Natural supports in an infectious world!
Dr. Cassie Irwin
Navigating uncertain times is no small feat, especially for parents who are concerned about how to keep their kids happy and safe. Measures such as school shutdowns, frequent handwashing, and physical distancing that were (and, in some cases, may still be) in place to protect against COVID-19 have also contributed to a fair bit of worry among parents and kids alike. While there isn’t sufficient data to recommend natural treatments for this particular viral strain, take heart in knowing there are ways to naturally support your child’s immune system so that it’s stronger and more resilient against infections that might come their way, including those caused by seasonal cold and flu viruses.
Imagine going through airport security for a family trip. The X-ray machine scans the contents of your child’s suitcase to assess whether they are safe to go on the plane. Your child’s immune system performs a similar function to determine whether substances from the external environment are safe to stay in their body. Dangerous substances such as germs trigger an immune response, which is the body’s attempt to eliminate it from the body.
Germs refer to micro-organisms that often cause disease, including viruses, bacteria, parasites, and fungi. While the immune system does its best to avoid infection, germs often make themselves comfortable and overstay their welcome.
Viruses are particularly bad houseguests, since they need a gracious host (like humans) to be able to live, and they hijack our cellular proteins at every stage of their life cycle. Common viruses include influenza, rhinovirus (the predominant cause of the common cold), and human coronaviruses, which can also cause the common cold and lower respiratory tract infections such as bronchitis and pneumonia.
The best defence against infection is to avoid exposure to germs in the first place. We remain focused on preventing the spread of the virus that causes COVID-19. This strain is spread from an infected person through coughing, sneezing, prolonged close personal contact, and touching surfaces.
While research continues into the behaviour and spread of this coronavirus, the current understanding is that one contracts the virus by inhaling respiratory droplets or by contacting infected surfaces and then touching oral, nasal, and eye mucous membranes.
If you must bring your kids with you when shopping for essentials, hold their hand or bring a toy for them to hold so that they’re not touching items around them. Help your child avoid touching their face by making a game out of it. For example, whenever they reach to touch their face, have them scratch their knees instead.
Although research is ongoing into the stability rates of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, other human coronaviruses remain infectious on surfaces at room temperature for up to six days, which suggests that regular disinfection of surfaces at home may be helpful to prevent spread. After touching an item with infectious rhinovirus, it can remain on fingertips and still be infectious for up to 24 hours.
At home, the most contaminated surfaces tend to be doorknobs, the fridge handle, the TV remote control, and bathroom faucets. Pay particular attention to items that your child handles often, including toys and touchscreens, and ensure that they’re frequently and thoroughly cleaned.
Deficiencies in immune-modulating micronutrients (including B vitamins; vitamins C, D, and E; iron; zinc; and selenium) impact the susceptibility of a host to infectious disease and alter the course and outcome of infection.
In developed countries such as Canada, the most common cause of nutrient deficiencies in kids tends to be picky eating, since many are fussy about eating many nutrient-packed foods such as leafy green vegetables. Low vitamin D levels from insufficient food intake or sun exposure can increase risk of infection, especially of the respiratory tract.
Restoring levels of deficient micronutrients to recommended levels increases resistance to infection and supports faster recovery. Particularly for picky eaters, eating food sources of these nutrients may not be enough; in this case, a multivitamin with minerals may be helpful.
Physical activity has myriad health benefits for children and teens, including improving cardiovascular health, promoting positive self-esteem, and reducing depression and anxiety.
Exercise may also be key in maintaining healthy immune function. Moderate-intensity exercise has been found to enhance the immune system; researchers believe this is due to improved immune surveillance, reduced inflammation, and improved psychological stress.
The Canadian Paediatric Society recommends that children accumulate at least 60 minutes of moderate- to vigorous-intensity physical activity on six or more days per week.
If your child continues to ask about COVID-19, they might be seeking assurance from you to manage their anxiety. Do your best to explain the situation without creating unnecessary fear of germs, mistrust of others, and worries about the future.
Chronic stress can affect immune function, so managing their stress by playing, creating, exercising, meditating, and talking with your child is one of the best ways you can support their well-being during this time.
This article was originally published in the September 2020 issue of alive Canada magazine, under the title "Bolstering Kids' Immunity."