During my 25 years of practice as a naturopathic physician working with families, the fall and winter were always among the busiest times for me. The time from just after back to school all the way to the first days of spring was known as "immune season." As that time of year approached, parents would ask me how they could support their child's immune system. I would tell them that immunity is not something we either possess or we don't. The immune system in all of us, even children, has natural defensive and offensive strategies and tactics to keep the body in balance.
Implementing a few basic strategies into a child's daily routine can help promote a healthy immune system without requiring much extra effort for parents or kids. Children are naturally resilient, and that includes their immune systems. They are innately wired to maintain equilibrium, and their immune function can be supported and nurtured during the winter season. This allows the immune system to develop a strong and healthy defense response. The digestive system and the channels of elimination for toxins and waste from the body also play a role here, along with the neuroendocrine system and the stress response. Here are a few tips, as well as herbs to support a healthy immune system.*
Ensure that your child has plenty of fluids every day. To get kids to drink water, let them pick out a bottle that's their very own. Include herbal teas like Spearmint (for healthy digestion), Lemon Balm (to promote calmness and healthy digestion) and Nettle (for overall nutritive support).* Holy Basil's traditional use is to support a healthy stress response, but it also helps support the respiratory system.* Organic Hibiscus Tea is delicious with Chamomile and Spearmint or mixed with Elderberry Syrup. Sweet-sour Hibiscus contains some vitamin C - which the adrenals require to maintain a healthy stress response - as well as bioflavonoids including Quercetin, which supports a healthy histamine response.* Diluted fruit juices rich in flavonoids, such as a blend with Black Elderberry or Acai berry, are also good ways to keep kids hydrated. Our bodies are mostly water, so proper hydration ensures a healthy immune response and healthy mucous membranes.*
Encourage a Healthy Diet
This time of year, serve plenty of warm, nourishing seasonal foods. Chicken or mushroom soup with herbs like Thyme, Rosemary and Sage is soothing and hydrating, and the fragrant herbs themselves provide immune support, especially to the upper respiratory system.* Include warming comfort foods and spices in the child's diet along with plenty of high-fiber foods - think: pumpkin, apple and oatmeal - to support the channels of elimination and the microbiome. The digestive microflora provide crucial support for immune health and development. Include fermented foods like yogurt or sauerkraut, or consider adding a probiotic supplement for picky eaters. In cold months, I also encourage parents to avoid serving raw and cold foods. Gently warm the fruit, and add spices like Cinnamon or Nutmeg. This time of year, our body craves and prefers slightly cooked foods to raw, and this shift in preparation may encourage kids to eat foods that might not otherwise try.
Winter is a dark time, and less sunlight means less ability to make vitamin D from sunlight. In northern New England where I live, it's not possible to make vitamin D from about November through March due to the distance from the equator. The sunshine vitamin, as it's called, is responsible for overall health as well as bone health. It's also key to a healthy immune response, respiratory health and supports the metabolic pathways. In dark, cold months, you'll need to supplement the diet with vitamin D, through food sources like fortified milk and orange juice, fatty fish and egg yolks. Combining the vitamin D source with high quality omega-3 fatty acids like fish oil provides additional immune support and antioxidant activity as well as a healthy inflammatory response.
Herbs to Support Children's Immune Systems
As a mom and a doctor, I can tell you that children's immune systems do not understand the concept of "office hours." I tell parents to keep several herbs on hand all year long, especially in winter.
Black Elderberry is a long-established tonic for immune support, and this flavorful berry finds its way into many foods. These berries are high in many flavonoids, including anthocyanins, known for their antioxidant support and immune response at onset.* Black Elderberry can be taken all season long or for a short time, for rapid immune support at onset.*
When my own kids were little, we had Black Elderberry juice or syrup mixed with Spearmint in the fridge all winter long, so it became part of their daily diet. The syrup can be given straight off a spoon, mixed in juice or made into a fun gummy.
My favorite herb to combine with Elderberry for daily immune support is Andrographis. Current research supports the traditional use of this herb to support a healthy immune response and a healthy inflammatory response that naturally dispels heat and removes toxins.* Andrographis leaf has been primarily studied to support immune system health at onset by supporting healthy levels of immune cells in the blood.* In Ayurveda, Andrographis is known as the "king of bitters," and, in studies, it has been shown to promote nasal, sinus and throat health as well as normal lymphatic function.* In smaller amounts, it has used as longer-term immune support.* (It is a very bitter tasting plant so it is best given in a capsule, which limits its use to older children who can swallow capsules.)
The immune-supporting herb Echinacea is actually two herbs: The root of Echinacea angustifolia and the flowering plant, root and seed heads of Echinacea purpurea are both used in herbalism.
The roots or seed heads provide rapid immune support at onset, while the flowering parts support ongoing immune function.* GaiaKids Echinacea Supreme contains Echinacea purpurea from the Gaia Farm and is designed to support a healthy immune response.* It also supports healthy secretory immune function in the lymphatic system, mucous membranes and skin.*
During fall and winter, take once daily for general immune support or several times during the day at onset.* (Pack it in your carry-on bag, too. Taking Echinacea before and during your flight can help support immune health while you travel.*)
Echinacea Goldenseal Propolis Throat Spray can be used as a gargle to support throat health and comfort. (Due to the Propolis, which is a bee product, it cannot be given to infants.) Another product with Echinacea I always have at home is GaiaKids® KidsDefense® Herbal Drops. Designed to support a rapid response to immune stressors as well as healthy digestive function, this formula is made from traditional warming herbs.* Based on a Thomsonian formula from the 19th century, it's a bit spicy, so I like to dilute it in warm water or herbal tea.
Two other herbs I recommend having on hand are Eucalyptus leaf whole leaf extract (not essential oil) and Licorice Root extract. Many people are familiar with using eucalyptus essential oil as an inhalation steam and overlook the leaf for upper respiratory support when inhaled.* (You wouldn't use it internally.)
Licorice root helps to soothe mucus membranes and keep them moist.* Secondly, it gives adrenal support, which is important because keeping the stress response healthy ensures the immune system gets the attention it needs.*
Children are still learning to express their emotions, and oftentimes they adapt to stress by manifesting it physically. When the body has to divert attention to the stress response, it steals focus from the immune responses.* The herbs in GaiaKids® Calm Support allows for calming of occasional nervous irritability, sensitivity and excitement.* The drops contains nervines that also support a healthy mood and healthy sleep.* California Poppy, grown on the Gaia Farm, calm and support the whole nervous system. In those drops or as tea, Lemon Balm is one of the most uplifting and calming plants I know. Kids just love its zesty lemon scent, and its essential oil supports our brain's "happy center." Diffusing it as an essential oil aids sleep, calms occasional restlessness and supports a healthy mood, too.
Parents, remember these tips are not just for kids and may be applied to the entire family for wellness and support in every season.