If your children are returning to school on a hybrid or full, in-person model, you’ll be doing all of the usual things to protect them from COVID-19: proper handwashing, wearing a mask, and social distancing. In addition to the coronavirus however, the back-to-school season is prime time for colds, the flu, and other infections so finding ways to boost your kids’ immune system is definitely top of mind.
Fortunately, from diet and exercise and everything in between, there are so many ways to keep your kids healthy this school year. Read on for 12 ways to boost your kids’ immune system that you can start today.
1. LIMIT PROCESSED FOODS
The gut microbiome is a vast collection of 100 trillion microbes, or microorganisms, that live in and on the body, but most are found in the gastrointestinal tract.
Since the gut makes up 70 percent of the immune system, it’s important to make sure it has a diverse amount of healthy bacteria from fruits and vegetables and probiotic-rich foods—more on that later!
While the pandemic has inspired most families to cook at home and share family meals, keeping up with all the meals and snacks is exhausting and serving healthy, food has become more challenging than ever.
Processed, packaged, and frozen foods can make our lives easier, but when kids’ diets are made up of a majority of these foods, they’re probably missing out on immune-boosting vitamins and minerals.
Another thing to consider is that consuming processed foods and high-sugar foods have been linked to leaky gut syndrome, or intestinal permeability.
Leaky gut syndrome occurs when the tight junctions in the large intestine open and allow undigested food particles and pathogens in, which in turn elicits an immune response.
The condition has been linked to various conditions including allergies, asthma, autoimmune diseases, migraines, and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).
Although there’s nothing wrong with opening up a box of macaroni and cheese for dinner when you’re not in the mood to cook, try your best to serve as many whole foods as possible.
2. SERVE FRUITS AND VEGETABLES
You already know that kids should eat their vegetables, but doing your best to serve them at mealtimes (and snacks too, if you can swing it!) can go a long way to boost your kids’ immune system.
Fruits and vegetables are packed with vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants that are known to play a role in immune function— vitamins C, D, E, zinc, and selenium to name a few.
Quercetin, a flavonoid found in green leaf vegetables, apples, raspberries, red grapes, cherries, and citrus fruit, also has antioxidant, antiviral, and anti-inflammatory properties.
Fruits and vegetables also have prebiotics, the non-digestible food ingredients that work in tandem with probiotics, the live microorganisms found in the gut to support the immune system.
Related: 14 Prebiotic Foods For Kids
3. PRIORITIZE SLEEP AND SLEEP QUALITY
Even though this summer looked a lot different than years past, there was still plenty of time for toasting S’mores by the fire and catching fireflies.
While you probably let your kids stay up later than usual, once school starts, it’s a good idea to get them back on a schedule and prioritize sleep.
Sleep is essential to everyone’s health and wellbeing, but it affects multiple aspects of your kids’ development, and can boost their immune system.
An October 2019 study out of Nova Southeastern University found that people who slept well had a more diverse gut microbiome.
If you’re wondering how much sleep kids need, here are the recommendations from the National Sleep Foundation:
- Toddlers (1-2 years): 11-14 hours
- Preschoolers (3-5 years): 10-13 hours
- Kids (6-13 years): 9-11 hours
- Teenagers (14-17 years): 8-10 hours
Not only is the amount of sleep important, but the quality is too, so make sure your kids have good sleep hygiene practices which will help them more easily settle down at night and have a good night’s rest. Here are some suggestions:
Exercise promotes sleep so encourage your kids to move more by playing outside, or take a family walk or bike ride. Also, getting sunlight during the day helps produce melatonin, the sleep hormone, and helps regulate sleep-wake cycles so your kids are more likely to fall asleep on time and sleep well throughout the night.
Watch what your kids eat before bed. While a glass of milk might be OK, steer clear of chocolate and sugary foods which can disrupt sleep.
Limit screen time. Avoid watching TV and using electronic devices 1 to 2 hours before bedtime.
Do something relaxing. Encourage your kids to wind down with a quiet activity before bed like reading a book, doing a craft, playing a board game, or practicing yoga or meditation.
Keep the bedroom dark and cool. Make your child’s bedroom dark by using blackout blinds, shades, and/or curtains. Also, keep the room cool—between 60 and 67 degrees. If you live in a noisy neighborhood, a white noise machine can help.
4. SERVE FERMENTED FOODS TO BOOST YOUR KIDS’ IMMUNE SYSTEM
Fermented foods are rich in probiotics, the healthy gut bacteria that support the immune system. Some fermented foods can be a tough sell for kids (and adults) so try to look for creative recipes to incorporate them into meals and snacks.
