It's not uncommon for young children to get sick a few times a year, as their immune system is still immature.
They are more prone to various forms of infections, especially when exposed to crowded environments such as day care or school. On top of this, they are also less aware of the importance of good personal hygiene.
This makes it more challenging for parents to keep their children disease-free. At the moment with the reopening of schools and day care centres, more students are returning to their regular routine despite the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, making it even more important for your child’s immune system to be strong.
A healthy immune system is important
What exactly is the immune system? It is not a single entity but a complex network of many different cells, tissues and organs. Together, they help the body fight against infections, protecting us from many diseases caused by various microorganisms.
A major part of the immune system is located in our digestive system, which accounts for approximately 80% of the body’s immune system. The digestive system starts from the mouth, which also include oesophagus, stomach, small and large intestines and ending at the rectum. The ecosystem of the digestive tract also harbours a collection of microorganisms termed the gut microbiota.
As your child grows, he is exposed to a variety of viruses/bacteria and other potentially dangerous microbes, many of which can enter the body through the digestive tract. The gut microbiota in the digestive tract protects the lining of the gut and also defends the body against harmful pathogens, either by preventing them gaining a foothold in the body and causing an infection/disease, or producing antibodies to attack pathogens.
Over time, the immune system learns how to differentiate between harmless and harmful microbes and the body’s own cells. Poor gut health can potentially allow harmful microbes to get into the body as the ability to defend against pathogens/infections is jeopardised. Therefore, taking care of the gut microbiota and maintaining good gut health is important to potentially develop a good immune system foundation.
Encourage healthy habits from an early age to help your child build a strong foundation for his immune system.
How to build a strong immune system foundation
Encourage healthy habits from an early age, as this will help your child build a strong foundation for his immune system. This builds up his immunity early, reducing the risk of a variety of infections. If you are looking for shortcuts or an easy way to build up the immune system, the answer is there’s none.
The status of our immune system is influenced by many factors such as genetics, environmental exposure, dietary intake, personal hygiene, co-existing of chronic disease, certain stress hormones like cortisol, and even one’s sleep-wake cycle of circadian rhythms.
There are some things parents can do to help children develop a stronger immune system. First of all, pay attention to the following (but don’t forget that they also apply to you):
A healthy diet for good gut health:
Start with a balanced and varied diet rich in fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Encourage your child to “eat a rainbow” when it comes to fruits and vegetables as this provides the immune system with most of the nutrients it needs to be strong and produce antibodies needed to fight diseases. This also benefits the gut microbiota and helps keep them healthy, regulate their composition and diversity, as well as help maintain the balance of good vs bad bacteria. Some children can be picky so try serving fruits/whole grains mixed with other ingredients. Bananas, apples, oats, onions, chopped green leafy vegetables and barley which are rich in prebiotics that feed the good bacteria can easily be added into children’s meals.
What to avoid:
Certain foods can cause gut dysbiosis, which essentially means the balance of good vs bad bacteria becomes skewed in the bad bacteria’s favour. So it’s best to avoid unhealthy, high fat and high sugar foods as this can lead to an imbalance, which in the long run may disturb the digestive system.
Drink plenty of water:
Encourage your child to drink plenty of plain water to stay well hydrated. This is important as water aids food digestion, bowel movement and will also promote the balance of good bacteria in the gut.
Keep gut microbiota balanced:
Include probiotic-rich foods in your child’s daily diet to help maintain a healthy balance of good vs bad bacteria in the gut. A good example includes fermented milk products that contain probiotic cultures (cultured milk drinks, fermented milk products, yoghurt, cultured cream, sour cream).
Practise exclusive breastfeeding for at least six months:
New mums should make it a point to exclusively breastfeed for at least six months. Not only does breastmilk contain all the nutrients baby needs to grow and develop, it is also rich in pre and probiotics, which helps set the stage for a healthy gut microbiota – ultimately benefiting your child as it reduces the risk of many infections.
Other healthy habits to cultivate
There are many other things you can do to improve your child’s immune system. Here are the top three healthy habits that benefit immune system:
- Teach children to wash their hands regularly using clean water and soap, especially after using the toilet, sneezing, coughing and before eating/drinking.
- Schedule time for your child to be physically active each day. Physical activity is important as it helps ensure the digestive system functions optimally, which in the long run will lead to more beneficial microbial species in the digestive ecosystem.
- Practise good sleep hygiene to ensure your child gets enough rest. This is important as the immune system produces functions better when the body is well-rested.
These healthy habits should be started from young. Investing in children’ gut health will help improve their overall health as well as set them up for stronger immune system in life.
Lastly, it’s important that you practise what you preach, as children are more likely to follow what you do than what you say.
Rely on professional information such as those from the Probiotics Education Programme of the Nutrition Society of Malaysia.
This article is contributed by Probiotics Education Programme by the Nutrition Society of Malaysia and supported by Vitagen Malaysia. For more information on the activities of the programme, visit www.nutriweb.org.my/probiotics.
Prof Dr Raja Affendi Raja Ali is expert committee member of the Probiotics Education Programme and consultant gastroenterologist at UKM Medical Centre.
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