By Nonie DeLong, ROHP, CNP
I am the proud grandmother of 3 beautiful, young grandchildren. I want the best for them. But I worry. When I visit them they are almost always sick. They bring colds and flus and other sicknesses home from daycare continually. These viruses then spread through the whole family. It really seems endless. My daughter tells me it’s ‘normal’ and all they can do is get the flu shot and she’s not sure it works because they get it anyways but I can’t help but wonder why they don’t have better immunity. I don’t remember my kids being sick this much when they were young. Sure they got chicken pox and one got measles and one had a broken arm once but none of this endless sickness. My daughter rolls her eyes when I tell her I don’t think it’s normal. Is there anything natural you know of to boost their little immune systems?
Thank you, Lily
You’re quite likely right that your children didn’t get sick as often. If you listen to the grandmothers (and I think we really should), they tell us their children certainly weren’t as sick. In the past, elders were seen as guides, because they have experienced so much more. In traditional aboriginal communities, grandparents are recognized as libraries. That was where young people got their ‘data’ about the world. I think part of what’s ailing us today is a dissociation from this. With modern technology each generation has grown to think they know more than every generation before, and dismiss anything old as obsolete – humans included. I think that’s a dangerous social experiment.
Some people point out that young children of prior generations did not usually spend most of their day in a stranger’s home or an institution with numerous other kids, as found in daycares today, and that is the reason more are sickly now. And it’s true: children weren’t in other people’s homes or institutions all day. But they were regularly around other kids. Mothers used to have more children, and if there weren’t a number of young ones at home, the younger often tagged along with the older ones or played with cousins or relatives or the children of friends so mom could run errands and get work done. They also played with, and had much more exposure to, a variety of animals and dirt and bacteria. So I’m not sure exposure adequately explains the issue.
We do know in past generations children did not eat the way they do now. They were not fed neon coloured or artificially flavoured ‘treats’ or convenience foods. They did not have access to the volume of sugar and chemicals they do now, nor to junk food vending machines, nor school cafeteria fare (and western school fare is very different from that around the world). And they were not the ones to choose the family menu.
Too, the vaccination schedule and formula has changed significantly. Whether you are pro vaccination or against, it’s certainly a significant change in childhood that cannot be overlooked.
Other things that have changed over that time are the advent of sunscreen recommendations, the overuse of antibiotics, the mass scale advent of chemical birth control – up till now, exclusively for women, the new childhood pharmacopoeia (all those pharmaceuticals children are now exposed to for illnesses that in the past were not thus treated),feeding babies formula instead of, or in addition to, breast milk, normalization of c-section birth, the widespread adoption of household chemical cleaners, and the pasteurization and homogenization of milk products.
Too, there’s the advent of seemingly endless radio/wifi signals and screen time, but that’s a big one that we won’t be able to address today. And these are only some of the huge changes seen in the last couple generations.
But there is a theme. Are you seeing it? Today children are raised in as sterile an environment as possible, with highly processed foods that favour taste over nutritional density. They are not exposed to nearly as much bacteria from animals, from food products, from playing in the dirt, or from what used to be ‘normal’ childhood diseases. They are even protected from the sun’s rays!
It’s understandable that we want to protect our children from any harm we can. However, human immunity is developed naturally from exposure to bacteria and pathogens. If there is limited exposure, the immune system cannot fully develop. Watch this short TedX video on the latest research from Caltech suggesting it’s more, not less bacteria, that we actually need! It turns out, the foundation of the immune system in humans is the quantity and quality of the bacteria in the intestines. And, that really turns the whole “reduce exposure” idea on its head!
So what is a mother – or father – or grandmother to do? What can help rebuild childhood immunity? What I suggest is radical. I suggest children’s food is chosen for nutritional purposes, not just taste (and I think this would benefit many adults, too). I suggest sugar be seriously restricted and replaced with savory or holistic substitutions. Food should be as natural and organic as possible, in a way that respects the farmers and the earth and the needs of animals we use for our sustenance, since organic farming and healthy livestock add greatly to the health of our foods and environment.
I advocate adding a home-fermented food that is full of beneficial bacteria to every meal to build the gut biome and, thus, strong immunity. I suggest babies be born vaginally when at all possible, or swabbed in vaginal bacteria when not, and that they be exclusively breast fed and given a wet nurse if this is not possible.
I suggest parents make sure there is bacterial infection that requires intervention when accepting antibiotic therapy and parents learn about how to seek independent data regarding any medication proposed for children’s health. I suggest children play in the dirt and with animals and bugs and that screen time be seriously limited for youth. Wifi can easily be turned off at night to limit exposure to the signals.
I suggest parents avoid toxic sunscreens and instead practice common sense around exposure, since vitamin D from the sun is perhaps the greatest immune builder we know of and vitamin D does not seem to do what the sun does for us, as seen in clinical trials. When long sun days can’t be avoided or a child is prone to burn repeatedly I recommend a hat and protective clothing with supervised short exposure or a natural, homemade sunscreen. If a person is repeatedly intolerant of any sun, with a tendency to burn quickly and never tan, that is a different matter and points to nutrient deficiencies that should be rebalanced.
I recommend not using hand sanitizer, anti-bacterial hand wash, or sanitizing the family home with chemicals when regular vinegar and bicarbonate are adequate for most cleaning applications and far safer than most alternatives.
In short, I advocate a simpler way of life wherein children are born and raised as naturally as possible, where they are intentionally exposed to sun, animals, bacteria, and dirt – to build their natural immunity as nature has created them to.
As always, if readers have their own health questions, I welcome them. Feel free to reach out through the Ask a Nutritionist page. And if you’re looking for more specific health information check out my website and sign up for my free newsletter at nonienutritionista.com. I provide comprehensive health coaching and several group classes, all available online for safety and convenience.