Back to School Immune Boosting for Kids

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Now that the summer holidays are over, many parents are concerned about colds, influenza, and various other “germs” that their children will be exposed to during the school year.

Sitting in a classroom all day with a bunch of other kids provides plenty of opportunity to pick up a nasty infection and bring it back home to the family. Parents’ concerns are largely fueled by the constant message propagated through the media by government “health” agencies with increasing zeal in recent years: watch out for those scary microbes! They are basically parroting a message that has been sold to them by the pharmaceutical industry. There’s nothing like a good dose of paranoia to increase sales of drugs, vaccinations and other antimicrobial products.

The truth is that many micro-organisms are benign or even beneficial. Our bodies are really ecosystems; the microbes that live on and in our bodies actually outnumber our own cells by a ratio of approximately 10:1, and modern medical science still doesn’t understand the role of most of them. What we do know is that many of them are probably essential to our health; many have a symbiotic relationship with our own cells and work with them to create an environment that is mutually beneficial. Some help to control populations of potentially harmful organisms by competing with them.

We have very little understanding about the potential health implications of killing off large numbers of these organisms with antibiotics and other drugs and antimicrobial products. Also, the overuse of these products by medical professionals, the agricultural industry and the general public is the major cause of the increasing number of multiple drug-resistant strains of micro-organisms.

Even pathogenic organisms are potentially beneficial. Every day through normal living we are exposed to millions of potentially harmful microbes. If these microbes were as dangerous as some would have us believe, we would be sick all of the time and our species would probably have become extinct a long time ago. However, this is clearly not the case because our immune systems and other body defences are usually able to keep the microbes from getting out of control. Moderate exposure to pathogenic organisms on a regular basis provides positive stress for our immune system the same way exercise helps to strengthen our muscles, bones and other organs. It keeps our immune systems primed and ready to respond. Many of the common childhood illnesses, like measles and chicken pox that the medical establishment has been trying to eradicate through misguided vaccination programs, are actually important for the normal development of our immune systems.

Although there are risks of serious complications associated with these and other illnesses, the risks are very low except for people who are significantly immune-compromised due to malnutrition and other factors. If our various levels of government really want to improve the health and well-being of Canadians, they should take the billions of dollars that they waste promoting and implementing drug and vaccination programs and spend it on educating kids and the general public about healthy diet and lifestyle choices, and addressing the social and economic causes of poverty.

Healthy Food and Lifestyles for Modern Kids

Although it is not always possible for our children to completely avoid getting sick during the school year, it is possible to significantly reduce the number and severity of infections from which they suffer. This can be done by following some basic dietary and lifestyle guidelines that improve their body defenses, plus the strategic use of herbs to give them an extra edge.

From a dietary perspective, we should reduce our children’s intake of “foods” that are high in sugar, like soft drinks. Also reduce dairy products, animal protein, trans fats and any foods that are significantly processed and contain artificial colours, flavours, sweeteners and preservatives. Try to increase their consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables and the amount of whole foods in their diet, certified organic whenever possible. Kids tend to be picky eaters and will often turn up their noses at “healthy” foods. This means that parents have to be creative and experiment with different foods to find healthy options that their children enjoy. Forcing kids to eat things that they don’t like will likely cause more harm than benefit.

Kids have a relatively high metabolism compared to adults and they often need to snack between meals. The best snacking foods are fresh fruits. Second best are dried fruits, nuts and seeds. With some of these foods moderation is important. Kids can consume too much sugar if they eat too much dried fruit and some of the sweeter fresh fruit. Nuts and seeds should be eaten in smaller amounts as they are relatively difficult to digest.

There are many “natural” snacks available in health food stores. Although they tend to be better than their commercial alternatives, some of them still aren’t very healthy. Many contain far too much sugar. This is particularly true of “natural” soft drinks. Try diluting them with an equal amount of carbonated spring water and adding a wedge of lemon or lime. This makes a refreshing drink that isn’t excessively sweet. Too much fruit juice can also dose our kids with excessive amounts of sugar; add an equal amount of water (not carbonated) and a wedge of lemon or lime for a nice drink that doesn’t taste diluted.

From a lifestyle perspective, the most important thing that children need is regular exercise. The amount that they receive in physical education classes is grossly insufficient. Kids spend most of their day sitting at a desk in school. It is extremely detrimental if they then spend the rest of the day doing sedentary activities like homework, watching television or playing video games. Parents have a responsibility to make sure their children get a minimum of one hour (preferably two) of moderate physical activity per day. Playing sports is great, but not all kids are interested in sports or enjoy competitive activities. Playing active games (preferably outdoors) with the neighbourhood kids works just as well.

It is also important not to use any antimicrobial products, soaps or otherwise. Washing their hands with natural soap products will kill many micro-organisms but conventional ‘antimicrobial’ products are overkill. They strip the skin of the beneficial microbes that are essential for our health and are our best defense against infection because they compete with potentially pathogenic organisms. They also contain substances that are toxic to our children and the environment.

It is also important to impart a balanced concern about hand washing and other matters of hygiene to our children. What we don’t want to do is fill their heads with the anti-microbe paranoia that is so rampant in our society. Nothing weakens our immune systems like fear. If kids become neurotic about touching door handles and shopping cart handles then they are going to get sick for sure. It starts with our own behaviour. It is important as adults that we set a balanced example for our children if we want them to have healthy minds and bodies.

