Written by: Dr George Ting, Consultant Paediatrician at Normah Medical Specialist Centre
Today, parents frequently ask about the possibilities to improve their children’s immune system, hoping they fall sick less often. Many hear says and commercial products claim to be able to do just that. Some are true to a certain extent, while others either has no benefit at all or may be outright harmful.
The human immune system is an intricate and complex network of cells, hormones, proteins, biochemical agents and organs. It is a complex system with built-in checks and balances. Our ability to influence this entire network as a whole to achieve a purely positive result is limited. However, there are evidence that certain food and practices are linked to stronger immune functions.
This is immune priming. Immunisation mimics our natural immune response to diseases in a ‘controlled’ manner. It provides our immune system an encounter with a small dose of altered viruses or bacterial which could not cause disease. This injection establishes an effective immune memory just like after a real infection. This allows the immune system to mount a defensive response rapidly in an actual infection and protects the body from becoming ill.
Human breast milk is the most complete and healthy milk for human babies. Human milk (colostrum, transitional and mature milk) can transfer specific or non-specific immunities to the mucosal surface of the intestine and possibly to the respiratory tract of the newborn. Colostrum in particular, has the highest concentration of antibodies which is necessary to jump start the infant’s immune system. Compared to any infant formula, breast milk has higher concentration of all types of unsaturated essential fatty acid, essential for the proper development of nervous system and cognitive functions. Exclusive breastfeeding should be encouraged for a full 6 months before starting weaning diets.
(C) Probiotics and Prebiotics
Probiotics. These are good bacteria (especially the lactic acid producing group) that naturally live in our gut. Probiotics maintains the balance of microbe population in the gut which is important for a healthy gut. Babies who are born naturally acquire these probiotics while passing through the birth canal and develop a healthy population within a few weeks. Caesarean-born babies however can take as long as 6 months to acquire an equivalent population. Early introduction of probiotics are beneficial in this group of babies. Probiotics are shown to stimulate cytokines production and stimulate increase of natural killer cells. Both are important in our immune functions against harmful bacterial and viruses. Probiotics comes in capsule, sachet, in infant milk formula or in yogurt drinks.
Prebiotics are generally carbohydrates that stimulate the growth and/or activity of probiotics in the digestive system which are beneficial to the health of the body. There is increasing data to suggest that the consumption of prebiotics can modulate immune parameters in the gut and the body as a whole. There is a lot of food that may be misclassified as prebiotics, however, to date only inulin and oligofructose has been shown to fit the strict criteria of prebiotics classification. Food that is rich in inulin and oligofructose are such as chicory root, banana, asparagus, garlic, artichoke and leek.
This kills probiotics in the gut and frequent use will decrease probiotic populations, weakens immune function, and increase allergy illness in the future. Today, the practise of antibiotics over-prescription is widespread and is a serious concern. It is important to avoid unnecessary usage of antibiotics to the minimum.
Diet is important in the immune function. A diet high in fibre, vegetables and fruits improves immune function. Fresh fruits and vegetables contain high amounts of antioxidants, which is the antidote for free radicals. Free radicals are produced naturally within our body, also as a result of natural environmental radiation and toxins, food additives and chemical that we eat. Free radical damages both our immune cells and antibody defence system. Antioxidant against free radicals includes vitamin C, Vitamin E, carotene group include Vitamin A, gluthatione, lipoic acid, uric acid, melatonin, Co-enzyme Q.
Vitamin C is a powerful antioxidant and may reduce the duration and severity of a cold. There is no storage form available in the body, and needs to be consumed daily. Vitamin C is readily available in citrus fruits, green vegetables and potatoes.
Vitamin E has been shown in some studies to improve overall immune functions. Nuts, vegetable oil, corn, soya beans, wheat germ and whole grain cereals are rich sources of vitamin E.
Beta-carotenes including vitamin A are believed to help boost the immune system. Current evidence suggests high intake of beta carotenes are associated with lowered risks of certain types of cancer. Beta-carotene is found in yellow, red and orange fruits, as well as dark green leafy vegetables.
Zinc and selenium deficiency may be linked to abnormal immune function. Some studies suggest zinc and selenium supplementation are associated with reduced incidence of infectious disease. Zinc and selenium are found in meat, poultry, whole grains and dairy products.
Smoking damages immune functions. Children who grow up as second-hand smokers have lowered antioxidant levels, suffers more infective lung disease, has a generally weakened immune system from increased oxidative damages from harmful substances in the cigarette smokes. It is strongly advised for smoker parents to quit this harmful habit.
An active lifestyle is a platform for healthy living and has a positive effect on immune system. Over the past 25 years, huge advances made in the field of exercise immunology strongly suggest that moderate AND regular exercise has positive effects on the immune function. Intensive or extreme exercise however has shown to decrease immunity by producing large amount of stress hormone.
Sleep. The interaction between the sleeping/waking brain and the cytokine-immune-endocrine system are integral to preserving harmony of body functions. It is also during deep sleep that the body goes through the most active phase of self repair. Disorganization or loss of sleep disrupts this harmony and may result in possible weakened immune functions. Chronic lack of sleep induces very high level of circulating stress hormone which is also immune suppressing. Furthermore, evidence shows the lack of sleep may contribute to heart disease. It is important to cultivate a good sleeping pattern and improves sleep hygiene in our younger generations.
(G) Self esteem
Our state of mind, sense of well-being and its effect on our health has been a favourite study topic for millennium. Recent advances in psychoneuroimmunology are shedding some positive light in this area. Social support and interaction reduces stress, builds self-esteem, and has been shown to increase the number of T-Cells in human. Conversely, isolation contributes to chronic stress, which negatively impacts human immune system and increase risk for mental and physical health. Developing healthy self esteem is also important to a growing child. It maximises their learning experience and develop a good mental capacity and ability to handle stress and challenges. It helps them to appreciate themselves and others. It gives them confidence to face life. It is a tool to be flexible and adaptive to changes and environment. All these also contribute to a sense of well being and a strengthened immune system. It is our responsibilities as parents to help them develop a healthy self esteem, to praise them when they achieve something and to support them when they fail and to teach them to believe in themselves.
(H) Laughter is the best medicine
Researchers in California has published studies showing laughing lowers blood pressure, reduces stress hormones, and boosts immune function with increasing immune cells and antibody level. Laughter also triggers the release of endorphins which produces a general sense of well-being. Find some time to laugh with your child, read a joke, watch a comedy, learn to be humorous about life.
In the end, immune function is not a reflection of what we eat but rather a holistic picture of who we are and how we live our lives. So let’s go back to basics, spend a good day with our loved ones, play with them, share their laughter and their tears, encourage them, home cook a great and healthy meal for them. And do it all over again everyday for a healthy future generation.
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