Back to School Health

Back to School Health

How to support your child’s immunity ready for the new school year…

After a long summer break, it’s time for the kids to head back to school and focus on classes, sports and extra curricular activities – to be able to do this successfully, their health needs to be in tip-top condition. The new school year tends to be the start of a cycle of illnesses, including colds, flu and stomach bugs, thanks to the number of youngsters all in one room, in close proximity to one another – allowing viruses and infections to easily and quickly spread. There’s no way to prevent them from coming in contact with these illnesses, but there are things we can do to help strengthen our children’s immune systems to help them become more resistant.

“At school, children are in close contact with each other and their less mature immune systems mean they’re susceptible to picking up colds, tummy bugs and other common infections,” confirms Hannah Braye, technical advisor at Probiotics International (Protexin), manufacturers of the Bio-Kult and Lepicol ranges. “Many people use antibacterial wipes, sprays and hand sanitiser to kill germs. However, with snotty noses and sticky little fingers getting everywhere, this is often ineffective at preventing infections and overly-sterile environments may actually be detrimental to the developing immune system.”

A healthy start 

A good starting point is the diet. Children need to be eating a balanced wholefoods diet, rich in plenty of colourful fruits and vegetables, complex carbohydrates, healthy sources of fats and good quality protein to supply them with all the nutrients they need for healthy growth and development.

There are certain nutrients which are particularly important too. Braye suggests focusing on vitamins A, C and D and calcium: “Vitamin C can be found in abundance in fruit and vegetables, and vitamin A particularly in the orange and yellow varieties and in eggs. Calcium can be obtained from leafy green vegetables, tofu and organic dairy products and iron from grass-fed meats, beans and leafy greens. Vitamin D is also crucial to healthy development in childhood, for bone and teeth growth and the immune system. Over the winter months, supplementation may be necessary as the sun’s rays are not strong enough in the UK for us to synthesis vitamin D and it is difficult to obtain adequate amounts from food.”

Jenny Logan, technical training manager at Natures Aid, recommends looking for a supplement containing both zinc and vitamin D: “Both are important for a healthy immune system and are often low in children. Looking for a kids immune support supplement which includes these nutrients would be helpful.

“Additionally, whilst children cannot use many of the supplements often included in adult formula, they can take elderberry, which has the double advantage of tasting delicious and having a natural antiviral action. Studies have shown that taking elderberry supplement can help to eliminate viruses from the body and shorten the duration and severity of colds.

“Another children’s supplement to look out for is a child-specific probiotic, as this can have broad ranging benefits for the immune system, in fighting off stomach infections and in supporting brain function. Up to 80 percent of the immune system is influenced by the gut, with the bacteria which live there playing a valuable role in the immune response and in fighting and preventing infectious bacteria from attacking the bowel. If levels of these good bacteria are low – due to antibiotics, dietary influences or illness – then our children will be more prone to allergies, illness and tummy bugs.

“A child’s gut flora is different to that of an adult, and there are key strains to look out for when sourcing a good bacteria supplement for your child, these include: lactobacillus reuteri – which helps to support and strengthen the immune response, bifidobacteria infantis – specific to a child’s gut, this species supports the health of the intestines, the bowel and the immune system, and streptococcus thermophilus – which has been shown to reduce the incidence of stomach upsets and diarrhoea, as well as improving growth in children.”

Braye also recommends giving children a probiotic supplement: “Over 70 percent of our immune cells are located in the lining of the gut, and supported by a vast array of bacteria. Studies have shown that live bacteria supplements may help to prevent common respiratory and digestive infections in children attending day care and school.”

Increasing concentration and focus

What is particularly interesting, is that as well as helping to keep a child in school by preventing infections, studies suggest that beneficial bacteria could actually help to improve children’s concentration, focus and behaviour as well.

Logan explains: “Studies have indicated that the brain and the gut are intimately linked and are in constant communication. They have also shown us that the bacteria in the gut are responsible for helping to reduce anxiety and stress. Additionally, scientists report that children with a good variety of gut flora were more likely to be happy, curious and impulsive.”

Essentially fatty acids have also been proven to support brain performance and focus, particularly omega-3 DHA.  One study into the benefits of using DHA supplements in school children showed that taking additional DHA could help to improve reading ability and behaviour.

“The body is unable to manufacture DHA, so it is essential that it is provided in our diets or supplements,” comments Logan. “The best food sources of DHA are salmon, fresh tuna, trout, mackerel and sardines. It is recognised that typical intake of these foods in children worldwide is low. This has led to many foods being ‘enriched with omega-3’.  The trouble with this is that generally, to prevent foods tasting of fish, plant sources of omega-3 are used. Plant sourced omega-3 does not provide a direct source of DHA, and therefore is not as effective as including oily fish or a fish sourced DHA supplement.”

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