There are a lot of products on the market for immune support. Almost every vitamin, probiotic, sport drink, or supplement now has an “immunity” version. But all these options seem to use buzzwords and extravagant promises, begging the question of what ingredients actually work if you want to boost your child’s immune system? Let’s take a look at some of the most popular remedies.
Some substances in echinacea have been shown to have a stimulant effect on the immune system. However, this does not always translate into reducing infections. Some studies show a reduction in either preventing or shortening the duration of symptoms in the common cold, but some don’t show any improvement over placebo. It seems to work best in combination with other remedies (vitamin C for example). So it might help a little, but it’s not a game changer. Also, beware, if you or your children have allergies or asthma - echinacea can worsen asthma symptoms or trigger an allergic reaction. Kids also sometimes get a rash when taking echinacea, which may indicate a sensitivity or allergy. If you do decide to use echinacea, I’d recommend not using it long term.
Elderberry has some antiviral properties (it has been studied as a treatment for the common cold, influenza, and now COVID-19). It seems to be especially effective against influenza, reducing the severity of symptoms and duration of symptoms by 3-4 days in some studies. There was also a small study that showed a shorter duration of cold symptoms (and lower severity of cold symptoms) when they took elderberry before and during a long-haul flight! Other studies, however, did not note a benefit over placebo, and usually, the number of people in each study is small, meaning it’s not possible to draw a definitive conclusion from them. It does not seem to work as a preventative medication, though, so there’s not a lot of benefit to taking it as a daily supplement (we also don't know if it's safe to do that in children). And elderberry is definitely not a replacement for the flu shot. While it might help symptoms, it is not proven to keep kids out of the ICU like the vaccine does. Finally, do not try to make elderberry preparations at home. If not prepared properly, it could be toxic! It has a natural poison that can cause nausea, vomiting, and other nasty side effects, especially in kids, so use a commercial preparation instead.
3. Vitamin C
This probably won’t surprise you, but vitamin C is a huge helper for the immune system. It accumulates in cells that help kill invading microbes and plays a large role in many kinds of immune cell functions. In addition, vitamin C deficiency leads to a higher susceptibility to infections. Having enough vitamin C can decrease your chances of getting sick, and it has even been shown to have antimicrobial effects in the lab! All that said, I don’t think this means you need to use a supplement for your child, since vitamin C is easy to come by in the diet. Citrus fruits, berries, peppers, brussels sprouts, and broccoli are all good sources! So yes to vitamin C, but get it naturally!
Zinc also plays a crucial role in the development and function of immune cells. Zinc deficiency results in a higher susceptibility to infections, just like a lack of vitamin C. However, supplementing with zinc for long periods of time, especially in children, is not recommended. Very high zinc intake in adults and children can result in copper deficiency, anemia, growth slowing, and even a depressed immune system. Because of this, it’s once again best to rely on a well-balanced diet to ensure your child gets enough zinc to support their immune system. Poultry, red meat, legumes, beans, and nuts are all great sources! More on zinc as a treatment for colds in my next blog post!
Ok, this isn’t a remedy, but it’s SO important for immune function, maybe more than all the others combined, so I couldn’t resist adding this in! In one study, restricting sleep for just one night to 4 hours reduced natural killer cells (a type of white blood cell that kills invading pathogens) down to 72% of what a subject had with a full night’s sleep. Similarly, the same sleep restriction increases the production of inflammatory cytokines and decreases antibody production (meaning the body has more inflammation and lower defenses to fight infection!). Even beyond that, there are other studies showing that a lack of sleep decreased antibody response to vaccines! And yet another study showed that restriction for a week also increases the chance of infection with the common cold. So before looking to supplements or other remedies, first make sure your kids rest up to give their bodies the best chance to fight infection!
So what are my recommendations, then? They are old school, I’m afraid. Eat a healthy, well-balanced diet with lots of fruits and vegetables. Get plenty of sleep each night. Wash your hands. And don’t get sucked in by all the products on the shelf!
Have any questions about a particular remedy? E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org!
BRYANT, P., & CURTIS, N. (2013). Sleep and Infection: No Snooze, You Lose? The Pediatric Infectious Disease Journal, 32(10), 1135-1137.
Carr, A., & Maggini, S. (2017). Vitamin C and Immune Function. Nutrients, 9(11), 1211.
icious circle.198 Vitamin C is not only an antioxidant and a free radical scavenger but it also shows antimicrobial activity both in vitro and in vivo, 192 and is able to inhibit H. pylori growth in vitro. 199,200
Charrois, T., Hrudey, J., & Vohra, S. (2006). Echinacea. Pediatrics in Review, 27(10), 385-387.
Hawkins, J., Baker, C., Cherry, L., & Dunne, E. (2019). Black elderberry (Sambucus nigra) supplementation effectively treats upper respiratory symptoms: A meta-analysis of randomized, controlled clinical trials. Complementary Therapies in Medicine, 42, 361-365.
Maggini, S., Wenzlaff, S., & Hornig, D. (2010). Essential Role of Vitamin C and Zinc in Child Immunity and Health. The Journal of International Medical Research,38(2), 386-414.
Martini, N. (2021). Potion or poison? Elderberry. Journal of Primary Health Care, 13(1), 91-92.
Rerksuppaphol, S., & Rerksuppaphol, L. (2013). A randomized controlled trial of chelated zinc for prevention of the common cold in Thai school children. Paediatrics and International Child Health,33(3), 145-150.
Tiralongo, E., Wee, S., & Lea, R. (2016). Elderberry Supplementation Reduces Cold Duration and Symptoms in Air-Travellers: A Randomized, Double-Blind Placebo-Controlled Clinical Trial. Nutrients, 8(4), 182.