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7 Best Ways to Boost Parents’ and Kids’ Immune System Function

Smart moves for families to boost immune system health and ward off illness

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Updated April 01, 2011

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

One of the most important ways families can ward off colds and flu and other illnesses is by boosting adults’ and kids’ immune system function. Here are some cardinal rules for keeping your family healthy during cold and flu season and all year-round.

1. Eat a Healthy, Balanced Diet

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Eating a well-balanced diet that includes plenty of foods high in antioxidants is an important part of maintaining good immune system function. A healthy diet rich in immune-boosting foods can help your body build infection-fighting white blood cells, repair injury to cells, and do whatever else it needs to do to protect itself against infection and illness.

2. Get Enough Sleep

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Research has shown that sleep is essential for adults’ and kids’ immune system health as well as general well-being. Lack of sleep has been linked to a variety of cognitive and physical health issues including increase risk for obesity, diabetes, and heart problems. Not getting enough sleep can also lead to a disruption of hormonal function and reduced inability to fight off infections. One recent study showed that losing even as little as a few hours of sleep in just one night can increase inflammation in the body and interfere with its ability to keep itself healthy. “Sleep is crucial to immune system function,” says David Katz, MD, director of the Yale Prevention Research Center. “People underestimate the importance of getting enough sleep.”

How much sleep you need can depend on your age, overall health, and individual need. Look for signs that your child might be getting enough, and try to set up good bedtime routines to make sure she gets enough zzz’s to be at her best.

3. Exercise

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Studies have shown that moderate, regular exercise may boost immune system function.

But how you exercise makes a difference. Research shows that moderate regular and moderate exercise may increase white blood cell activity and increase their circulation throughout the body. As little as 30 minutes can boost immune system activity.

In contrast, too much exercise can have a negative effect, and may actually decrease immunity. Studies have shown that immune system function becomes decreased in athletes who engage in prolonged, continuous, high-intensity workouts. Several studies have linked upper respiratory illnesses with periods of prolonged intensive training.

4. Manage Stress

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Can psychological factors such as stress affect your immune system? A wide body of research suggests that there is a link.

Both chronic and temporary stress can have physiological effects that can lower a body’s ability to fight off infections. Stress has been shown to lower the number and effectiveness of natural infection-fighting cells.

While some degree of stress is unavoidable for both grownups and kids, it’s important to keep an eye out for signs that your child may be stressed. Try to manage your child’s stress and do what you can to keep your own stress under control.

5. Be Aware of Germ Hot Spots

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You’d be surprised at what microbiologists have found to be the most germy public places. Some surprisingly high hot spots for germs can include restaurant menus and shopping cart handles.

Of course, if you’re healthy and don’t have an underlying illness that compromises your immune system and makes you more susceptible to infections, you probably don’t need to worry too much about being exposed to a few germs when you’re out and about in the world. But it’s a good idea to make sure you take precautions and wash your hands, especially before eating.

And take precautions at home, too, especially if your child or someone else is sick. Make sure everyone washes their hands frequently and do not share utensils.

6. Avoid Bad Habits That Suppress Immune System Function

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Do you have a smoker in the house? Do you and your kids prefer to sit around the house rather than get out and play outdoors or exercise? Do your family meals consist more often of high-fat fare than fresh fruits and vegetables? Does your family consistently not get enough sleep at night?

These bad habits can all add up to weakened adults’ and kids’ immune system function, making your family more susceptible to cold and flu and other infections and illnesses.

7. Laugh Together

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Studies have shown that laughter may actually boost immune system function by increasing antibody-producing cells and helping T cells perform more effectively. Laughter has also been shown to reduce the levels of stress hormones while increasing feel-good hormones such as endorphins.

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