Probiotic-rich foods include:
- Coconut milk yogurt
- Green peas
- Naturally fermented pickles
- Naturally fermented sauerkraut
- Naturally fermented vegetables
- Sourdough bread
5. CONSIDER PROBIOTICS TO BOOST YOUR KIDS’ IMMUNE SYSTEM
Probiotics have become popular in recent years and in the wake of the COVID-19.
A July 2020 report found that the market for probiotics is expected to grow by $31.28 billion between 2020-2024 and the pandemic will factor into that growth.
Probiotics are linked to improved gut health, and some studies show probiotics can shorten the duration of diarrhea associated with a stomach virus or a course of antibiotics and may reduce upper respiratory infections.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) hasn’t recommended regular use of probiotics in children because there’s a lack of evidence for their efficacy.
However, if you’re looking to give your kids a probiotic supplement, it’s always a good idea to ask your provider to recommend a brand.
6. SIGN UP YOUR KIDS FOR FALL SPORTS
Exercise has so many physical, mental, and emotional health benefits which include boosting your kid’s immune system.
A March 2020 study in the journal Exercise Immunology Review found that regular, daily exercise is important to maintain the immune system, particularly during the pandemic.
The Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans recommend kids between 6- and 17-years-old get 60 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous intensity physical activity each day.
Signing up your kids for soccer, softball or another fall sport is a great way to encourage your kids to get moving. On the other days of the week, you could also try:
- Baseball or softball
- Gymnastics or tumbling
- Jumping rope
- Martial arts
- Playing on the playground
- Resistance exercises
- Yard games like catch or tug of war
7. TAKE ADVANTAGE OF PUMPKIN SEASON
Pumpkin is a nutrient-dense vegetable and has 22 vitamins and minerals, including vitamins, A, C, E, and zinc which may boost the immune system.
With pumpkin season right around the corner, there are so many ways to incorporate it into your kids’ meals and snacks. Here are some ideas:
- Pumpkin breakfast pudding
- Add pureed pumpkin to smoothies
- Incorporate pureed pumpkin into pancakes, waffles, quick breads, muffins, and other baked goods.
- Make homemade trail mix with pumpkin seeds.
- Sprinkle pumpkin seeds on salads, soups, oatmeal, and yogurt.
- Spread pumpkin seed butter on toast or use it in place of peanut butter.
8. SERVE PREBIOTIC FOODS
While probiotic-rich foods can help boost your kids’ immune system, it’s also a good idea to get in prebiotic-rich foods, which are non-digestible food ingredients that work with probiotics to support immune function.
Prebiotic-rich foods include onions, garlic, leeks, asparagus, bananas, barley, oats, when bran, apples, Jerusalem artichokes, flaxseeds, cocoa, and seaweed.
9. COOK WITH GARLIC TO BOOST YOUR KIDS’ IMMUNE SYSTEM
Your kids may not be keen on garlic, but it has anti-bacterial, anti-viral, and anti-fungal effects and is known to boost the immune system.
Garlic lends itself to almost any vegetable and dish, but you can also add it to hot water to make a garlic “tea.”
Or spread minced garlic with a bit of olive oil on a piece of toast for a healthy appetizer.
Related: 50 Kid-Friendly Summer Appetizers
10. SNACK ON NUTS AND SEEDS
Nuts and seeds are high in protein, fiber, and the healthy fats kids need in their diets, but many also have nutrients like vitamin E and zinc which can help boost your kids’ immune system.
Some good choices include:
- Sunflower seeds
- Sesame seeds
- Pumpkin seeds
- Chia seeds
- Brazil nuts
11. GET VITAMIN D TO BOOST YOUR KIDS’ IMMUNE SYSTEM
Vitamin D is an essential nutrient that is known to support immune function and reduce inflammation.
Exposure to sunlight is one of the best ways for your child to get vitamin D, but in the colder months, this may be hard to do.
Therefore, getting foods high in vitamin D in your kids’ diet is key. These include:
- Fortified foods like milk, yogurt, and cereal.
12. FIND WAYS TO COPE WITH STRESS
We’re all feeling stress these days and kids are not immune.
According to a July 2020 study in the journal Pediatrics, of 1,011 parents surveyed, 14.3% said their children’s behavioral health had worsened.
Stress weakens the immune system so finding ways to help your child cope with the pandemic and going back to school can help.
Here are some ideas:
- Limit your child’s exposure to the news and social media and limit your conversations in your home about the pandemic.
- Get out in nature together by taking a hike, exploring a botanical garden, or visiting the zoo.
- Spend quality time together: read, play games, exercise, and laugh more.
- Teach kids deep breathing exercises or use a meditation app like Headspace.
- If your kids will be distance learning, do your best to keep regular routines during the day and carve out time for them to get outside and play.
- Talk to your kids about their fears and reassure them that they’re safe and protected.