The headlines and news shows are focused on some serious viruses going around right now. For example, “Enterovirus 68” sounds pretty scary; and it can be dangerous for those with asthma or other chronic illnesses. Many parents are left wondering how to support their children so they don’t pick up the latest virus, the flu, or any other “crud” circulating in schools, sports and other groups of kids. There are two key nutrients that have an important role in immune function, which may be taken for granted.
There are many reasons why sickness increases during the school year, and having our kids inside together may not be the biggest one. Specific nutrients are needed to support the immune system, and they tend to decrease in the fall and winter because of increased stress, changes in eating and even geographic location. The two key nutrients that tend to decline are vitamin C and vitamin D.
Vitamin C has been shown to be both antiviral and antibacterial and is very supportive to the body’s natural immune defenses. Vitamin C levels decline during the school year because more of it is used, and in many cases less of it is absorbed. Clinical studies have shown that during times of chemical, emotional, psychological or physiological stress, the urinary system excretes vitamin C at a significantly increased rate. The adrenal glands, small walnut-sized glands that sit on top of the kidneys, contain the largest concentration of vitamin C in the body. These glands produce adrenaline, cortisol and other hormones to help our children manage stress and to regulate the immune system. Stress (including the stress of staying up late studying, sports practices and taking math tests), causes our children to utilize more vitamin C. The thymus gland is another large storage spot for Vitamin C, and this gland’s job is to produce hormones that are the building blocks of immune cells. So when T cells and lymphocytes are out protecting the body from viruses and infection, vitamin C stores are again being depleted.
Vitamin C is also affected by diet. Often, there is an increase in illness right around Halloween and the winter holidays. That may correlate with an increased consumption of sugary foods. Sugar inhibits the absorption of vitamin C in the small intestine, because sugar molecules compete for the same receptor sites as vitamin C. Furthermore, high blood glucose levels prevent vitamin C absorption at a cellular level,so just one high-sugar snack or beverage (including fruit juice!) could suppress the immune system for several hours. Unfortunately, when the body needs vitamin C there may be increased cravings for sweets, because if kids only ate real foods as nature intended, the sweet foods available would be fruits, which are high in vitamin C.
Vitamin D has very recently been recognized for its role in the regulation of immune system cells. This is due to the discovery of vitamin D receptors on white blood cells and the identification of enzymes produced by several other types of immune cells to utilize vitamin D. Vitamin D appears to be especially protective against viral or bacterial upper respiratory infection. Vitamin D is nicknamed “the sunshine vitamin” because the sun’s UVB rays trigger its production in the skin. However, the sun is at a low enough angle for most of the winter in Colorado that people can’t produce vitamin D. Not to mention sunscreens and winter clothes that block the sun’s rays.
There are several ways to support these nutrient levels through nutrition and safe supplementation. Food sources of nutrients are always best, because real foods naturally contain other supportive nutrients and phytochemicals that increase absorption and viability. The highest density of vitamin C is actually found in red chili and red bell peppers, with kale, parsley, broccoli and cabbage not far behind. The fruit with the most vitamin C are guavas and strawberries. Oranges and orange juice have less than half the vitamin C density of broccoli. Unfortunately, commercially produced fruit juices are pasteurized, which causes a loss of more than 50% of the nutrients. Fresh, raw foods will have higher vitamin C levels than cooked or frozen because the vitamin is sensitive to temperature. Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin, so it is better absorbed from fatty foods. Good sources include wild-caught cold-water fish such as salmon, shrimp, sardines, grass-fed butter and eggs.
Supplementing vitamin C and D is fairly easy for kids. There are several over-the-counter brands of vitamins with minimal additives and allergens. They are typically available at natural food stores. A kid-approved sugar free vitamin C is by Nature’s Plus: Animal Parade Vitamin C Children’s Chewable Tablets, their recommended dose is 250mg. Vitamin C is water soluble, so dosing can safely be increased up to 500mg or more for older kids, in divided 250mg doses, when a child is fighting a cold or respiratory illness. If the dose is too high, it can cause loose stools, which resolve quickly when the supplement is reduced. Vitamin D products for 9 year-olds and up include Yummi Bears Sugar Free Vitamin D3 1,000 IU or Nordic Naturals Vitamin D3 1,000 IU gummies. Younger kids can safely take 500 IU of vitamin D daily, such as Nature’s Plus Animal Parade Sugar Free Children’s Chewable Vitamin D3.
Limiting Halloween candy and letting the kids enjoy the last sunny days of autumn in short sleeves this year can pay off with good health. Look to real foods to provide the best nutrients. For reference materials related to this article plus other ways to support immune health such as delicious kid-friendly recipes, contact Susan Kracklauer, Certified Nutrition Therapist with ZEST Kids Nutrition, firstname.lastname@example.org or http://www.ahappyhealthy.com.