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Kids Notes: Ways to boost the immune system

In the face of upper respiratory viral illnesses slowing down children during the winter break, parents in the office often ask me, “How long will this last?”

I often wish I had more time to explain to them how important a strong immune system is in clinching an answer to this question. The better a child’s immune system, the shorter the duration of illness becomes. In fact, those with stronger immune systems are less likely to get sick in the first place.

Together with stocking up on herbal remedies for cough and colds, it’s important to strengthen your immune system to weather the winter bugs.

“The strength of our immune system is what makes the difference between who gets sick and who doesn’t. The one with the immune system below base-line normal has an increased risk of getting sick,” says Dr. Merrell Woodson, director of integrative medicine at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York City. The body’s immune system is a complex and interconnected latticework of cells and organs that work together to defend you against diseases of various kinds. Below are a few ways to boost your immune system, tried and true, to use year-round:

  • Probiotics have received much more attention in recent years as studies reveal their multi-faceted benefits. A recent study by researchers from Finland which appeared in Pediatrics showed a dramatic reduction in incidence and duration of respiratory tract infection symptoms in 3 to 5-year-old children taking daily probiotics. Children took a daily dose of 10 colony-forming units of Lactobacillus acidophilus and Bifidobacterium lactis for six months from November to April. The incidence of fever was reduced by as much as 63% and cough by as much as 54% in the group of children taking both of these probiotics. Culturelle Kids Packets and Florastor Kids are two kinds of probiotic supplements highly recommended for children and available at most pharmacies. You can also find them in bulk for reduced prices at www.vitacost.com.
  • Vitamin D, long known for its role in bone and calcium metabolism, has been suggested to play a role in bolstering host immunity to acute viral respiratory illnesses in recent years.  A randomized controlled trial (double-blind with 99% follow-up) of 247 Mongolian children with vitamin deficiency in the winter, just published this year in Pediatrics, found that vitamin D supplementation reduced the risk of acute respiratory infections by half. In The Vitamin D Solution: A 3-Step Strategy to Cure Our Most Common Health Problem, Michael Holick, PhD, MD., professor of medicine, physiology, and biophysics at Boston University Medical Center, offers practical advice on how to maintain healthy levels of vitamin D. In the winter when there is absence of exposure to the sun, 1,000 IU (international units) of vitamin D3 supplementation daily is necessary for children to maintain healthy levels of 25-hydroxy vitamin D. My favorite vitamin D supplement is Vitafusion Vitamin D3, 2000 IU, Gummy Vitamins. Many other forms are available, however, with Vitamin D drops for little children.
  • Vitamin C, although it may not prevent colds from happening, helps to shorten the duration and severity of viral upper respiratory illnesses when they do occur. A 2004 study, in which researchers at Australia’s National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health reviewed more than 30 published studies about vitamin C’s ability to prevent and treat colds, found that cold symptoms did not last quite as long in those people who took extra vitamin C daily through the winter months. Whenever a child feels something coming on, I usually recommend taking about 500-1,000mg of vitamin C to boost the immune system.
  • And, of course, don’t forget the importance of a healthy diet (fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, a diet low in saturated fat), exercise, adequate sleep, and ways to keep stress at bay! Maintaining the integrity and strength of one’s health as a whole is essential for a strong immune system.

The writer is a physician at Ridgefield Pediatric Associates at 38 Grove Street.

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