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5 Natural Ways to Boost Your Child’s Immune System

Healthy habits and natural strategies to help fend off those never-ending germs

Between back-to-school bugs and the looming cold and flu season, it might seem like your little one is perpetually sick these days. They’ll just get over a bout with the sniffles and then the tummy bug comes knocking. Does it ever end?

If it seems like your kids are always sick, you’re not alone. According to Mom Approved integrative pediatrician Dr. Alina Olteanu of Whole Child Texas in Frisco, young children can get upwards of 10 to 12 colds and viral illnesses each year. From the sniffles to strep—and yes, still COVID-19—the germs are bound to get passed around with children back at school. So, what can you do to keep your kids healthy? Aside from vaccines, are there natural ways to boost their immune system and ward off germs?

When it comes to the vitamins, supplements and potions that many moms swear by to give their kids’ immunity a boost, experts note it’s hard to say with certainty whether they work. “Many parents discover natural options they feel are right for their child, which can include zinc, vitamin D or C, echinacea or elderberry syrup,” says John Lazenby, MD, chief medical officer of Medical City Dallas and Medical City Children’s Hospital. “While these may not be regulated or tested by the FDA, some may find them beneficial.” (Scroll below for the natural remedies Dr. Olteanu keeps stocked.)

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), healthy children receiving a normal, well-balanced diet do not need vitamin supplements over and above the recommended dietary allowances. In fact, megadoses of vitamins, they warn, can produce toxic symptoms ranging from nausea to rashes to headaches. And people with autoimmune disorders need to be especially careful when considering supplements.

The key, experts say, is to talk to your pediatrician. “The best advice is to always check with your family physician or pediatrician to see what they recommend for your child based on routine check-ups,” says Lazenby.

There are natural ways to ward off the germs, experts say, but they aren’t quite as exciting as a magical supplement. Instead, the best way to kick your child’s immune system into high gear is to take steps to stay healthy, overall.

Here are five tips for tried-and-true habits and natural strategies to help kids’ bodies fight off the endless array germs they encounter.

1. Watch what you eat.

“I am frequently asked by parents what supplements to use to prevent colds, but before considering any store-bought vitamins, it’s crucial to talk about nutrition,” says Olteanu.

It’s true, chicken nuggets and pizza aren’t doing much for that immune system. Optimally, children should consume a variety of foods from the five major food groups every day: vegetables, fruits, bread or pasta, protein foods and dairy products. Each food group supplies important nutrients, including vitamins and minerals.

“As all illness starts and ends with inflammation, I educate all my patients on the benefits of an anti-inflammatory diet,” says Olteanu. If you want to opt for nutrition that’s anti- and non-inflammatory, Olteanu recommends the following:

  • Eliminate processed food, artificial dyes and sweetener, and sweetened drinks and soda
  • Consume brightly colored fruits and vegetables (5–8 servings a day) and add lots of healthy fats from fish, egg, nuts, seeds and olive oil
  • Add some fermented food to your diet daily—think sauerkraut, pickled veggies, kimchi, kombucha and kefir

Dessert, Olteanu advises, should be a special treat, not a daily food. “Save it for Sundays or special occasions, like birthdays and holidays,” she says.

RELATED: 20 Family-Friendly Farmers Markets in Dallas-Fort Worth 

2. Drink up.

Keeping your kids hydrated not only helps prevent meltdowns, it helps ward off germs, too, by supporting a healthy immune system. To stay well-hydrated, children ages 1–3 years need approximately 4 cups of beverages per day, including water or milk. This increases for older kids to around 5 cups for 4 to 8-year-olds, and 7–8 cups for older children, according to the AAP.

3. Get plenty of ZZZs.

We all know that when kids don’t sleep well it can lead to some—ahem—difficult behaviors. But a good night’s sleep doesn’t just boost their school performance, memory and behavior, it actually benefits their immune system, too. “Sleep is an undervalued and often overlooked habit to increase children’s immune system,” says Olteanu. She notes that sleep deprivation, common in teenagers, can actually weaken the immune system.

How much sleep does your child need? Including naps, the AAP recommends 12–16 hours for infants, 11–14 hours for toddlers up to age 2, and 10–13 hours for preschoolers up to age 5. Elementary-aged kids need 9–12 hours a night, and teens need about 8–10.

To establish good sleep hygiene at an early age, Olteanu recommends no TVs in the bedroom and no screen time two hours before bedtime. 

4. Stay active.

“I used to consider diet as the No. 1 cornerstone of disease prevention, but now I think that daily movement and exercise is equally important,” says Olteanu. Physical activity contributes to your overall health, which may help support your immune system’s functions. Encourage children to move around and get at least 1–2 hours per day of physical activity, even during the colder winter months.

Even better? Play outside. Fresh air, sunshine—and yes, even a little dirt—are good for us. Playing outside improves health, and getting some sun also helps us make the vitamin D that our bodies need to stay healthy and strong.

5. Manage stress.

Stress, especially long-term or chronic stress, can really take a toll on the immune system. Lazenby says you can work to manage your child’s stress by limiting their exposure to unhealthy situations that can wear them down.

RELATED: 9 Great Stress Reducing Apps For Kids 

Natural Remedies for the First Sign of Illness

No matter how much you do to keep kids healthy, they’re bound to catch something here and there. While Olteanu does not recommend that children take daily supplements unless recommended by a pediatrician—and strongly suggests consulting with an integrative medicine physician before using any supplements—she says to keep these natural remedies stocked in your medicine cabinet to use at the first sign of a cold:

  • Zinc lozenges: Use lower doses for children or it may upset their stomach.
  • Pelargoniuma: Also called “v clear” or “umcka,” this comes in different formulations for children; most kids prefer syrup or fizzy tablets. Olteanu says her personal favorites are the V Clear syrup from Integrative Therapeutics (also available at Amazon and Wal-Mart) or Umcka lemon tea (also available at Amazon and The Vitamin Shoppe; or find the kids cherry syrup at Target)
  • Elderberry: You can find-friendly gummies or syrup varieties. “Elderberry has the best research on shortening the duration of a viral illness,” says Olteanu. “I love using it at the first signs of illness.”
  • Vitamin C: Different formulations, liquid or chewable are available, but Olteanu says to be cautious. Too much vitamin C can cause diarrhea.

Image: iStock