Every parent wants the best for their child(ren). Keeping our children healthy is vital to their happiness and success. Especially with school now underway, parents often ask, "How can I prevent my kid(s) from seemingly catching every illness?" For some parents, they may question whether their child is ever really "well" because of the short bouts between illnesses, especially things like coughs and the common cold.
While one really could write a book on this topic, I'm going make this article as succinct (except maybe #1) as possible, while providing real tools you can use.
The Primary Areas We Focus On In Our Naturopathic Clinic:
1. The Gut - Where the Outside Meets the Inside
Keeping your child's gut healthy will drastically influence their overall health. The human gut is truly an amazing place. It is a mysterious and curious place, housing an incredible ecosystem of microbes that outnumber the amount of cells in our bodies 10:1! It's an ecosystem which we are entirely dependent on for our existence. Not only that, but there is an extensive nervous system communicating from and with our intestines, that is for intensive purposes, basically its own brain. This is known as the enteric nervous system. It is little wonder we have the term "gut feelings"! We also have the vast amount of immune tissue and cells involved with the gut known as GALT (Gut Associated Lymphoid Tissue). In fact, it's safe to say the majority of our immune system and immune system influence resides in our gut.
The gut is where outside meets inside. Where we transform the complex outside environment to a reduced form, which can be utilized inside. It's how each one of us is made up of the same particles that once comprised dinosaurs, ancient redwoods, and stars!
Keeping the ecosystem of the microbiome intact and healthy is vital and foundational to good health. Like anything else, if you're going to keep something alive, you need to feed it. So what do our gut bacteria like to eat? The answer is primarily fiber and complex carbohydrates. You may have heard of PREbiotics. These are packaged fiber and complex carbohydrates usually in a powder or pill form.
The simplest advice I can give is to make sure your kids are getting whole fruits and vegetables where possible. Believe me, I know, children tend not to be big fans of vegetables, but get creative! Invite your child(ren) into the kitchen. Children tend to eat food they helped prepare. Try fun things they can help with like smoothies. You can get a lot of good nutrition in a smoothie and make a tasty treat, packed with nutrition, that your children will love. An apple or some berries can carry it a long way. I throw in carrots, kale, and other vegetables along the way. Smoothies are an easy way to add supplementation too. Chicory root powder or even isolated inulin are examples of easy additions; they are prebiotics that bacteria love!
Gut bacteria also love onions and garlic. Aside from this, they can simultaneously be antimicrobial to things like upper respiratory infections. If you're lucky enough that your child likes these foods, go all out! Adding more of the Allium family (onion & garlic) will help you and your child's gut health to be optimal.
The other factor to consider is PRObiotics. I'm not of the camp that believes everyone should be on a probiotic, but research is quite clear that probiotics affect the gut microbe population and our immune system. Probiotics are proven to modulate our immune system. When you think gut, think immune system. Probiotics from trusted sources are a safe way to experiment and see the effect they can have on your child's health.
Siskiyou Vital Medicine carries Klaire Labs Probiotics, which are only available through a healthcare provider. Other brands we have utilized and you can trust the quality are Barlean's, Seroyal, and Ultimate Flora. Most parents at Siskiyou Vital Medicine become Summit Members. Summit members receive 30% off of supplements and also a discount on Kids Camp memberships.
(Disclaimer - I have no affiliation with any of the above mentioned companies other than I use them in clinical practice.)
A typical maintenance dose is around 20 billion organisms. If I'm really trying to repopulate a gut that I think has an imbalance in organisms or is missing some important ones, I will use at least 100 billion organisms for a couple of months as a start.
If your child suffers from constipation or diarrhea, it is really worth exploring why that might be and what can be done to change that balance for the better. It's a sign that there is something off in the world of their intestines. It is very likely affecting their immune system and their body's natural ability to detoxify.
2. Sleep - Quality and Quantity Matter
The importance of sleep can't be overemphasized. Not only getting enough sleep in terms of hours, but also the quality of sleep is huge. The best advice I can give is to make sure your child is in a routine. Children need to get to bed at an appropriate time, which is at least by 10p.m. This obviously varies by age. It may be much earlier.
Not only is it important to have a bed time routine, but also to have the hour before going to bed a time for calming, parasympathetic activity. Reading, listening to calming music, sitting by the fireplace, etc. help to prepare for sleep. This can be different for everyone, so experiment and help your child find what works for them. One important piece of this puzzle is no screen time for at least an hour before bed. The blue light of screens suppresses melatonin, which is our bodies natural sleep inducing hormone.
Another problem that comes up sometimes can be waking in the night from blood sugar "crashes" during sleep. These can make a child feel wide awake and disrupt sleep. A handful of almonds 15 minutes before bed can be helpful. I've even had adult patients have almonds by their bed to eat when they wake from this kind of situation and the protein puts them right back to sleep. Of course, the ultimate answer here is to address the diet in a way to avoid blood sugar spikes and crashes in order to avoid this problem all together.
