Compared to adults, children suffer from a cold, fever or a runny nose more often. They are also more prone to picking up infections from their surrounding environment such as their class mates or playmates. This happens primarily because the child’s immune system is still maturing. As the little ones get exposed to a variety of infections, his or her immunity starts building up. So as a child goes through middle childhood, he or she becomes more equipped to fight off an infection..

However, the ability to fight off an infection depends on how well equipped the immune system is. Now, how well equipped the immune system is to fight off or prevent an infection depends on the child’s nutritional status. A well-nourished child can mount an effective immune response against an infection and can avoid or overcomes illnesses better than an undernourished child. Hence it is important that a child’s diet consists of a variety of foods from the different food groups. Dairy happens to be one of the most important of all the food group in a child’s daily diet.

Dairy comprises of milk and different milk products such as cheese, paneer, khoya and fermented milk products such as buttermilk and curd.

How does dairy help support the immune system in children?

Scientists over the years have tried to delve deeper and understand the relation between dairy consumption and the human immune system. Overall, it is believed that the ability of dairy to support the immune system comes from the constituent nutrients that are present in it. These nutrients modulate different aspects of the immune system and the way it responds to an infection. For example, some nutrients work on the immune cells that protect the body from the infection while others on immune cells that fight back and destroy the microorganism that cause the infection.

Dairy is well known for its excellent nutrient profile and some of the nutrients present in milk that play a role in supporting the immune system functioning are as follows:

High quality protein: A glass of milk provides about 6-7 gms of protein. Casein and whey are the two types of protein found in milk. Milk proteins have high digestibility and are considered to be of excellent quality as they have a high proportion of essential amino acids. The antibodies and immune cells of the immune system are basically protein in nature and hence a steady supply of protein is required from the diet in order to be able to repair and restore immune system functionality. Good quality protein is required to maintain the lymphocytes also known as the WBCs, cytokines and phagocytes in fighting condition. Protein is so important for the well-being of the immune system that it is well known that malnourished children or children lacking protein in their diets tend to suffer more frequently from infectious diseases.

Vitamins: Milk is a source of fat soluble vitamins like vitamin A, E and K. The anti-oxidant ability of these fat soluble vitamins are important for protection against infections and recovery from infections. Milk doesn’t naturally contain vitamin D, however, in recent years some brands of milk are being fortified with vitamin D in India.

Dairy also contains vitamin B12 which is vital for immune system functioning as it is required for the production and functioning of the WBCs. In fact, infections can increase vitamin B12 requirements of the body.

Riboflavin or vitamin B2 is another of the important vitamins found in milk. In fact, vitamin B2 was first isolated from milk and characterized as the milk pigment in 1879. Riboflavin is very important for functioning of the immune system as it activates the phagocytic or destructive ability of neutrophils and macrophages; immune cells which engulf and destroy disease causing microorganisms. Riboflavin also stimulates the multiplication and productions of other immune cells such as neutrophils and monocytes.

Probiotics: In addition to retaining the original set of nutrients present in unfermented milk, fermented milk also contains the additional goodness of probiotics. Research over the years have clearly demonstrated that probiotics are some of the best foods to boost immunity and fermented milk products contain high probiotic counts. The probiotics present in milk help in forming a strong healthy gut microbiota which then is capable of fighting off infections. The gut microbiota supports the immune system by stimulating the maturation and functioning of the immune cells through the different metabolites they secrete in the intestine. Probiotics also promotes better health by promoting the growth of beneficial bacteria and inhibiting growth of harmful bacteria.

Thus, it is very important that dairy be part of a child’s daily diet through the formative years when the immune system develops and matures.