If there is one thing we know for sure about day care, it is that it is crawling in germs of great density and diversity. Despite the new flowers and warmer weather, the germs and colds appear to be providing one final hurrah as we usher spring through the door.
The perpetual challenge for most parents is not keeping their child free of infection, but keeping them free of repetitive, unrelenting illnesses that pass through the family over and over again. For many, the benefit of day care comes at the expense of an abiding runny nose or frequent rounds of antibiotics for kids and their parents.
Parents bring children to my office desperate for a solution to the revolving door relationship between their child and the team of germs they meet at day care on a daily basis. Children's immune systems are in a maximal state of development in the pre-school years, carefully studying each microbial introduction and gaining strength with each round of exposure.
Despite this heightened training regime, the immature immune system of a preschooler generally lacks the capacity to fight infection with the same degree of efficiency as an adult. Supporting a child's immune system requires equal emphasis on removing those things that tend to weaken immune defenses while simultaneously tonifying, not just the child's, but the entire family's immune health.
Keeping both your own as well as your child's immune system in prime condition requires vigilance when it comes to food. Sugar and food colouring have both been shown to decrease the overall immune functionality of children. Whole foods, without added sugar, are imperative to preventing the subtle decline in immune defense that is vital to protecting your child's health.
Natural sugars such as fructose (found in fruit) or raw honey are certainly better choices, but I generally advise they be avoided in children when you suspect they are on the brink of infection. Processed foods, especially ones high in glucose and corn syrups are notably problematic for the immune system. As a general rule, if the food is white, made of refined flour or highly processed, it is high in sugar. If you can't remove these foods as part of an overall lifestyle, consider a more colourful, whole food option when you suspect your little person is coming down with an infection.
Antibiotic Support Team
We have all witnessed the pattern; a child gets sick, they require antibiotics, they get well, they go back to school, they get sick, they require antibiotics, they get well, they go back to school... The cycle can often feel like it is endless. Antibiotics have their time and place. They are an important feature of Western medicine and critical with highly progressive infections.
The problem with antibiotics, however, is that while they may deter the current infection, their depletion of healthy probiotics within the digestive system leaves the immune system vulnerable to the next attack. Probiotics have been shown repeatedly to optimize immune functionality in the face of infection. If antibiotics are indeed necessary, supplementing with a probiotic following the prescription's course is critical to interrupting the cycle. Probiotics are formulated for kids and adults and it is important that you select one with multiple strains and for the correct age group. Yogurt is also an excellent source of probiotics, but the healthy bacteria found in yogurt are not available in sufficient concentrations to adequately replete the digestive system. Consider yogurt as an adjunctive therapy, but additionally include a supplement for at least one month following your child (or your) next round of antibiotics.
Foods for Immune Health
Stimulating the immune system in the face of an impending infection is a good idea for most and easily accomplished without the need for supplementation. These are my favorite immune fighting options for kids.
Oranges -- These yummy, kid-friendly fruits provide a healthy dose of vitamin C. Juice your own or feed kids the orange directly. Store bought orange juice is too high in sugar when your little person is on the verge of a cold.
Garlic -- Although this can be a challenge for many kids, consider roasting some cloves or adding raw garlic to potatoes or homemade hummus.
Lentils -- Lentils are high in the immune supporting mineral called zinc. Add lentils to soup or cook them in your rice/quinoa to make them a little more palatable for kids.
Avocado -- ½ of an avocado meets your daily requirement for vitamin E, an important contributor to a steady immune system. If this is not something your kids will eat, consider mixing an avocado with 1/3C organic cocoa powder and 1 tbsp of raw honey. Mix together in a food processor or blender - you now have chocolate pudding... I promise, they'll eat it.
Ginger - Ginger is an important anti-microbial. Chop a small amount of ginger and make a tea. Allow it to cool before serving to kids. Ginger is especially helpful for nausea.
Keeping you child free from day-care induced illness is an ongoing process. Avoid the sugar, add a probiotic and strategically include immune fighting foods to your child's meal plan. With a little luck, vigilant hand washing and some careful planning, the relentless game of microbial tag may just be gone for good... or at least until next fall.