How to support your child’s immune system this school year

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CHILDREN’S HEALTH

How to support your child’s immune system this school year

BY ACTIVATED PROBIOTICS January 1, 2024

As we gear up for another year of schooling, strategies that help to support immune health in our kids can help to see us through the year in one piece. Getting sick can be highly disruptive to the finely tuned operation that is a modern-day household, which is often juggling any number of work, school, social and extracurricular schedules. Optimal immune health is critical for supporting the entire family unit, and incorporating easy practices that support the immune system into our routines can set us up for success – even when we’re short on time.

Why children experience recurrent infections

For many families, it can feel like you have a sick child every other week. In fact, for those who have kids at daycare and preschool, they have at least 2-3 times more infections and are prescribed more antibiotics compared to those who stay at home (1). The infections that are commonly associated with this include gastroenteritis, leading to diarrhoea and vomiting, and upper respiratory tract infections such as common colds, ear infections and throat infections.

It’s a similar story for all kids at any level of school. In these settings, children are exposed to a range of new microorganisms and it requires their immune system to learn how to fight off the infectious ones for the very first time. We’re rarely good at anything the first time we try, and our immune system is no exception. Experts suggest that the average child will experience up to eight colds every year (and that’s not counting all other kinds of infections, such as gastro). Kids are also bringing these bugs home and challenging the immune system of the entire family. Even when we’re fully grown, our immune system can let us down– especially when we’re run down, stressed, or not equipping our body with the right tools.

Childcare and school can build a strong immune system

However, before you start cursing school and the number of sick days ahead, there are a number of very important upsides to this experience:

1. Developing a well-functioning immune system
Challenging the immune system with different microorganisms and infections during these early years of our life is important for the development of a well-functioning immune system. As kids cough, sneeze and eat together at school, a wide range of microorganisms come into contact with the immune cells that lie just under the surface of their intestines, mouths, and lungs. These exposures help to teach the immune system how to identify particularly harmful microorganisms, and how to create effective immune responses against those which can cause serious infections (2). Interestingly, research suggests that children who have been in childcare will contract fewer infections as they age up until the age of 13, suggesting a robust immune system is developing more quickly simply due to earlier social exposures (3). It appears that if a child hasn’t contracted a particular infection in childcare, they will go on to contract it during their first few years of schooling.

2. Supporting a diverse microbiome
Exposure to a wide range of microorganisms at childcare and school can also support the development of rich and diverse microbiomes in the gut and other areas of the body such as the mouth . While the immune system fights off infectious microorganisms, it learns to identify and tolerate microorganisms which are beneficial to human health. These microorganisms take up residence in areas like the gut and the mouth, and are important for many aspects of our health including ongoing immune health (4). Beneficial microorganisms in the gut help to keep our immune cells alert and ready to respond to infections (5).

3. Protection against allergic disease
This diverse microbiome that can be strengthened at school or childcare is also protective against allergic disease; as the immune system is learning to differentiate between harmful and beneficial microorganisms, it also helps to prevent the immune system from reacting to substances which aren’t harmful, such as pollens which enter the respiratory tract and interact with the immune cells in the throat and lungs, or substances in food which interact with the immune cells in the intestines (6). Allergic disease occurs when the immune system doesn’t receive this education and begins to react to these otherwise harmless substances, which are then called ‘allergens’.

Overall, this means that the likelihood for allergic disease later in life is lessened and a child’s ability to fight off infections as they age is stronger.

Preventing unnecessary infections is important

It’s clear that some infections are inevitable, and an important part of immune development. However, not every exposure to an infectious microorganism should turn into a fully-fledged infection. If the immune system is compromised and unable to effectively fight them off, infections become more frequent, severe and longer in duration. They are also more likely to recur.

When kids are sick too often, it becomes a troublesome and disruptive experience for the entire family. Children who are frequently sick face missing out on important social interactions and education, and increased doctor’s visits and antibiotic prescriptions. Beyond this, parents and guardians face absences from work and financial loss – plus, kids often pass on their infections to the rest of the household which compounds the problem (1).

Strategies to support immune health

Ensuring a child’s immune system is working optimally is essential for reducing the frequency and severity of infections and minimising the impact they have on their quality of life, education and the wider family’s health.

There are a number of strategies which can support your child’s immune system, and reduce the frequency of infections in your kids this school year. Read on for a mix of tried-and-true rules as well as a few surprising additions that call upon the latest gut microbiota research.

6 Back-to-School Tips for Supporting Your Child’s Immune System

Tip #1 | Handwashing
Assisting children to make hand washing routine is vital, and they should be encouraged to wash their hands after using the bathroom, before they eat, when they get home from school, and after using a tissue or sneezing/coughing into their hands.

Idea: Use soap with fun colours and shapes and sing a song to make it more interesting and engaging for kids when washing their hands.

Tip #2 | Teach your kids to cover their coughs and sneezes with their elbows
This one is designed to protect the rest of the family and others that your kids are interacting with. Teaching kids to cover their nose and mouth with their elbow rather than their hands is important, as this can help to reduce the spread of germs.

Idea: Teach kids to cough into their elbow by pretending to be a vampire covering their face with their cloak.

Tip #3 | Add immune-boosting foods to their lunchbox
Nutrition plays a major role in helping to strengthen the body’s natural defence system and helps us to fight off infections, and eating foods rich in vitamins A, C and D, zinc, and protein are particularly important nutrients for immune cell function (7).

Ensuring there are fresh fruits and vegetables and sufficient protein in their lunch boxes and their meals at home goes a long way towards providing our kids the nutrients we need for a strong immune system.

