Herbs, vitamins, and minerals can support immune response during and before illness. Anyone can buy them – but are they safe? Do they work? How do you use them?
Like any prescription drug from your pediatrician , if you’re using the wrong dose, in the wrong context, at the wrong time, or with substances that don’t mix safely, immune supports can fail, or can trigger strong reactions that make your child feel worse.
New flash: Pediatricians don’t train in the use of non-prescription supports like herbs, foods, nutrients, or supplements. They do train in how to prescribe drugs and when to make specialist referrals. Odds are, if you ask your doctor how to use, say, olive leaf extract, caprylic acid, or the correct form of garlic for anti-viral support, they won’t know what you’re talking about.
Botanicals, herbal compounds, foods, and supplements have diverse actions on our brilliant and complex immune systems. Herbs and nutrients also have direct antimicrobial effects of their own. This means they can be potent allies in your quest to get your family through winter infection-free, by preventing illness, and by pumping up the body’s fight if colds and flu happen.
Here are my top five go-to’s for natural, non-drug ways to help children divert illnesses and infections:
1 – Eat lots, eat well! Data show that underweight kids (body mass index below 10th percentile) and overweight kids (body mass index over 90th percentile) get sick more often and stay sick longer than normal weight peers. Immune supports can’t work as well when the body is already struggling for energy and resources. Emphasize vegetable carbs over grains: Think pumpkin, parsnip, broccoli, cauliflower, sweet potato, spaghetti squash, butternut, beets, Brussel sprouts, and hearty greens like chard, kale, arugula or spinach. These are mineral-rich, phytonutrient powerhouse foods. For grain source carbs, mix it up. Don’t give the same processed simple starchy grain day in and day out. Vary grains to include quinoa (technically not a grain but more closely related to beets), buckwheat, different types of rice (black, brown, jasmine), or others. if your child can tolerate gluten, choose organic (US wheat is one of the most RoundUp-laden crops we grow, with the average rate of RoundUp applied to it having tripled in recent years). If your child is too picky to vary carbs as suggested here, we need to talk. That picky diet is one reason why your child may get sick more often. Work with me on strategies to change it.
Eat fats and oils, organic as often as affordable, and natural (unprocessed). Fats carry critical immune defense nutrients like vitamins A, D, and E into tissues. Grass fed butter like Kerrygold (available at Costco or most supermarkets), or at least organic butter or ghee, are great options, as is coconut oil, olive oil, avocado, eggs, meats, fish and nuts/seeds and their butters. Think in terms of giving the equivalent of 1 quarter cup daily of fats and oils from all foods (this includes fat in foods like eggs, meat, or fish) – that’s about how much a school aged child needs. Teens will need more.
Protein matters all day long for kids. Breakfast cereals and milk are thumbs down in my book – mostly sugar, little fat and weak protein that only comes from the milk. Not an auspicious start to a demanding school day! Homemade chicken broth, egg drop soup or broth, pumpkin pancakes, smoothies with protein powders – check my recipe archive for ideas and my breakfast post too. Give proteins throughout the day. If your kids are hungry, let them eat.
“But my kid eats like a horse, and still gets sick.” Right? So: Eating plenty can have a curve ball – and that is, in kids with rigid, starchy, addictive eating patterns for sugar, wheat, and dairy food. Not healthy. See Milk Addicted Kids for more info on that. Lastly, avoid offering too many tough-to-digest, raw, bulky, or fermented foods. Relax strict Paleo, Yeast Free, GAPS or other tight routines if your child’s body mass index is too low. Check my recipes for some ideas to gain and grow.
2 – Olive oil and olive leaf extract – These have several anti-microbial, antioxidant, and immune supporting components, including hydroxytyrosol, oleuropein, luteolin, and apigenin. Some have anti-inflammatory effects; oleuropein has gained popularity for its broad activity against viruses, bacteria, and fungal (yeast) microbes. Other bitter compounds in olive leaf, caffeic acid and verbascoside, have direct antimicrobial action too, against several bacteria and fungal species (yeasts). Human studies are few, but in vitro, oleuropein kills many bacteria, including Klebsiella pneumonia, Mycoplasma, Staphylococcus aureus, Pseudomonas aueruginosa, and others (but doesn’t harm beneficial stuff in the gut like Lactobacillus). As for viruses, oleuropein blocks viral protein production and interrupts replication – that is, the virus can’t stay alive and can’t reproduce itself in the presence of oleuropein, meaning it can’t easily survive in you or spread to others, when you’re eating oleuropein from olive leaf extract!