Herbal Medicines to Boost Kids’ Immunity

It is also possible to use herbs to help strengthen the body’s defences. These can be used strategically to keep the immune system primed and functioning optimally. The most important herbs are those that support the immune and lymphatic systems. Although many people are familiar with the use of the various purple coneflower species’ (Echinacea spp.) for this purpose, very few know how to use them properly or are aware that these herbs are not as effective when used on their own.


There are three species of Echinacea that can be used alone or in combination. They are the roots or aerial parts of common purple coneflower (E. purpurea), and the roots of narrow-leaved purple coneflower (E. angustifolia) and pale purple coneflower (E. pallida).

Other common herbs that are effective for supporting the immune and lymphatic systems include pot marigold flower (Calendula officinalis), horsetail herb (Equisetum arvense), boneset herb (Eupatorium perfoliatum), elecampane root (Inula helenium), cleavers herb (Galium aparine), purple loosestrife herb (Lythrum salicaria), narrow-leaved plantain herb (Plantago lanceolata), common plantain herb (P. major), pale plantain herb (P. rugelii), American elder flower (Sambucus canadensis), black elder flower (Sambucus nigra) and stinging nettle herb (Urtica dioica).

The best way to use most of these herbs is in the form of a tincture made from the fresh plant, preferably containing not more than 30 per cent alcohol because some of the important immune -stimulating constituents will not be present in tinctures that contain a higher alcohol content. Nettle is the exception. It is best used as a tea unless you can find a tincture that contains both alcohol and glycerin, or you use it as a glycerite. The purple coneflower species, horsetail and cleavers should only be used fresh. Therefore the fresh tincture is the only reliable option for these herbs.

To make a formulation combine several of these herbs. Where I have recommended more than one species of a single genus (purple coneflower, plantain and elder), use only one species from any particular genus in your formulation. Most of these herbs are best used at a proportion of 20 – 25 per cent, however, pot marigold should be used at 10 – 15 per cent because of its high astringency, and boneset at a similar proportion because it is very bitter and, as such kids might be turned off of the formulation.

Since kids tend to be more sensitive to the taste of a formulation, you can add a pleasant tasting herb to make it more palatable. The best options are cinnamon bark (Cinnamomum verum), wild mint herb (Mentha arvensis), peppermint herb (M. x piperita), spearmint herb (M. spicata) and thyme herb (Thymus vulgare). These can be added at a proportion of 20 – 25 per cent, except cinnamon which should be at 5 – 10 per cent.

It is also important to add a bit of pungency to the formulation which will improve its effectiveness. If you include cinnamon or thyme, it isn’t necessary. Otherwise use 5 – 10 per cent ginger rhizome (Zingiber officinale).

A formulation of this nature can be used as a tonic for the immune and lymphatic systems for preventive purposes, or to treat an infection when it occurs. To use it as a tonic, it should be taken three to four times per day, always on an empty stomach. The best times to take it are 10-20 minutes before meals and 20-30 minutes before bed. If you are using a tea, you can add a little bit of honey or maple syrup as a sweetener. For tinctures, add the tincture to one to two ounces of water. If the taste is too much of an issue, you can add it to one to two ounces of diluted juice (50 per cent water), but use water only if possible.

For children 100 pounds or over use the adult dose. This is two to three teaspoons of all of the herbs collectively per cup of tea, or whatever the recommended dose is of the tinctures you are using. Remember that the recommended dose is of the entire formulation. If you are using tinctures for which the manufacturer recommends 30-40 drops per dose, you should use 40 drops of your entire formulation, not each herb individually. For children who are 20 pounds, the dose is approximately one third the adult dosage. For children 21 to 99 pounds, the dosage is somewhere in between.

Our body tends to adapt to the effects of immune stimulating herbs fairly quickly. For this reason these formulations must be pulsed. They should be taken for one to two week periods followed by a break of at least one week. Under most circumstances I recommend two one week periods on the formulation with a one week break in between. For children who are particularly prone to infections, pulse the formulation three to four times. This can be done at the beginning of the school year and then repeated some time in the winter. Mid-December to mid-January is a particularly good time to repeat it. Once more, for children who are particularly prone to infections it can be repeated several times throughout the school year.

If your child gets an infection of some kind, this kind of formulation can still be used. However, the dosage must be increased. In this case the formulation should be taken four to six times per day and the individual dose increased slightly. The formulation should be taken this way until the infection has completely cleared up, then taken for an additional two to three days at the normal dose.

If you are treating your children for an infection in this way and don’t see significant improvement within a week, it is best to consult with a qualified herbalist or other natural health practitioner who is experienced with herbs. Similarly, it is best to consult with a practitioner for treating infants under twelve months of age.

When it comes to boosting the immune response of our children, it is important not to rely completely on the herbs. Appropriate dietary and lifestyle factors must also be addressed, otherwise the herbs will not work as effectively. The same is true for all of the members of our family. Living healthy requires a group effort. With a little work, changing some of our less harmonious habits, and some help from our plant friends, it is possible to keep everyone healthier and happier throughout the year.

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