Sandra is a medical herbalist, medical anthropologist, and columnist for the NZ Herald.

Your health: How to boost children's immunity

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Children are not just small adults - their immune systems are still developing and are therefore highly sensitive to new bacteria and viruses. Photo / Getty
Children are not just small adults - their immune systems are still developing and are therefore highly sensitive to new bacteria and viruses. Photo / Getty

Dear Sandra, my son is recovering from pneumonia, and because his immune system is so weak he basically has a new bug every other week. What can we do to help him get his immune system strong again?

Thank you for your question - I'm sorry to hear your little boy is so unwell! There are a number of medicinal herbs and healthy foods that can strengthen his immune system again after such a sever infection.

In principle, regular infections such as colds, coughs and viruses are an unwelcome but normal part of childhood development. Infections in infants and children are significantly more common than in adults, and account for a considerable percentage of doctor visits and healthcare costs.

As a preventative measure, more parents are seeking out ways to safely and effectively enhance their children's immunity and prevent infections before they arise.

How are children's immune needs different to adults?

Children are not just small adults - their immune systems are still developing and are therefore highly sensitive to new bacteria and viruses. Any parent will be aware of how quickly their child's health can take a turn for the worse, but equally, how quickly they can bounce back if given the right support. This is a developing immune system at its finest.

Exposure to bugs builds up a child's adaptive immune system. This is the part of the immune system that holds memories about bugs we've encountered in the past and how best to combat them quickly and effectively in the future. Being able to successfully fight infections in childhood is essential for a healthy immune system later in life.

Plant medicine

Plant medicine is an effective option for children to support their growing immune system and clinical data of its medical use over many generations has shown that it has a very high safety profile.

Here are some of the best medicinal plants for children's health that help a child to overcome an infection and fortify them against recurrent infections:

Echinacea root (Echinacea purpurea): The most widely used pediatric herb, Echinacea has been found to reduce both the severity and duration of colds and flu. It increases both the number and activity of immune system cells, resulting in a more efficient attack on viruses and bacteria.

Studies on children with respiratory tract infections and ear infections have shown that it is both safe and effective. It is best used in a professionally prepared oral liquid, as its natural taste can be prohibitive to children.

For children prone to recurrent infections, it can be taken daily as a preventative measure for up to several months during high-risk times, such as winter or the beginning of daycare.

Thyme (Thymus vulgaris): This wonderful traditional infection fighter is backed by international authorities and clinical trials for catarrhs of the upper respiratory tract, bronchitis, coughs, whooping cough, sore throats, to clear phlem and to enhance immunity (ESCOP, Comm E and British Pharmacopoeia).

For the preparation of a plant remedy a special thyme variety is required that is carefully compounded into a syrup, concentrated oral liquid or medicinal tea. It can be taken on a daily basis to enhance a child's immunity after a severe infection such as pneumonia.

There are other, milder varieties that grow easily in the garden. Such fresh thyme can be added to home cooking or a children's bath water as the resulting aromatic essential oils, which are antifungal and antibacterial, help to open and relax the airways.

Elderflower (Sambucus nigra): Another pleasant tasting and popular children's herb that is well researched and has particular efficacy for sore throats, sinus infections and the common cold.

Californian Poppy (Eschscholzia californica): Sleepless nights due to coughing are stressful for both parents and children and can extend illness. Californian Poppy is a gentle relaxant and sleep support that is traditionally used to help relax children. It enhances sleep by reducing pain and restlessness.

Nutrition and lifestyle choices to support immunity

The foundation of a strong immune system is adequate nutrition. Studies in New Zealand show that up to 70 per cent of young children are not meeting the recommended daily intake of fruit and vegetables.

Early, frequent exposure to healthy foods can help limit picky eaters later on and is associated with healthier eating in adulthood.

Parents shouldn't be disheartened if their child rejects new fruits and vegetables - it may require in excess of 10 offerings of a new food before it is accepted into their palate.

Patience is key!

Other lifestyle factors that can influence immunity are adequate sunlight and exposure to the outdoors. Not only is it beneficial for mental health, the sun's action on the skin produces vitamin D, a nutrient that is crucial for immunity.

International studies measuring vitamin D levels in children show a significant number of young people have insufficient levels, even after the summer season where they should be highest.

If symptoms worsen or do not improve, see your primary healthcare provider without delay.

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References

Ardjomand-Woelkart, K., & Bauer, R. (2016). Review and Assessment of Medicinal Safety Data of Orally Used Echinacea Preparations. Planta Medica, 82(1-2), 17-31. doi: 10.1055/s-0035-1558096.

British Pharmacopoeia. (2012). Herbal Drugs, Herbal Drug Preparations and Herbal Medicinal Products (Vol. IV).

Dorman, H.J.D. & Deans, S.G. (2000). Antimicrobial agents from plants: antibacterial activity of plant volatile oils. Journal of Applied Microbiology, 88(2), 308-316.

Commission E:

ESCOP. (2003). ESCOP Monographs, Second edition. Exeter, UK: European Scientific Cooperative on Phytotherapy / Thieme.

Ministry of Health (2010). National Survey of Children and Young People's Physical Activity and Dietary Behaviours in New Zealand 2008/09. Wellington: Author.

Öhlund, I., Silfverdal, S., Hernell, O., & Lind, T. (2013). Serum 25-hydroxyvitamin D levels in preschool-age children in northern Sweden are inadequate after summer and diminish further during winter. Journal of Pediatric Gastroenterology and Nutrition, 56(5), 551-5. doi: 10.1097/MPG.0b013e3182838e5b.

Schapowal, A., Klein, P., & Johnston, S. (2015). Echinacea reduces the risk of recurrent respiratory tract infections and complications: a meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Advances in Therapy, 32 (3), 187-200. doi: 10.1007/s12325-015-0194-4.

World Health Organisation (2015). Antibiotic Resistance: Fact Sheet.

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Sandra is a medical herbalist, medical anthropologist, and columnist for the NZ Herald.

Sandra Clair is the founder of Artemis (artemis.co.nz) offering New Zealanders a premium range of traditional plant medicine products. She is one of New Zealand’s most highly qualified health professionals in her field, as a Swiss trained medical herbalist and a medical anthropologist (M.A.). Sandra is currently completing a PhD in health science at the University of Canterbury in collaboration with the Chair for Natural Medicine of the University of Zürich, Switzerland.

Read more by Sandra Clair

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