Life never stands still. Neither does your immune system. As you journey through each chapter of life, your immune system evolves to tackle the different challenges it will encounter. Here’s how to give it everything it needs, no matter your age.
Tots & toddlers
The moment you leave the safety of your mother’s womb, your body is exposed to viruses, bacteria, and a host of new risks. Previously, your mother’s immune system helped shield you from danger, and moms still play a vital immunity role for children.
“Breastfeeding offers a baby the best form of immunity with antibodies that naturally pass through a mother’s breast milk,” says registered dietitian nutritionist Crystal Karges. “It’s an immune builder for babies.”
The stronger a mother’s immune system, the better. Moms can even boost their own immune systems, says Karges, by “eating a diet rich in plant-based, whole foods, which are higher in antioxidants. Supplements, especially probiotics and omega-3 fatty acids, also help a mother’s immunity.”
Finally, consider your little one’s own gut health. “When your baby is old enough to begin eating solids, this is a good time to start introducing foods that are naturally fermented,” says Karges. For younger kids, baby probiotic supplements do the trick.
(Please note that it’s important for everyone, including pregnant women, breastfeeding moms, and babies to check with their health care practitioners before taking or giving supplements.)
A healing touch
Skin-to-skin contact exposes your child to the healthy bacteria on your own skin, which strengthens your baby’s immune system by making your baby less susceptible to unhealthy bacteria. “Keep your baby close to you to help naturally build immunity,” says Karges.
It’s all about immunity
Bacteria are everywhere
Your clothes, public transportation, and elevator buttons are some of the dirtiest surfaces around you. Food matters, too. Even if you follow a healthy, balanced diet, you’d still eat approximately 1.26 billion microbes every day.
Don’t take immunity for granted
One in 40,000 to 100,000 people are born with “bubble boy disease” and have no active immune system.
It takes two to three months for a healthy newborn’s immune system to mature.
Laughter is the best medicine
Positive emotions may improve your immune system and help you recover from an illness faster.
Your teen is likely used to late nights, irregular sleep habits, and a packed schedule, but lack of sleep is nothing to sneeze at. While your teen needs nine to 10 hours of sleep a night, 85 percent of teens don’t get anywhere close to that number.
All of this sleep deprivation can lead to a weaker immune system and a slower recovery when your teen falls ill. Creating more structure, avoiding caffeine, and keeping digital devices out of the bedroom can help your child get a little more rest.
Diet is also key. Canadian teens eat more sugary foods and sweetened drinks than any other age group in Canada, and sugar makes our immune system’s “killer cells” less effective.
“Make sure they’re eating a balanced diet with protein, healthy fats, and complex carbohydrates with every meal,” says Dr. Fiona Smulders, a naturopathic doctor in Vancouver.
Poor diet and too much sugar may be one reason why nearly 60 percent of Canadian teens have had at least one tooth cavity. Interestingly, oral health says a lot about our overall health.
“Bad bacteria in your mouth can lead to disease-causing bacteria in vital organs,” warns Dr. Michael Smith, MD, director of education at Life Extension.
Both experts suggest probiotics as a way to boost your teen’s immunity and improve their overall well-being. “Strengthening their intestinal microbiome with a good quality probiotic supplement has been shown to lessen the frequency, duration, and intensity of a cold or flu,” says Smulders.
And according to Smith, healthy bacteria may be the next frontier for fighting cavities.
Let food be thy medicine
Foods thought to help “boost our immune strength include garlic, ginger, onions, chicken or vegetable broth, and various culinary herbs like sage, thyme, and oregano,” says Smulders.
Adults & seniors
We have a stress epidemic on our hands. One in four adult Canadian workers report that they’re highly stressed, and three out of four Canadians say they have some level of stress on a regular basis.
Chronic stress reduces your white blood cell count, which leaves you more susceptible to getting sick. Stress also causes chronic inflammation in your body, which can raise your risks of asthma, cancer, and other diseases.
Meditation is one of the most effective ways to de-stress. Not only that, but studies have found that meditation may help protect your immune cells, increase your antibodies, improve the effectiveness of your immune system, and reduce inflammation.
That last point is critical for your long-term health. “As we age, we accumulate more inflammation and oxidative damage, which we see with increased rates of osteoarthritis, cardiovascular disease, and Alzheimer’s disease in the older population,” says Smulders.
Inflammation and oxidative damage affect aging and healing, as well as the strength of your immune system. “Therefore, treatment strategies to reduce inflammation and oxidative damage can be very beneficial,” she suggests.
Much of it comes down to diet. Cut out sugar, refined carbohydrates, and processed foods, and eat more fruits and vegetables. “Colourful produce contain compounds called flavonoids—potent antioxidants that protect the body against inflammation and oxidative damage,” says Smulders. Some of her favourite go-tos include berries, carrots, broccoli, grapes, and dark green leafy vegetables.
“Supplements can also help lower inflammation and oxidative damage,” she notes. Her top choices for immune health include omega-3 fatty acids; curcumin; and vitamins A, C, and E.
And while many people run to standard standbys, such as vitamin C and echinacea, when they feel they’re coming down with something, Smulders argues that zinc is the unsung superhero of the immune system.
“Zinc stimulates the production of our own immune cells so we have a better defence against viruses and bacteria,” says Smulders, pointing to research showing how people catch fewer colds when they take zinc supplements. “You can also try zinc-rich foods such as pumpkin seeds, nuts, seafood, whole grains, and egg yolks,” she suggests.
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