Supporting immune health for healthy and happy growth in toddlers & young children
Parents’ ultimate goal is to raise healthy and happy children and give them the best chance to become successful and happy adults. To achieve this goal, many factors such as optimal nutrition, lesser infections, medical care and education are important. Happiness in childhood positively impacts cognitive and emotional development. Children with better emotional health (self-efficacy and competence) have a higher chance to be more successful academically and professionally. In other words, a happy childhood creates a foundation for lifelong wellbeing and success.
In the 1950s, very little was known about the link between nutrition and the immune system. However, with time, researchers began to understand that nutrition and immunity were intricately linked and one affected the other. They found that malnutrition could make a child more susceptible to infection and infection could then worsen the malnutrition.
Malnutrition is now recognized as the primary cause of immune system dysfunction in the world. Infants and children are most vulnerable to infections because their immune systems are still immature and cannot fight off infections easily. It is well established now that poor and inadequate food and nutrient intake can cause frequent illnesses in children. This can also result in children becoming weak and susceptible to infections due to mucosal damage. All this can lead to impaired growth of the child.
Undernutrition and nutrient deficiencies can further worsen in the sick child as infections can cause diarrhea, leading to further nutrient losses, malabsorption of nutrients from the intestine, and loss of appetite.
Growth an important measure of nutrition adequacy in a child
There are different ways of measuring nutrient adequacy in an individual such as blood tests and other invasive techniques. However, for a child, the primary tool for measurement of nutrition adequacy is the age-wise growth milestones. Between 2-5 years of age, weight gain occurs at the rate of about 2 kg/year and height increases by about 7-8 cm/year. Food and nutrient inadequacy can affect this dynamic and hence growth is used as a measure of functional outcome of the nutritional status in a child.
Growth thus also becomes an indirect measure of immune functioning. It has to be remembered that the immune system relies on nutrients provided by the diet for its functioning. If this does not happen, it starts drawing nutrients from the internal stores and starts breaking down tissues and muscles. Therefore, a strong immunity can ensure that nutrients that are consumed in the diet is used primarily for growth and development and not diverted towards fighting infections.
Micronutrients have a relationship to antibody formation and the development of the immune system. It has been reported that globally approximately 2 billion people are affected by micronutrient deficiencies. This results in poor growth, impaired intellect, and increased mortality and susceptibility to infection. Nutrients such as vitamin A, C, E, zinc, selenium are nutrients that help build and support the immature immune system and can help the child fight off infections.
Nutrients that support the immune system and how
Vitamin A can be obtained from foods such as carrots, papaya, mangoes, tomatoes and seafood. Vitamin A is converted into different active compounds within the body after they are consumed and these active compounds help the body fight back against infections. They help increase White Blood Cells proliferation, antibody response to pathogens and even help in strengthening the mucosal barriers that prevent entry of infectious agents. Vitamin A deficiency in fact has been shown to result in increased risk of ear infections and upper respiratory infections.
Vitamin C rich foods include gooseberry, guava, capsicum, lemons, oranges and green leafy vegetables like radish leaves, drumstick leaves and kale. It helps immune function by boosting the action of phagocytes which swallow and kill pathogens, increasing lymphocyte count which increases circulating antibodies and strengthens the epithelial cell membrane of the skin which forms a physical barrier against infections.
Vitamin E is a fat-soluble vitamin and it is an antioxidant that mops up all the free radicals within the body. Vitamin E is important for the normal functioning of immune cells. It is present in the immune cells and helps protect it from oxidative damage. Vitamin E can be obtained from nuts, eggs, fortified cereals, vegetable oils and green leafy vegetables like spinach.
Zinc can be found in foods such as cereals, whole pulses, nuts, fortified breakfast cereals and dairy products. It keeps the immune system strong, helps in faster wound healing and supports normal growth. It is a very important mineral especially during an infection as it controls the immune system’s response to the infection by strengthening WBC activity and function.
Selenium is a trace element, which means it is required in very tiny amounts. Selenium by acting as an anti-oxidant improves immune function and selenium supplementation can in fact help increase resistance to respiratory infections. It can be found in foods such as chicken, fish, eggs, chia seeds, sesame seeds, wheat bran, whole wheat flour, Bengal gram dal, dried peas and lentils. Some studies have shown that milk fortified with selenium is more bioavailable to the body and can be an important source of selenium for children.
Everything that parents do, makes a difference. Always make sure you provide your child with a healthy diet rich in energy and nutrients. Along with the right nutrition and encouraging social interactions, playful activities like singing songs, drawing and building blocks, create an environment for your parenting to lay the foundation for your child’s happy growth.