By Dr Anish Desai and Dr Sunaina Anand
Human beings over years have seen several epidemics like smallpox, polio and the Spanish flu and the immune system has adapted to survive these organisms. Since severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) is a new virus, there is no pre-existing immunity in human beings. This has raised several questions in the minds of parents.
The immune system is the body’s defence against invading microbes, it identifies the microorganisms as hostile particles, identifies and destroys them. Our immune system is a series of cells, tissues and organs that, throughout our lifetime, protects us from different invading microorganisms and keeps us healthy and able to resist many repeated infections from infancy to adulthood.
Immunity and your child
Children are susceptible to various illnesses and infections throughout the seasons. Therefore, it is critical to understand how immunity transfers from mother to child and develops in later stages and how to boost your child’s immunity during growing stages.
Antibodies, which are the defence cells, are passed from mother to baby through the placenta during pregnancy. This gives the baby some protection during the early days of birth. The type and amount of antibodies passed to the baby is dependent on the mother’s own level of immunity. During the process of delivery, microorganisms from the mother’s birth passage is passed on to the baby. This helps to build the colony of microorganisms in the gut that contributes to the baby’s immunity.
After birth, defensive cells called antibodies are passed on to the baby through breast milk. However, the child’s immune system is still evolving and needs the requisite support. Premature babies are at higher risk of infection as their immune systems are underdeveloped and adequate antibodies haven’t been passed to them from their mothers.
Babies also produce their own antibodies over a period of time as they get exposed to microorganisms. The passive immunity passed on from the mother at birth also doesn’t last long and diminishes within a few weeks and months after birth. Every time your baby gets sick, they develop new antibodies that will protect them from future infections. Meanwhile, there are some important things that you need to do to protect your baby and boost immunity.
How do I boost my child’s immunity?
It is important to boost your child’s immune system and keep her healthy during the lifetime.
Breastfeeding is probably one of the best ways to help support a baby’s immune system in the growing stage. Breast milk contains important components that help your baby’s immune system – proteins, fats, sugars, antibodies and probiotics are the important elements. A mother’s antibodies are passed on to the baby, also through breast milk. Research has shown that breastfed babies have a lesser incidence of infections and recover more quickly than babies fed on infant formulas.
Enrolling your child for the vaccination programme as per the standard guidelines is an effective and safe method to protect them against serious diseases. Follow your paediatrician’s advice when it comes to the childhood vaccination schedule.
Touch transmits a large variety of infections. Teach your child methods of hand hygiene after sneezing, coughing and going to the bathroom. Washing hands with warm water and soap for at least 20 seconds can remove bacteria and viruses and can reduce the chance infections manifolds.
Adequate sleep can help in boosting immunity. Inadequate sleep limits the body’s ability to produce proteins called cytokines that help fight infection and reduce inflammation.
Sleep requirements for each night vary by age:
Preschoolers (ages 3-5), should get between 10 and 13 hours
Children ages 6 to 13 should get between 9 and 11 hours
Childhood immunity, diet and nutraceuticals
Your child’s immune system is changing continuously. It is adapting and strengthening in response to external triggers. The eating habits will help them in enhancing natural defences and enabling them to fight infections.
Nutrition is an important determinant of immune responses in your child and nutritional deficiencies alter their immune response, increasing risk of infection. Balanced nutrition and supplements will help your child to keep away infections.
Immunity boosting vitamins, minerals and nutraceuticals
Vitamin C, known as ascorbic acid, is found in citrus fruits, berries, potatoes and peppers. It is also found in plant sources, including tomatoes, peppers, broccoli. Vitamin C supports the immune system by stimulating the formation of antibodies.
Vitamin E works as an antioxidant and may support immune function. Adding vitamin E in your child’s diet with fortified cereals, sunflower seeds, almonds, oils (such as sunflower or safflower oil), hazelnuts and peanut butter will help to boost immunity.
Zinc helps the immune system function effectively and may help in healing of wounds. Sources of zinc for your child are lean meat, poultry, seafood, milk, whole grain products, beans, seeds and nuts.
Proteins are the building blocks of your child’s immune system, especially for healing and recovery purposes. Addition of protein rich foods like seafood, lean meat, poultry, eggs, beans and peas, soy products and unsalted nuts and seeds will be helpful in boosting immunity.
Probiotics are living microorganisms that are found naturally in foods such as yogurt, kimchi, sauerkraut, miso and kefir. These microorganisms are known as ‘good’ or ‘friendly’ bacteria – as they keep away the harmful bacteria and prevent them from settling in the gut.
Other nutrients, including vitamin A, D, B6, B12, copper, folate, selenium and iron also support immune response and help your child to boost the immune system.
Diet plays an important role in supporting or damaging the immune system of your child. It has a dual role in your child’s immunity. Firstly, a poor diet will lead to nutritional deficiency which will impact immune function by suppressing or dysfunction of the immune response. Secondly, a diet consisting of junk foods may lead to oxidative stress and inflammation (release of damaging chemicals) which can further damage the immune system. Hence avoiding junk food is important.
The immune system plays a vital role in the wellbeing of your child. From childhood to adulthood, you have to help your child to develop and grow. A holistic approach from birth is necessary for growth, development and the health of your child. This becomes more critical during the current COVID-19 environment.
(Dr Desai is Head Strategic Medical Affairs and Dr Anand is Medical Affairs Executive at Adroit Biomed Ltd.)