Recent research is shedding light on the fact that many children are being over-medicated, and this could be having serious implications on their developing immune system. So what can we do to naturally support healthy immune function in our children?
Cough and cold medicines have been in the firing-line recently, after it became apparent that up to a third of young children are being given the medicine, despite warnings from the TGA (Therapeutic Goods Administration) that they are ineffective and potentially harmful. Dr Anthea Rhodes, a paediatrician at the Royal Children’s Hospital made a statement about the dangers, “We’re talking specifically about cough and cold medicine in children under 6 years of age, where the TGA (Therapeutic Goods Administration) very clearly recommends against the use of these medicines, because of the risk of side effects like uneven heart-rate, drowsiness, irritability, even seizures”.
Another study from researchers at Utrecht University, in the Netherlands, showed “Early life exposure to antibiotics is related to an increased risk of both eczema and hayfever later in life." They found early-life antibiotic use could increase chances of developing eczema by 41%, and hay-fever by 56%. Those are some big numbers. The scientists suggested the cause may be that antibiotics disrupt microorganisms in the gut, which could also lead to reduced immune responses.
The NPS MedicineWise campaign issued an urgent warning in March this year, for children between 2 and 12-years-old with routine ear infections to avoid antibiotic treatment. The evidence shows that antibiotics don’t make a lot of difference in the majority of cases, and overuse is leading to antibiotic resistance.
So what is going on?
It’s completely natural as a parent to want to provide a quick-fix for our children’s ailments. And I don’t think parents can be blamed when it feels like every second ad on TV is for children’s medication, and uninformed professionals are prescribing unhelpful, and potentially harmful medications for their children. An Australian Child Health Poll found 74% of parents incorrectly giving their young children medicines were following the advice of a pharmacist. 64% of these parents said they were advised by their doctor.
But not every cough or cold needs to be medicated. As much as being sick sucks, it’s our immune system’s way of identifying and learning how to combat different bugs. Most of the symptoms we experience when you have a cold – the blocked nose, sore throat and fatigue, are actually symptoms of your body’s immune response to infection. When our immune system identifies a pathogen, it goes to war, literally sending in troops to destroy the pathogen. Our throat becomes a battle-ground and can become inflamed and sore in the process. Our body produces mucus to allow us to excrete the battle debris. The fatigue is due to all our energy being used to fight the infection. When we use cold & flu medication, it actually works by suppressing our immune system’s response to the infection, so while our symptoms may reduce, we’re not helping our body out in the long run.
With this advice coming from Paediatricians and the TGA, what can we do which will help support our children to develop robust, healthy immune systems?
There are everyday things which can have a big impact on building a healthy immune system for your kids, so even when they are under the weather, they will bounce back quickly.
- Ditch the Junk Food –Apart from the fact that we know how bad sugary, processed foods are for us, they are also completely lacking in essential vitamins and minerals which children need to maintain a healthy immune system. Increasing fruit and vegetables like apples, carrots, kiwi fruit, green beans, oranges and strawberries will provide immunity-boosting nutrients such as vitamin C, A and plenty of anti-oxidants.
- Eat More Probiotics – Our bodies are bacteria machines! Good bacteria play a major role in maintaining a healthy gut and immune system. It’s important to keep them topped up to keep bad bacteria at bay (which thrive on sugary foods). Antibiotics also kill-off our good bacteria and can make us susceptible to future illness. Fermented foods are high in probiotics, and kid-friendly options include good quality yoghurt and kefir (both available dairy-free too!).
- Make Time for Sleep -Sleep deprivation can make children more susceptible to illness by reducing natural killer cells that attack pathogens. Little people need a lot of sleep! Make nap and bedtime a priority. A newborn baby can need up to 18 hours of naptime a day. Toddlers usually need around 12-13 hours, and preschoolers need about 10 hours daily. If you have a child that doesn’t like taking naps, try making bedtime a little earlier.
- Move that Body -Kids love to play! Exercise also boosts natural killer cells, so switch off those screens and encourage them to move. Monkey see, monkey do couldn’t be more true. The more active you are, the more active they will be. Family-friendly activities include bike riding, hiking, skating or basketball. Be creative and exercise can be fun.
- Sunshine – The slip, slop, slap advice has been taken to heart. And whilst it’s smart not to over-do sun exposure, it’s actually essential to synthesise enough vitamin D for a healthy immune system. Make sure your kids are getting enough time each day in the Sunshine, just 20 minutes a day between 10am and 3pm, with enough skin exposed, should be enough to help maintain healthy levels.
- Slow Down - Stress is an immune system buster. Kids can feed off parental stress, and often have stresses of their own at school, with friends or siblings. Take time to check-in with them and ask them how they’re going. Do fun, chilled-out things as a family that let them relax and just be kids. It will do wonders for their happiness and their immune systems.
- Herbs for kids – Two of my favourite herbs for children are Elder berry and Chamomile. Elder berry can be given in a syrup or as a tea which can boost the immune system, and helps to clear sinus congestion. Chamomile is the go-to herb for children to calm them, help them relax and improves sleep. It is ideal to give them as a herbal tea before bedtime. We use Elder in our Eucalyptus Rub and Chamomile in our Sleep Balm.