Idea: If your kids are fussy eaters, remember that it takes many exposures to new foods for kids to feel safe and comfortable eating them. Keep persevering, and try to make them fun. For example, put a child-friendly colourful or animal-themed food pick into bite-sized portions of their sandwich.

Tip #5 | Support the gut microbiome
The digestive tract is one of the body’s primary sites of immune activity, and the community of microorganisms that colonise the intestines plays a major role in immune health (8). The foods that we consume determine the kinds of microorganisms that take up residence and persist within our digestive tract. For example, research shows that a diet high in fibre-rich foods will stimulate growth and support the functions of more beneficial microorganisms which promote the activity of immune cells throughout the entire body. Specific evidence-based probiotics are also a great way to support the gut microbiome and its effects on immune health.

Idea: Use cutters to cut up fruit and vegetables full of fibre into fun shapes like flowers and stars, and let them use fun utensils to eat them (like a fork that’s their favourite colour or shaped like a tractor).

Tip #6 | Evidence-based immune probiotics
Specific probiotic strains have demonstrated the ability to assist the immune response in children. For example, i>Lactobacillus rhamnosus GG (LRGG) has been used successfully to prevent the occurrence of upper respiratory tract infections, such as common colds, in children attending day care.

When compared to placebo across several randomised controlled trials, supplementation with LRGG in children reduced the incidence of colds by 38% and antibiotic use by 20%, and significantly reduced their duration (10).

For adults, the combination of Lactobacillus plantarum HEAL9 and Lactobacillus paracasei 8700:2 has been found to help enhance immune system function and reduce their risk of getting sick.
In a clinical trial running over a single winter season, this combination reduced the number of people who caught one or more colds by 18%. These effects were even greater for the number of people who caught two or more colds, which was reduced by 37%, and the number of people who caught at least three colds was reduced by 54% (11).

It is important to know that not all probiotic strains have the same ability to enhance our immunity or support our gut microbiota during antibiotic use. When caring for your family’s immune health, it is essential to use specific researched strains of probiotics with proven efficacy such as L. rhamnosus GG for children, and Lactobacillus plantarum HEAL9 and Lactobacillus paracasei 8700:2 in combination for adults.

Idea: Make Biome Daily Kids™ Probiotic part of your child’s daily routine by packing a sachet into their lunchbox every day – kids love our yummy, vanilla-flavoured probiotic powder, but you can make it even more fun by writing a sweet message or silly joke onto the sachet as a little surprise.

Tip #7 | Good sleep and enough downtime
Sticking to our bedtimes and prioritising good quality sleep is important for our immune system to function well, but this can be a difficult task. Therefore, making sure that we have enough time in our schedules and our children’s schedules for rest and relaxation is crucial. Kids can get stressed and tired just as much as we can, and these are two factors that can impair our immune system’s ability to fight off infection.

Idea: Sleep trainer clocks display fun images of the stars and sun to communicate when kids should go back to sleep if they wake up during the night, and when it's time for them to get out of bed. Tools like this can help kids stay in a healthy sleeping routine, and even get excited to go to bed and see the stars.

REFERENCES

  1. Hojsak I. Probiotics in Children: What Is the Evidence?. Pediatr Gastroenterol Hepatol Nutr. 2017;20(3):139-146. doi:10.5223/pghn.2017.20.3.139
  2. Vighi G, Marcucci F, Sensi L, Di Cara G, Frati F. Allergy and the gastrointestinal system. Clin Exp Immunol. 2008 Sep;153 Suppl 1(Suppl 1):3-6.
  3. Ball TM, Holberg CJ, Aldous MB, Martinez FD, Wright AL. Influence of attendance at day care on the common cold from birth through 13 years of age. Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. 2002 Feb;156(2):121-6. doi: 10.1001/archpedi.156.2.121. PMID: 11814371.
  4. Forchielli ML, Walker WA. The role of gut-associated lymphoid tissues and mucosal defence. Br J Nutr. 2005 Apr;93 Suppl 1:S41-8.
  5. Holmgren, J., Czerkinsky, C. Mucosal immunity and vaccines. Nat Med 11 (Suppl 4), S45–S53 (2005).
  6. Walker, J. A., & McKenzie, A. N. J. (2017). TH2 cell development and function. Nature Reviews Immunology, 18(2), 121–133.
  7.  Gombart AF, Pierre A, Maggini S. A Review of Micronutrients and the Immune System-Working in Harmony to Reduce the Risk of Infection. Nutrients. 2020 Jan 16;12(1):236. 
  8.  Caballero S, Pamer EG, (2015). Microbiota-mediated inflammation and antimicrobial defence in the intestine. Annual review of immunology;21;33:227-56.
  9.  Schley PD, Field CJ. The immune-enhancing effects of dietary fibres and prebiotics. Br J Nutr. 2002 May;87 Suppl 2:S221-30. 
  10.  Liu, S., Hu, P., Du, X., Zhou, T., & Pei, X. (2013). Lactobacillus rhamnosus GG supplementation for preventing respiratory infections in children: A Meta-analysis of Randomized, Placebo-controlled Trials. Indian Pediatrics, 50(4), 377–381
  11.  Hojsak I, Szajewska H, Canani RB, Guarino A, Indrio F, Kolacek S, et al. Probiotics for the prevention of nosocomial diarrhea in children. J Pediatr Gastroenterol Nutr. 2017 doi: 10.1097/MPG.0000000000001637.
  12.  Berggren et al. (2011). European Journal of Nutrition, 50(3), 203–210.
  13.  Szajewska H, Kołodziej M. Systematic review with meta-analysis: Lactobacillus rhamnosus GG in the prevention of antibiotic-associated diarrhoea in children and adults. Aliment Pharmacol Ther [Internet]. 2015 Nov;42(10):1149–57.

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