3. Stress Management - Growing up can be stressful
This is a foundational and powerful point to consider because stress unmanaged, suppresses the immune system. There can be many different types of stress in a child's life: School environment and classes, increasingly complex social dynamics (especially with the online environment), multitudes of family struggles and changes, or just growing up and trying to figure out life and the world. Growing up can be stressful. All I'm really going to touch on here, is open your awareness to what your child's stressors are and how they respond to them. If you are equipped to support them, that is great. If you don't have the tools for a particular circumstance, find someone who is able to help. Unmanaged stress is a sure path towards ill health, both acute and chronic.
4. Food Intolerances - A Common Cause
It is all too common that children have constant or recurring illnesses because of the foods they are eating. Food sensitivities create inflammation and immune system dysregulation. What I'm saying is, if your child is sensitive to cow's milk, for example, and has let's say chronic upper respiratory symptoms/infections, the cure is likely right under your nose. Eliminating dairy foods from a child that loves to drink milk and eat cheese is not to be underestimated, however. It will be arduous, at best. And I don't mean to pick on dairy either. It just happens to be a really common food sensitivity in both children and adults.
As you can see, food sensitivities are directly connected to the gut. Here the inflammation and imbalance is happening, again, affecting the entire immune system.
There are two parts to this question of possible food intolerance.
1. "How do I know if my child has a food sensitivity/intolerance?"
2. "How do I figure out which foods are triggers?"
These two slightly different questions can possibly be answered by one experiment. The easiest way to know if a food intolerance is present, is to take a food away for 2-4 weeks and watch for symptom improvement. That part is really important. You have to know what you are expecting to change or improve. Take notes and even document visible symptoms on your phone. Otherwise, you never really know whether it made a difference to take the food out. You can add the food back in, in its most pure form, on one day and then wait for 3 days. See what happens. If symptoms return, you know that food is a trigger and should be avoided.
In an upcoming blog, I am going to write a separate article just on doing an elimination/re-challenge diet to give more details and suggestions.
5. Dietary Immune Support - Whole Foods Are Key
Everything in this article has been aimed at supporting the immune system in various ways. Feeding your child(ren) a whole foods diet that is free of flavor and color additives, and is as organic as possible, is essential and fundamental. Whole foods, not vitamins, is where we get the vitamins and minerals that our bodies require to function properly. If you start to shift the diet in this way, adding in as many fruits and vegetables as possible, you will very likely see a decrease in yearly illnesses. Very importantly, a whole foods diet has to mean reduced refined carbohydrates by definition. Added sugar and refined grains as a staple of the diet and without whole foods, is a sure way to manifest more illness.
6. Movement - Play!
Children, like the rest of us, need physical activity. Get them outside, playing with friends and family. Have play dates. Limit screen time and create screen time schedules if it's an obstacle to their running around and playing. It's not usually a big problem for kids to get movement and exercise through play. But sometimes, there are kids who simply don't do those things for various reasons, and if that is your child, it is very important to come up with strategies to change this behavior.
7. Herbs - Plant Allies
The most common herb I use for kids is Elderry (Sambucus nigra). This is a very safe herb.
The best option is usually Elderberry syrup, because it tastes so darn good. Some are made with honey, others with glycerite.
Prophylactically, 2-3Tbs./day is a good dose. In acute illnesses, you can kick that up to 3-5 Tbs. 3-5x/day for 3-4 days. It's a safe herb that is antiviral and is more like a food than a pharmacological treatment in most cases.
8. Addressing Underlying Conditions - What Else is Going On?
It is vital that any underlying health conditions your child has or may have be treated appropriately. If there are imbalances in other body systems and their body is displaying symptoms, their vital force is presenting us with the road map to their healing.
To address the underlying conditions appropriately and understanding how they may be related to frequent acute illnesses, a Naturopathic Doctor who attended an accredited 4-year medical school is a great option. Powerfully suppressing symptoms of a chronic illness is NOT a good idea when trying to move in a healing direction, and ND's understand this.
9. Homeopathy - The Gentle Road to Health
I love homeopathy! It is a passion and a primary treatment modality in my practice. The reason I love it? It works. It works gently and often permanently, in a curative fashion. With appropriate homeopathic prescribing, a child's susceptibility to environmental stressors, such as pathogens, goes down and this results in fewer illnesses, less intense symptoms of chronic illnesses, and decreased healthcare costs. Classical homeopathy is a skill that takes a great deal of study and practice to master. Find a skilled practitioner you trust so the underlying conditions can be addressed along with the prescription of a homeopathic remedy.
Partnering with a Physician You Can Trust -
Find a physician that not only you, but your child feels comfortable with. Some children are naturally more timid than others, and it can take them time to open up. But one of the best things I believe we can do for our children is to have them form a relationship with a knowledgable provider when they are young. This way, as they get older, they gradually learn important foundational skills from someone outside of their immediate environment, that they trust and respect. They will also have no apprehension about being open and honest with that provider as they grow up because they've known them since they were young. I recommend looking for a Naturopathic Doctor in your area who attended a 4 year accredited medical school. If Naturopathic medicine isn't available in your area, Siskiyou Vital Medicine is always happy to consult via electronic means.
Blake Myers, ND