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Ask Dr. Sears: Immune System Boosters

Q. My child has a weak immune system. He was born prematurely, and I believe this is the cause. He is constantly sick, and his colds last for at least two weeks. What can I do to help boost his immune system?

A. Your suspicions are correct. Premature babies tend to have immature immune systems, which makes them prone to frequent infections. A classic word that describes the care of preemies is "more"—they need more holding, more food for growth, and more protection against infections. Try these tricks to boost your child's immunity:

Offer more fruits and vegetables

Fruits and veggies are high in vitamin C and antioxidants, and both of these natural nutrients boost the immune system. Antioxidants travel through the bloodstream and protect tissue from damage. They are like the anti-rust protection in an automobile, helping reduce the wear and tear on the engine. The less wear and tear on the body, the less susceptible it is to infection. Good immune-boosting fruits include strawberries, papaya, cantaloupe, guava, pink grapefruit and blueberries. Good veggies are tomatoes, broccoli, and sweet potatoes, as well as soy products. When I see children in the office who are sick a lot, I prescribe Dr. Bill's immune-boosting smoothie: one cup of plain yogurt, one-half cup each of the above-mentioned fruits, a multivitamin / multimineral formula that contains at least ten milligrams of zinc (an immune booster) and a quarter cup of flaxseed meal. Mix these immune boosters in milk or juice. Also, feed your child lots of yellow vegetables, which contain carotenoids—a natural substance that increases the production of infection-fighting white blood cells (or "natural killer cells"). Yellow-orange fruits and dark green vegetables, such as apricots, carrots, pumpkin, kale, spinach, squash and mango, are also particularly healthful.

Feed your child immune-boosting fats

Omega 3 fats, particularly those found in coldwater fish (such as wild salmon) are valuable immune boosters and maintain the overall health of just about every organ of the body. They increase the activity of macrophages, the white cells that eat up bacteria. Grandmothers knew this fact years ago in the pre-antibiotic era when they prescribed that awful tasting cod liver oil. Feed your child at least three ounces of wild salmon three times a week. If coldwater fish is not available to you, give your child a high-quality fish oil capsule. One capsule a day (open the capsule and squirt it into juice or oatmeal) should be enough. Two or three teaspoons of flax oil a day is another immune-boosting source of omega 3 fats, but not as good as a seafood source.

Feed your child less sugar and other sweeteners

Studies have shown that drinking the equivalent of two and a half 12-ounce cans of soda can reduce the ability of immune-fighting white blood cells by 40 percent.

Keep your child lean

Obesity can depress the immune system by interfering with the ability of white blood cells to produce antibodies. Research shows that overweight babies get twice as many infections as lean babies.

Get your child moving

Exercise both increases the white blood cells' ability to fight off infection and increases the number of those killer cells mentioned above.

Lessen exposure to germs

If your child is in part- or full-time daycare, insist on careful hand washing when caregivers handle your infant. As much as possible, keep your child away from those who are coughing and sneezing, especially other children.

Protect those precious lungs

The weakest spot in a premature baby is the lungs. Be vigilant in keeping your baby away from smokers. Smoking damages the protective lining of babies' immature respiratory passages, making them more susceptible to infection. Also, be sure your baby is up-to-date on all the necessary immunizations. Babies are particularly susceptible to a respiratory virus called respiratory syncytial virus (RSV). The good news is, it is now standard practice to give all premature babies with compromised lung function an injection of RSV-preventive medicine once a month during the RSV season, which usually runs from October through March. While most premature infants receive this protective medication upon leaving the hospital or during the first year of life, babies who are prone to frequent infections also need to get a second round of this preventive medicine during the second year of life. Ask your doctor about this vaccination.

As your child grows, so will his immature immune system. In the meantime, the above home remedies can help boost his immunity. For more information about keeping your preemie healthy, see my newest book, The Premature Baby Book.

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