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8 Supplements To Support Kids’ Immune Systems

By Melissa Anzelone, ND

In this article:


Children’s environments tend to have a lot of junk. From germs that could be picked up on the playground to toxins in play paints, to bacteria in the tuna casserole at school lunch. Kids are exposed to so much.

As parents, many of us are wondering what we can do to bolster our kids’ immune systems.

‌‌‌‌What is the Immune System?

The immune system is a collection of tissues, cells, and organs that protect us from any threat.It works tirelessly every day to protect us from things like viruses, bacteria, and other toxins.

Many schools of thought believe the body has a built-in ability to heal itself. All of these amazing benefits come from the immune system.

Thankfully kids have an amazing immune defense system -better than most adults have! 

‌‌‌‌How Does the Immune System Work?

There are two different parts of the immune system: innate and adaptive. 

The innate system is nonspecific, meaning it kills all threats without taking into consideration what they are. A great example of innate immunity is our skin. Our skin naturally produces secretions that are acidic. This is a defense mechanism. If a bacteria or virus lands on the skin, it’s often the acidic environment that kills it immediately.1

Our adaptive immune system is a little more complicated. This is an intricate system of cells that learns to kill specific threats. For example, the first time the body sees the flu virus, the cells learn from it. They learn what it looks like and how to attack it. Only if you are run down (no sleep, poor diet, etc.) will you catch the virus and have symptoms. Otherwise, your body learns how to kill it, just from coming into contact with it. So the next time the flu virus comes to visit, specific cells are deployed and know exactly how to kill it.1

However, just like any system in the body, sometimes the immune system needs support.

Natural Approaches to Supporting the Immune System

Parents can empower themselves and their kids’ immune systems with natural remedies as families think about navigating a new normal and what that will bring as kids go back to school.

Researchers have studied numerous herbs, supplements, and vitamins to determine if they can support a healthy immune system.

‌‌‌‌1. Vitamin D - support healthy bones and the immune system

Vitamin D is one of four fat-soluble vitamins that are important to the body (the others include vitamins AE, and K). Vitamin D comes from three main food sources: food, supplements, and with the help of sunlight, your own body. When you combine cholesterol and UV light from the sun, you get vitamin D. Some food sources include fatty fish like sardines and some mushrooms. Dairy products like milk are often fortified with vitamin D, as are other processed foods like cereals.2

This vitamin has a few major important roles in the body including supporting healthy bones and the immune system. With vitamin D supplementation, researchers have found that this vitamin may enhance the function of white blood cells, which protect us from viruses and other pathogens.2

It is important to keep vitamin D within a normal range, as deficiency may make us more susceptible to diseases like upper respiratory infections including the flu and asthma.3

‌‌‌‌2. Zinc - supports the thymus gland

Zinc is one of the most common minerals in the body and has over 100 jobs including acting as a cofactor for many essential metabolic pathways.4,5

One of zinc’s most important jobs is supporting the immune system. This essential mineral acts as a cofactor, which helps enzymes create thymic hormone, which stimulates thymus gland function. The thymus gland is key in “educating” our immune system. It tells a group of white blood cells, called our T cells, what to “fight” and what to leave alone. This “education” occurs very early in life and prevents the body from attacking itself, permitting the white blood cells to only attack viruses and other pathogens.5,6

Zinc is available in many forms including tablets, capsules, and lozenges.

‌‌‌‌3. Vitamin C - the key to immunity

Vitamin C is the vitamin most people think about when they think “immune support.” This water-soluble compound is key in how our immune system works.

For example, this vitamin may be key in supporting physical barriers against infection like our skin. It may also support many immune cells in “eating” and “destroying” infectious agents. It specifically helps immune cells to generate oxidants, which are chemicals immune cells use to kill viruses/bacteria.7

Vitamin C, similar to zinc, also plays a role in “educating” our immune system. It helps to “teach” immune cells who the bad guys are. These cells then “remember” and can fight the bad guys quicker in the future.7

Research has also pointed to taking vitamin C to help prevent infections in the future or prophylactically.7

‌‌‌‌4. Elderberry Extract - antiviral and antibacterial

Elderberry or Sambucus nigra is a plant most identifiable by its small dark clustered berries. Elderberry is known for its antiviral and antibacterial properties.8,9

Elderberries are also high in many vitamins and minerals including many B vitamins (known to support the immune system) as well as zinc and magnesium. Other components include antioxidants known to combat pathogens like viruses and bacteria.10

Some research has shown that taking elderberry extract may shorten the duration of a cold.10

‌‌‌‌5. Curcumin - fights inflammation

Curcumin or Curcuma longa is an extract derived from the popular spice turmeric. Its main actions are to support a healthy immune system and to act as an antioxidant.

