂
Commonsense measures to prevent the flu
There are several commonsense measures to prevent cold/flu, which most of you are likely already doing. But just as a reminder:
- An apple-a-day keeps the doctor away! Eat lots of colorful fruits and vegetables. They are full of antioxidants which will destroy the free radicals that weaken our immune system and are responsible for making us feel sick when we catch a bug. Each color provides different antioxidant power – so be sure to eat a rainbow everyday!
- Wash those hands frequently, especially before eating or touching your face. Do your best to keep those little fingers out of mouths and noses!
- Stay well-hydrated. Stick to water, coconut water, herbal teas, and bone broth. No soda or sugary drinks, please! What’s a good estimate for how much water you need at a minimum? Divide your body weight in half and drink that number in ounces! Do you come close?
- Drink your bone broth! Bone broth has amazing immune-supporting properties. Not only is it delicious, it’s oh-so-nutritious! See Amazing Bone Broth to get started making your own! Instead of throwing them in the compost bin, use your Thanksgiving turkey bones and get simmering!
- Eat fermented foods. The probiotics contained in fermented foods have tremendous immune boosting powers. In fact, the fermented Korean cabbage, kimchi, was found to have significant effects in preventing and fighting the H1N1 influenza virus! Here are other examples of yummy fermented foods to try – sauerkraut, pickles (try “real” pickles without added vinegar like Bubbies), miso (who doesn’t like miso soup? Make it with homemade bone broth for an even more powerful immune punch!), kefir (a delicious yogurt-like drink that can be made with coconut if you are dairy-intolerant), and kombucha (a tangy fermented tea – my personal favorite is GT’s Guava Goddess).
- Avoid simple sugars and processed/junk food. Did you know that your blood shows lab evidence of a lowered immune system within 30 minutes of eating simple sugars (like glucose, refined sugar, and fructose), and causes a 50% reduction in your white blood cells’ abilities to kill germs? White blood cells are our “army” cells that fight off germs. This effect is most noticeable 2 hours after ingestion, but is still present 5 hours later! Maybe that’s why your child always seems to get sick after those birthday parties full of birthday cake, juice and soda. On the other hand, keeping blood sugar levels healthy has been shown to improve immune system activity.
- Get fresh air and moderate daily exercise. Moderate exercise can boost the production of macrophages, the kind of white blood cells that “eat” bacteria and viruses. However, intense exercise can actually temporarily decrease immune function – so don’t overdo it!
- Get adequate sleep. An increase in sleep actually increases the number of your white blood cells. On the other hand, loss of sleep even for a few hours at night, increases inflammation in our body which makes us more susceptible to catching the flu and having more severe symptoms. So make sure your whole family is getting enough zzzz’s. For tips on getting a good night’s sleep, see Eat Yourself to a Good Night’s Sleep and The 3 Things You Need to Know to Get a Good Night’s Sleep.
- Minimize stress. Emotional stress creates physiological stress in our bodies that lowers our immune defenses and makes us more vulnerable to illness. Stress has been shown to lower our white blood cells’ abilities to kill germs, and actually creates more inflammation that may make us feel even sicker. No, it’s not just in your head! For guidance on how to help manage your child’s stress naturally, take a look at Back-to-School, Back to… STRESS!!! for some great tips.
Nutritional supplements to boost the immune system
Apart from these commonsense measures, there are a variety of nutritional supplements that can further boost the immune system and give your child’s body that extra defense to more effectively ward off and fight colds and flus. Some of my favorite include:
- Fish oil – of course! While not specifically shown to prevent cold and flu, omega-3 essential fatty acids have a host of immune benefits too long to list!
- Probiotics – One study showed a dramatic reduction in fever and upper respiratory symptoms in children who took a probiotic with a specific combination of Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium daily throughout the cold and flu season. This particular combination of Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium can be found in Metagenics Ultra Flora Children’s Chewable probiotic, Ultra Flora Synergy powder, and Ultra Flora Balance capsules. The recommended dosage for children and adults is ¼ tsp 2x/day, 1 capsule 2x/day, or 1 chew 2x/day. Probiotics are why fermented foods pack such a punch, so if your child’s palate hasn’t expanded yet to include a lot of fermented foods, be sure to give her a probiotic supplement to keep her gut and immune system healthy!