Good news: Olive leaf extract and olive oil are safe, with low toxicity. Side effects may include looser stools (a benefit for some) if eating a lot of oil at once. Oleuropein may also lower blood pressure, so this is a caution for kids with low tone, low blood pressure or fatigue. Animal studies on the extract have shown safety and efficacy at 8 mg/kg per day; this would be roughly 200 mg daily for a 55 pound child. For kids who can swallow capsules, I suggest Gaia brand Olive Leaf or Nature’s Way Standardized Olive Leaf extract because these are standardized to contain a minimum percentage of oleuropein and they are alcohol free (alcohol extractions don’t show the same potency as water extracts or oil infusions of olive leaf). For kids who don’t, Barlean’s Olive Leaf Complex is a good choice, as it also standardizes the amount of oleuropein in each serving and even has flavored options. Meanwhile eat at tablespoon or two of olive oil daily at room temperature or slightly warm; over heating it will reduce the power of its immune boosting components.
3 – Berberine – This herbal extract is found in many plants, including goldenseal, philodendron, and barberry. It has a wide range of antimicrobial activities; one of its skills is to make it harder for bacteria to attach to mucus membranes in lung or other tissue. Whole plant extracts that contain berberine have other components that create a synergistic effect, making them effective even against antibiotic resistant MSRA. Berberine’s ability to arrest Staphylococcus, Streptococcus, and Pseudomonas organisms was demonstrated years ago. Berberine has also been shown to increase immunoglobulin A (IgA) levels; IgA is the first line of defense in tissues that line the ear, nose, throat, lungs and gut. Like most herbs, its benefits go beyond immune support – it has been shown to benefit heart function and regulate menstrual pattern too. Tinctures and capsules are widely available. Cautionary note: Berberines are synergistic with several drugs, including Diflucan and ampicillin, so if your child is needing prescription drugs, talk with your care team before mixing these. A school aged child can typically safely use 200-600 mg berberine daily during acute illness, if not mixed with drugs. As always, if you’re not sure, get help from your licensed health care provider.
4 – Real Deal Chicken Broth – Recently my dad had a lingering cold, something that can be quite dangerous for the frail elderly (which he is). I suggested he sip broth daily – but my dad said he didn’t like it. At their house, I saw that my folks were using store bought broth that was indeed not very tasty. I roasted a chicken, and after we enjoyed the meat and pulled it off the bones, I made broth – which is not at all hard to do. In it went fresh bulbs of garlic, sage, thyme, rosemary, fresh ginger root (peeled and sliced), salt, a dash of dry white wine, and an entire lemon cut into quarters. After simmering for a day it was ready and my dad liked it a lot better than the store bought stuff. Good broth has an array of easy to absorb minerals and amino acids like proline, glycine, and glutamine, which are released from the collagen and ligaments in the chicken as it simmers. Its anti-inflammatory effect has even been verified with careful study. Ginger root adds an expectorant action on lung tissue, while lemon rind and pulp lend immune supportive bioflavonoids, minerals, vitamin C and limonene, which has been shown to boost white blood cells. Real chicken broth is so easy to make. Offer it plain or you can add your kids’ favorite noodles (yes, there are even gluten free Ramen noodles), drop in an egg to poach, or stir in a few raw greens (spinach, scallion, arugula, or basil leaves).
5 – Red Root (Ceanothus) – This is a powerful aid to help lymph nodes drain and clear debris created when we kill infections; all those dead microbes have to get out somehow, and after the immune system is done disabling them, it is our lymph system that is the clean up crew. Actually feeling sick is more about this debris clearing out through lymph, liver, spleen and kidney than the offending microbes themselves. Red root can act broadly on the lymph system to help clear this debris. Red root also has some direct anti fungal and antibacterial actions, antioxidant activity, and some evidence shows it can also boost white blood cells and T cells. Use just a couple of drops of tincture to start for a child; this is a potent tool and best used with oversight from your licensed naturopathic doctor.
This is a very short list, and I’ve skipped many obvious favorites – including nutrients like vitamins A, D, C, iron, or herbs like echinacea or elderberry – already widely known as great helps for colds and flu. There are many hundreds of possibilities to support us naturally, when it comes to colds and infections. Unlike antibiotics, herbs are difficult if not impossible for bacteria to gain resistance to, because rather than being single chemicals with a single action (like antibiotics). they are complex living entities with multiple components in their extracts or whole parts; and, they too can adapt in response to a microbe’s assault.
Prescription drugs for colds and infections have their place. Respect and engage them as needed with your doctor’s guidance. If antibiotics and other drugs fail your family, or if you simply wish to avoid them, natural tools can be important adjuncts. If you are just looking for tools to build your kids’ immune wellness, foods and herbs can go further than drugs – make good eating and natural supports a way of life, and your family will benefit!