Curcumin’s immune-supportive properties lie in theory that it can “communicate” with immune cells, telling them to reduce inflammatory properties in certain places (this avoids wasting immune cells and energy in places that aren’t needed.) so they can concentrate in areas that are needed. This is like your finger when you cut yourself on an envelope opening the mail.11

‌‌‌‌6. Echinacea - a powerful antioxidant 

Echinacea is a plant that is part of the daisy family. Echinacea, like vitamin C, is another popular remedy for the immune system. Of the many different species of echinacea plant, the most common is Echinacea purpura.1

This powerful little plant has many properties including stimulating the innate and adaptive parts of the immune system and being antioxidant, and antiviral, and antibacterial.1

Echinacea comes in many forms, including lozenges, tablets, chewables, pills, and teas.

‌‌7. Licorice Root - helps macrophage cells

Licorice root is another plant whose active component is called glycyrrhiza.11 This chemical compound is the part of the licorice root that is theorized to support the immune system.

In addition to specific parts of the immune system, specialized immune cells also perform different functions. One of these cells is called a macrophage.

A macrophage is a type of immune cell, part of the innate system, that “eats” anything that can harm the body. 

The glycyrrhiza compound works to stimulate these macrophage cells that can eat any virus or bacteria (or anything bad) it contacts.

‌‌‌‌8. Garlic - an immune-stimulating spice

Garlic is a popular spice and food used in many types of cuisine. This onion-like food comes in many forms including plant/food, dried powder, freeze-dried pieces, cloves preserved in oil, oils, and capsules.

This plant is proposed to have immune-stimulating properties and can support both the innate and adaptive cells, including macrophages and lymphocytes. This support may help these cells be better “killers” of any viruses/bacteria.12

References:

  1. Catanzaro M, Corsini E, Rosini M, Racchi M, Lanni C. Immunomodulators Inspired by Nature: A Review on Curcumin and Echinacea. Molecules. 2018;23(11):2778. Published 2018 Oct 26. doi:10.3390/molecules23112778
  2. Prietl B, Treiber G, Pieber TR, Amrein K. Vitamin D and immune function. Nutrients. 2013;5(7):2502-2521. Published 2013 Jul 5. doi:10.3390/nu5072502
  3. Ali NS, Nanji K. A Review on the Role of Vitamin D in Asthma. Cureus. 2017;9(5):e1288. Published 2017 May 29. doi:10.7759/cureus.1288
  4. Saper RB, Rash R. Zinc: an essential micronutrient. Am Fam Physician. 2009;79(9):768-772.
  5. King JC. Zinc. In: Shils ME, Shike M, editors. Modern Nutrition in Health and Disease. 10. Philadelphia, Pa: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins; 2006. pp. 271-285.
  6. Wessels I, Maywald M, Rink L. Zinc as a Gatekeeper of Immune Function. Nutrients. 2017;9(12):1286. Published 2017 Nov 25. doi:10.3390/nu9121286
  7. Carr AC, Maggini S. Vitamin C and Immune Function. Nutrients. 2017;9(11):1211. Published 2017 Nov 3. doi:10.3390/nu9111211
  8. Krawitz C, Mraheil MA, Stein M, et al. Inhibitory activity of a standardized elderberry liquid extract against clinically-relevant human respiratory bacterial pathogens and influenza A and B viruses. BMC Complement Altern Med. 2011;11:16. Published 2011 Feb 25. doi:10.1186/1472-6882-11-16
  9. Roschek B Jr, Fink RC, McMichael MD, Li D, Alberte RS. Elderberry flavonoids bind to and prevent H1N1 infection in vitro. Phytochemistry. 2009;70(10):1255-1261. doi:10.1016/j.phytochem.2009.06.003
  10. Tiralongo E, Wee SS, Lea RA. Elderberry Supplementation Reduces Cold Duration and Symptoms in Air-Travellers: A Randomized, Double-Blind Placebo-Controlled Clinical Trial. Nutrients. 2016;8(4):182. Published 2016 Mar 24. doi:10.3390/nu8040182
  11. Liu Z, Zhong JY, Gao EN, Yang H. [Effects of glycyrrhizin acid and licorice flavonoids on LPS-induced cytokines expression in macrophage]. Zhongguo Zhong Yao Za Zhi [China Journal of Chinese Materia Medica]. 2014. 39(19): p. 3841-3845.
  12. Arreola R, Quintero-Fabián S, López-Roa RI, et al. Immunomodulation and anti-inflammatory effects of garlic compounds. J Immunol Res. 2015;2015:401630. doi:10.1155/2015/401630

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