Somehow it’s already that time of year: the kids are head back to school and they are bringing a whole lotta germs back home with them at the end of the day. We’ve all been there. We hear that one student has a bug and the next thing you know, it’s gone through the class and their families like wildfire. That first whisper of illness doesn’t need to be a cause for panic, though. Here are some of my best tips as a health and nutrition coach to support your immune system for greater health this fall.

1. Practice good hand washing for the whole family

Why it’s important. It seems that everyone loves their hand sanitizer these days, and I get it – it’s convenient, it gives you peace of mind, it can be effective. However, there are numerous drawbacks to regular hand sanitizer use: dry skin, increased bacterial immunity, damaged skin cells, exposure to excess chemicals with unknown long-term results, and even a weakened immune system (our immune system works based on remembering exposures). Further, there is little to no evidence that hand sanitizers are any more effective than good old soap and water. In fact, they may be less so in some instances.

What you can do. Given all of that, I encourage you to keep the sanitizer use to a minimum and focus on hand washing and good hygiene habits. Teach your kids to wash their hands before eating, keep their hands away from their face and mouth before washing, and turn hand washing into a routine – maybe as soon as they get home from school, before every meal, and before bed. This will help keep immune systems healthier and germs to a minimum.

2. Get enough sleep

Why it’s important. Getting enough sleep is critical to maintaining good health, proper body function, growth and development, and normal energy levels. Without enough sleep, we are more susceptible to bacteria, viruses, and pathogens. Children require more sleep than adults do because they are building and growing little bodies into big bodies plus staying active and constantly learning and acquiring new skills. Sleep requirements will vary depending on how old your child is. Here is a great resource on children’s sleep needs.

What you can do. Keep your kids on a regular bedtime every night preceded by a bedtime routine. The regular bedtime will help them get in the habit of sleeping at that time. Having a bedtime routine focused on winding down will help your kids relax and they will come to associate it with preparing to sleep, making bedtime a little easier. It’s important that this routine: 1.) be low-key, not energizing, and 2.) not involve ipads, smartphones, or TV as blue light disrupts our natural sleep patterns. Some ideas: start with teeth brushing and a warm bath, incorporate story time in the child’s bed, keep bedroom lights low, give your little one a little soothing back rub.

3. Eat the Rainbow

Why it’s important. Eating as many different fresh fruits and vegetables will help keep your immune system healthy. Brightly colored plants contain phytonutrients – special defenses plants have evolved to protect themselves that can protect us and keep us healthy as well when we eat them. Different colored produce contains different phytonutrients so it’s important to eat a variety.

What you can do. We all know kids aren’t always the most open to new foods, vegetables in particular. Try these tips to help: 1. Make eating these foods as interesting and interactive as possible. Kids love color. Ask them what color string beans they want or challenge them to get as many colors onto their plate as they can. 2. Don’t make a big deal of them not eating the foods on their plate; this is not helpful and can create more issues. 3. Just keep on putting the foods in front of them time after time and eventually they will try them.

4. Spice It Up

Why it’s important. Most herbs and spices contain antioxidative compounds that can help support our immune systems, such as thyme, oregano, cinnamon, and rosemary.

What you can do. Don’t be afraid to get “spicy” in the kitchen. Sprinkle some cinnamon onto apple slices for a snack (or onto your coffee grounds before brewing!), sprinkle some fresh herbs onto your chicken, or stick a big sprig of rosemary into your bottle of olive oil to infuse it.

5. Stay Active

Why it’s important. Regular exercise or physical activity is also a great way to keep your immune system working well. The increased blood flow created by exercise massages the lining of your blood vessels, prompting them to release more compounds that act as natural “medicines” to keep us healthy.

What you can do. Make sure that your kids get plenty of opportunity for active playtime. This can mean taking them to the playground, signing them up for sports, letting them play in the yard, taking family walks regularly, or taking up family activities together like hiking, biking, or skiing. When the weather is poor, a game of charades or Hyperdash are great options. Our bodies were made for movement and it’s especially important that we move enough as growing children. Keeping active also means keeping screen time to a minimum.

6.  Stay hydrated

Why it’s important. Our bodies depend on water to stay optimally functional. Being hydrated helps keep our muscles lubricated and moving, helps us absorb water-soluble nutrients from the foods we eat, helps keep our bowel movements regular, and helps flush out our bodies.

What you can do. For children, the current recommended water intake is 1 ounce of fluid per pound of bodyweight per day. For adults, it’s 1/2 ounce of fluid per pound of body weight per day. This can be asking a lot, not just in terms of consuming that much, but time spent eliminating that much as well… if you know what I mean. What I advise is: 1. drink before you’re thirsty, especially if you’re sweating or active, 2. make water the number one option for beverages, and 3. in general, if your urine is clear and light yellow in color, you’re in good shape for hydration. You can encourage kids to drink more water in a number of ways: give them a fun cup or straw they like to drink out of, toss some fresh or frozen fruit in it, and keep soda and juice out of the house.

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