With school back in session, flu season here, and COVID-19 still lingering, immune health has never been more important for children.
Many parents reach for vitamin supplements in hopes of supporting their children’s immune system, which is understandable considering that vitamins play a crucial role in immune health. However, research suggests that supplements are not the only way to support the immune system. In fact, they are sometimes ineffective.
Before we look at the best vitamins for kids’ immune systems, let’s first explain why supplements are not always the answer and explore other ways to support your child’s immune health.
Do Vitamin Supplements Actually Work?
According to the Harvard Medical School, the idea of “boosting the immune system” is ultimately flawed. For the majority of individuals, vitamin supplements alone are insufficient to maintain health. Instead, a balanced diet and healthy lifestyle factors such as good hygiene and adequate exercise provide more than sufficient support for your body’s immune system.
However, this is not always the case. For some children, vitamin supplements can be beneficial. Here are some of those exceptions:
1) Breastfed Children
Breast milk does not provide infants with an adequate amount of Vitamin D, which is crucial for bone growth and other bodily processes. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that wholly and partially breastfed infants receive 400 IU of vitamin D supplements per day during their first few days of life.
2) Children on Plant-based Diets
While vegetarian and vegan diets provide numerous health benefits, they often (and sometimes unavoidably) result in nutrient deficiencies. The most common include vitamin B12, vitamin D, iron, zinc, and omega-3 fatty acids (all of which are important for immune health).
3) Children with Malabsorption Conditions
Malabsorption refers to the body’s inability to digest certain nutrients from food. If your child has a malabsorption condition, they may benefit from vitamin or mineral supplementation. Furthermore, some medications can lead to malabsorption and require complementary supplements.
4) Children with Certain Chronic Diseases and Food Allergies
Some diseases, such as rickets, lead to vitamin or mineral deficiencies in children. In these cases, supplements can provide valuable aid to your child’s immune health. Similarly, some food allergies make it harder for children to receive important nutrients. However, in most cases, alternative food sources can provide your child with adequate nutrients without the need for supplements.
5) Picky Eaters
Children who are extremely picky eaters may require vitamin or mineral supplements if they are not receiving sufficient nutrients in their diets. A lack of fruits and vegetables is one indicator that your child may need supplements. However, keep in mind that supplements should only be used as a short-term solution for picky eaters. As your child’s diet matures, they can receive all the vitamins and minerals their immune system needs from a well-rounded diet.
Alternate Ways to Boost Your Child’s Immune System
If your child does not have a nutrient deficiency, vitamin supplements will not likely provide an additional boost to the immune system. However, there are alternate ways you can give their immune system a boost:
1) Well-rounded Diet
As mentioned above, a balanced diet can provide all the vitamins and minerals your immune system needs without supplements. To learn more about children’s dietary needs, visit this helpful resource.
2) Adequate Exercise
Exercise is one of the best things a child can do to fortify his or her immune system. Sustained and recurring exercise strengthens your immune system so it can tackle pathogens. In fact, numerous studies have shown that active individuals develop significantly fewer upper respiratory tract infections (URTI).
3) Plenty of Sunshine
Vitamin D is known as “the sunshine vitamin” for good reason. When your skin is exposed to the sun, your body produces vitamin D (crucial for bone growth, among other things). Short durations of sun exposure each day (around 10-30 minutes) can provide your immune system with a significant amount of vitamin D.
Finding a balance is important, of course, as too much sun exposure damages the skin and too much sunscreen can limit your body’s ability to produce vitamin D. You can also receive vitamin D from food sources such as salmon, egg yolk, dairy products, and some cereals.
4) Good Hygiene
Washing your hands with an alcohol based soap or sanitizer does not directly improve your immune system, but it does lower the chance of being infected by germs that your immune system would otherwise have to fight. Although there are some rumors that hand-washing indirectly weakens the immune system, there is no scientific backing to these claims.
Vaccines are the immune system’s ultimate sidekick. Vaccinations stimulate the body’s immune system so it can better recognize pathogens and defend against them when necessary. For more information on vaccines (including COVID-19), visit this page.
The Best Vitamins for Kids’ Immune Systems
No matter how you get your vitamins, we all need the same ones for a strong immune system. There are a number of important vitamins when it comes to immunity, but these are top on the list:
A fat-soluble vitamin that is important for the immune system, vision, and other bodily processes. Vitamin A has two forms: preformed (found in animal products) and provitamin (found in plant products).
Common food sources for vitamin A include:
- Meat: beef liver and chicken
- Vegetables: spinach and carrots
- Fish: herring, salmon, and tuna
- Fruits: mangos
- Dairy: milk, ricotta cheese, and yogurt
- Other: egg and sweet potato
Vitamin B (B6 and B12)
Vitamin B, which is important for cell metabolism, comes in eight forms. Of these eight forms, B6 and B12 provide the most benefit to the immune system.
Common food sources for vitamins B6 and B12 include:
- B6: avocados, beans, chicken, sunflower seeds, and sesame seeds
- B12: fortified cereal, clams, trout, salmon, canned tuna, soy milk, beef, and greek yogurt
Vitamin C is an important antioxidant that plays an important role in the body’s healing process. Our bodies do not produce vitamin C, so it must be attained through diet or supplements.
Common food sources for vitamin C include:
- Fruits: citrus fruits, tomatoes, berries, and peppers
- Vegetables: cabbage, brussel sprouts, broccoli, and spinach
Vitamin D does many wonderful and important things in the body. It is most well known for its role in bone health, but it also strengthens the immune system thanks to its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties.
Common food sources for vitamin D include:
- Fortified milk and cereal
- Salmon, mackerel, and sardines
The sun, as mentioned before, also provides your body with vitamin D, but indirectly. Our skin utilizes UVB light from the sun to create vitamin D, which stays in our blood at least twice as long compared to ingested vitamin D.
Vitamin E, similar to vitamin A, is a fat-soluble compound with antioxidant properties. It exists in eight forms, but only one (alpha-tocopherol) meets human needs.
Common food sources for vitamin E include:
- Canola and olive oil
- Almonds and peanuts
- Meats such as trout, crab, shrimp, salmon, and chicken
Although iron is a mineral not a vitamin, it still plays a crucial role in immune health. Iron comes in two forms: heme (found in meats) and non-heme (found in fruits and vegetables). However, heme provides much more iron than non-heme, as our bodies process it more efficiently (30% compared to 10%).
Common food sources for iron include:
- Meats and eggs
Parents should be careful to avoid supplementing children with too much iron as this may cause constipation.
Zinc is also a mineral, and it also fuels the immune system. However, it is considered a “trace mineral,” so we only need a small amount of it. And because zinc is present in many foods, it is relatively easy to meet our bodies’ nutritional needs.
Common food sources for zinc include:
- Meats (especially beef, pork, and poultry)
- Seafood (especially shellfish)
- Whole grains
Conclusion: Best Vitamins for Children Immune Systems
There are a number of important vitamins for boosting your children’s immune systems, but the way in which these vitamins are absorbed is equally important. Supplements can be a great way for children to meet their nutritional requirements in the right circumstances.
For many children, a well-rounded diet generally provides the minerals and nutrients their bodies need. If this is the case, supplements may be unnecessary to support their immune systems, but healthy lifestyle factors such as exercise, moderate sun exposure, good hygiene, and immunizations can.
If you or your child needs help building a balanced diet or finding a vitamin/mineral supplement, contact Community Pharmacy today and our pharmacists will point you in the right direction. We have multiple locations throughout Texas, and we are always eager to help.