- Vitamin C – The studies looking at vitamin C for cold/flu prevention have mixed results, but the bottom line is that vitamin C is a powerful antioxidant which assists our ability to ward off and deal with infection. I have been using Metagenics Ultra-Potent C because it has added ingredients such as lysine and glutathione which assist in fighting viruses. In general, I recommend Vitamin C 500mg 1-2x/day.
- Vitamin D3 – There is speculation that rates of illness increase over the winter because of the widespread deficiency of Vitamin D. Studies have shown that people supplemented with adequate levels of Vitamin D3 during the cold and flu season had significantly lower rates of infection. Vitamin D3 increases our body’s production of cathelicidin, an antimicrobial compound, to help fight viral and bacterial infections. The Vitamin D Council recommends a maintenance dosage of 1000IU of Vitamin D3 per 25 pounds of body weight (the dosage may be higher in people with Vitamin D deficiency, which is epidemic and can be measured through an easy bloodtest). **Vitamin D3 is one of the supplements that I am “religious” about giving to my kids.**
- Zinc – Zinc is required for the normal functioning of white blood cells. Supplementing with just 15mg of zinc per day in adults has been found to improve our immune cells’ ability to ward off infection.
- Arabinogalactan – This is a natural sugar derived from the bark of the larch tree that enhances “natural killer cell” and macrophage activity – these cells are part of our first line of defense against any invading organism. Arabinogalactan is available as a powder that is easy to dissolve in any drink or smoothie. We carry the Vital Nutrients arabinogalactan powder, and generally recommend ½-1 tsp 2x/day.
- Imu-Max – A recent study found that a preparation of echinacea, propolis, and vitamin C remarkably reduced the episodes of illness and fever when given daily during a 12-week winter period. This preparation is found in Ortho Molecular Products “Imu-Max”, with the dosage studied at 1 tsp 2x/day for children ages 1-3 years and 1.5 tsp 2x/day for children ages 4-5 years. (A word of caution: echinacea should not be used daily for very prolonged periods, and should not be used in individuals with autoimmune disease without professional guidance).
- Oscillococcinum – Oscillococcinum is a homeopathic flu medicine that may help to prevent influenza infection. The typical dosage is one vial of Oscillococcinum once/week for kids and adults during the flu season. I also give my kids one vial of Oscillococcinum before or right after any known “germfest” – i.e., birthday parties, plane travel, etc.
- Xlear nasal spray – One of the MOST preventive things you can do is to irrigate your and your children’s nasal passages with Xlear nasal spray at the end of every day, and after any potential exposure (work, school, playgroups, plane travel, etc.). This is a saline nasal spray with xylitol and grapefruit seed extract, both of which have antimicrobial properties. You cannot overdo it, and will not get “addicted” to it. Other options for nasal irrigation are a regular saline spray, Neti pot, other sinus rinse like Neilmed. **Apart from regular hand washing, I believe that daily and frequent nasal irrigation is one of the MOST important things that we can do to prevent influenza and other infections from taking hold.** This is because after exposure to a virus, the virus tries to invade and multiply in your nasal passages for at least 1-2 days before you develop any symptoms. Nasal irrigation can wash away viral particles before they have the opportunity to take hold, and thereby prevent many infections from happening in the first place!
So there you have it! All the tools you need to keep you and your family healthy through the flu season. Do you need to do each and every one of these things? No! But do what you can, and what feels right for you and your family, and you’re well on your way to a healthier, happier winter!
Feel free to share this post with any parent who wants to know the steps they can take to keep their family as healthy as possible during the cold and flu season. And thank you for allowing me to take this journey with you to optimal health to help your whole family thrive!