10 easy ways to boost your family’s immune system

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Sick of being sick? So are we. The coughs, the runny noses, the rumbly tummies. Enough already!

Now that winter has begun to slink away, so too have some of the nasty illnesses we’ve been battling for months. But even with a hint of spring in the air, it’s important to keep our immune systems in tip-top fighting condition. Here’s how:

Practise good hygiene

You’ve probably been told at least a thousand times to wash your hands frequently. Now you just need to remember to do it. All. The. Time. “Hand washing could be the single most powerful thing we could do to prevent illnesses,” says Dr. Sarah Gander, a pediatrician at Saint John Regional Hospital in New Brunswick. “And it’s cheap, too.” Lather your hands with soap for a minimum of 20 seconds – that’s the time it takes to sing one verse of “Happy Birthday” (or two verses if you sing quickly). Have kids wash their hands as soon as they get home from school. And be sure everyone washes after touching public surfaces, using the toilet, being around sick people, blowing noses and before and after preparing food.

Help your gut

Recent studies have found a link between probiotics – the healthy bacteria naturally found in our gastrointestinal system – and a decreased incidence of respiratory infections. Since probiotics are often wiped out by things like stress, poor diet and antibiotics, even kids could do with taking a supplement, says Dr. Rahima Hirji, Naturopathic Doctor at the Sage Naturopathic Clinic in Kitchener, Ont.

Say no to antibiotics

The next time your little munchkins are suffering from a cold, resist the urge to beg your physician for a prescription. They’re necessary to treat bacterial conditions like meningitis or pneumonia, but even some bacterial ear, nose and throat infections will clear up on their own.

Don’t smoke

Not only does smoking increase your risk of developing serious illnesses such as cancer, coronary artery disease and emphysema, but it also raises your chance of catching more common infections such as cold or flu. Even breathing in second-hand smoke can have the same effects, especially for children. According to Dr. Gander, smoke causes inflammation to lung cilia and mucus membrane barriers, which are important for fighting off infection. Once they’re inflamed, they become less effective at performing their duties, leaving you more susceptible to becoming ill.

Make a friend

Being lonely can make you sick, say researchers at the University of Chicago. According to their findings, loneliness has been linked with deficiencies in cellmediated immunity. In other words, friendless people find it harder to fight bugs. Another study conducted by Australian researchers found that elderly patients with strong social networks lived up to 10 years longer than their more lonely peers. How does it work? Being happy and feeling loved can cause the body to release oxytocin, a hormone that’s present when we hug, touch or even breastfeed. Oxytocin helps lessen inflammation and bolsters the immune system. It also reduces the stress hormone, cortisol, which can have an adverse affect on infection-fighting T-cells. So, whether you’re six or 56, it may be time for a play date.

Cut down on sugar

While your taste buds may love sugar’s succulent sweetness, your body’s immune system does not. Dr. Hirji says sugar can actually decrease your body’s ability to fight off a cold. “When white blood cells are exposed to high levels of sugar, they show a decreased resistance to infection,” she says. So that extra spoonful of sugar in your latte could actually make you more susceptible to getting sick. Help keep kids strong when surrounded by viruses at school by packing a healthy, sugarfree lunch. And when you want to use a sweetener, try smaller doses of natural alternatives such as honey or agave nectar.

Go to bed

A lot can be said of the value of a good night’s sleep. It can improve your memory, protect your heart and possibly ward off disease. Researchers believe that a good, uninterrupted night’s sleep can help pump up your immune system.  “Think of it as having your computer or phone charged overnight,” says Dr. Gander. “Without a recharge, your body is not going to work as well.” When you sleep, your body repairs cellular damage and recuperates from some of the negative effects of stress. A lack of sleep can decrease your ability to fight infections by supressing your immune system. A study of 153 adults published in the Archives of Internal Medicine found those with poorer sleep efficiency and shorter sleep duration were more likely to develop a cold. So stop reading, tuck yourselves in and catch some well-deserved zzzs.

Dr. Hirji recommends:
4 to 12 months – 14 to 15 hours
1 to 3 years – 12 to 14 hours
3 to 6 years – 10 to 12 hours
7 to 12 years -10 to 11 hours
Teens – 9 to 10 hours
Adults – 7 to 9 hours

Chill out

High levels of stress are directly correlated with a person’s health. “Stress and anxiety reduce immune function by increasing the hormone cortisol,” explains Dr. Hirji. So increased stress can lead to more infections, even in kids. Young children can feel the effects of stress quite profoundly, agrees Dr. Gander. It’s easy to tell when we’re feeling stressed, but figuring out if a child is feeling anxious can be more difficult. Watch for symptoms such as frequent head and stomach aches, nail biting, moodiness, difficulty sleeping and decreased performance at school. If you think your child might be stressed, talk to them, allow them to make their own decisions about certain things so they feel empowered, ensure they’re eating and sleeping well and cut back on external activities so they have enough time to just be kids. Also, limit what types of news they are exposed to, says Dr. Hirji. “Children don’t need to know all the troubles of the world at an early age. It can affect them in a profound way.”

Get moving

A moderate exercise program will help you stay healthy when those around you are sneezing and sputtering into their hankies. Numerous studies have proven that exercise can help your body fight off infections and possibly decrease your family’s chances of developing more major conditions such as cancer, osteoporosis and heart disease. There are multiple theories behind why actively moving can help keep you well. Some believe exercising increases circulation, allowing infection-fighting cells to move more quickly through the body, while others say physical activity could help flush bacteria from the lungs. Whatever the reason, we know it works. So get your family moving. Aim for at least 30 minutes of moderate exercise (walking, swimming, biking) every day.

Eat well

Toss the chips and say hello to fruits and veggies, says Jane Dummer, a Registered Dietitian at Jane Dummer Consulting in Kitchener, Ont. “A diet lush in fruits and vegetables can help prevent a variety of infections and support a strong immune system.” Look for colourful foods like berries, tomatoes, grapefruits and oranges which are high in Vitamin C and add greens like spinach, broccoli and kale. Don’t forget mushrooms which are a good source of vitamin D and zinc. For an extra boost, add ginger to your next salad or stir fry. Researchers from Kaohsiung Medical University in Taiwan found that eating fresh ginger can help prevent lower respiratory disease in children. For protein, choose lean meats, seafood and beans for their zinc. This essential nutrient can increase your body’s levels of white blood cells. Don’t forget yogurt. Jane touts this dairy staple for its anti-inflammatory properties. 


Writer and editor Shandley McMurray is originally from Toronto, but now lives in London, England with her husband and two kids.

Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, February 2014.

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