It reminded us that we are constantly under attack by bacteria, viruses, fungi and other unseen, disease-causing microbes - and that a healthy immune system was our only defense against these microscopic invaders.
The immune systems of children - babies, toddlers, even teenagers - are not yet fully developed. As such, they are more vulnerable to various illnesses. How can parents strengthen their children's immune system?
For paediatrician Dr. Rochelle Cedeño, nothing beats good nutrition. Cedeño recommends that nutritious semisolid food be introduced after sixth month. This is when the baby's metabolism and immune system start to require more nutrients for growth, development and good health. "Give your baby natural foods prepared at home, such as mashed veggies, fruit juices and cooked grains," she says.
Immunization is one of the best ways of boosting your child's immune system and protecting him or her from diseases.
Vaccines are made of either weakened or "killed" bacteria or viruses that cause a particular disease. When these altered microbes are injected into the body, the immune system produces antibodies. These antibodies remain active in a child's body and will be ready if he or she is ever exposed to the same kind of germs contained in the vaccine.
That's why paediatricians strongly urge parents to complete their babies' immunization regimen. Combination vaccines are now available. These combine several vaccines in one injection, sparing the child from the pain and inconvenience of multiple shots.
Experts agree that two of the best nourishments for the immune system are love and attention. Even if a baby misses one or more of the recommended vaccines, these can still be administered at a later time, according to Dr. Luisa Cordero, a paediatrician and a mother of five. "This is called catch-up immunization." Cordero made sure her kids completed their immunization shots and provided them with nutritious food and adequate amounts of vitamins to strengthen their immune system.
Vitamins and minerals are critical in strengthening the immune system. The most important ones include vitamins A, C and E, essential fatty acids, manganese, selenium, zinc, copper, iron, sulphur and magnesium. These nutrients can be obtained from an organic whole-foods diet consisting of fresh fruits and vegetables, nuts, seeds, beans and whole grains.
Vitamin C increases the production of infection fighting white blood cells and antibodies, and increases levels of interferon-the protein that coats cell surfaces, preventing the entry of viruses. Doctors warn against taking mega doses of vitamin C - this will not help your immune system and can, in fact, even suppress it.
Vitamin E stimulates the production of natural killer cells, which seek out and destroy germs and cancer cells. It also enhances the production of B cells, the immune cells that produce antibodies. While it is easy to get 30 mg to 60 mg of vitamin E daily from a diet rich in seeds, vegetable oils and grains, it is difficult for most people to consume more than 60 mg a day consistently through diet alone. Supplements may be necessary.
Beta-carotene is a good source of vitamin A. It increases the number of infection-fighting cells, natural killer cells and helper T-cells.
Zinc increases the production of white blood cells and helps them fight infections more aggressively. It also increases killer cells that fight cancer and helps white cells release more antibodies.
There is some evidence that dietary zinc supplements may reduce the incidence of acute respiratory infections among infants and young children. Children who are zinc-deficient get more infections and stay sick longer. For them, the best source of zinc is zinc-fortified cereals.
Omega-3 fatty acids. A study found that children taking half a teaspoon of flax oil a day experienced fewer and less severe respiratory infections and fewer days of being absent from school. The omega-3 fatty acids in flax oil and fatty fish (such as salmon, tuna and mackerel) act as immune boosters by increasing the activity of phagocytes, the white blood cells that eat up bacteria.
Talk to a paediatrician about the right vitamin and mineral supplements for your child.
Wash your hands before eating or cooking a meal, after using the bathroom and after working or playing with your hands. Telling your children to wash their hands before a meal, after using the bathroom and after playing, and showing them how you do it, over and over, may be the only way to teach them. Don't get frustrated - it takes a while for it to become second nature.
The following hand washing techniques are suggested:
Many children hospitalized with respiratory illnesses suffer from second-hand smoke exposure caused by their parents' smoking. If you smoke, quit now.
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