The immune system protects our body against bacteria, viruses, fungi and other invaders. This complex defense system is still developing in children, making them less well armed in the fight against invaders. But how does this complex system actually work? And how can you boost your child’s and yours immune system?
General functioning of the immune system
The immune system has several mechanisms to recognize and eliminate these invaders. In fact, it is made up of different types of cells, tissues and organs that work together to fight off pathogens such as viruses, bacteria and fungi.
A distinction can be made between two major components within the immune system, innate and acquired immunity. These are inextricably linked to each other.
- Innate immunity is the body’s first line of defense, providing immediate protection against pathogens. It consists of a physical barrier (such as the skin, mucous membranes, saliva and stomach acid) between the body and the outside world, which prevents harmful attackers from entering the body. In addition, this form of immunity includes white blood cells, such as neutrophils and macrophages, which respond quickly to infection.
- Acquired immunity, also known as adaptive immunity, develops after exposure to a specific pathogen and provides long-term protection against this invader. This type of immunity is mediated by B and T cells, which can target specific parts of the pathogen.
The immune system in children
Children’s immune system is still developing and therefore they are more susceptible to infections and diseases than adults. Like children, the immune system learns new things every day about the different pathogens it faces. Thus, it develops an immunological memory that allows it to respond more quickly and effectively to the same invader in the future. When the immune system first encounters a specific pathogen, it starts producing antibodies and immune cells against it. If the same invader later enters the body again, the immune system immediately recognizes it and sends the specific immune cells to it. The older one gets, the more antibodies have been built up and the stronger the immune system has become.
The best way to strengthen children’s immune systems is to ensure a healthy lifestyle and a balanced diet. This includes enough sleep, regular exercise and a diet rich in nutrients such as vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. Foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins and healthy fats can also help strengthen children’s immune system. One of the nutrients that can support immune system function is vitamin C. In our blog, you can discover what other functions vitamin C has besides supporting normal immune system function. It is also important to teach children good hygiene, such as washing hands regularly and avoiding contact with sick people. This can help prevent the spread of infections and protect the immune system.
Moreover, it can also help children learn to manage stress better caused by various factors such as schoolwork, social pressure or other influences. In fact, stress can weaken the immune system, making them more susceptible to diseases. Therefore, it is important to help children reduce their stress. This can be done, for example, by teaching them relaxation exercises, making sure they get enough sleep and have a healthy lifestyle.
The intestines and the immune system
Our intestines are not only concerned with digestion and bowel movements, but they are also an important part of the immune system. Besides forming a physical barrier (ensuring that the right substances are absorbed into the body and the others are removed) 80% of our immune system is located in the intestines.
The human intestinal tract is home to trillions of microorganisms, including bacteria, fungi and viruses. Together, these microorganisms make up the intestinal flora and play an important role in regulating the immune system. A healthy intestinal flora is important for the development and functioning of the immune system. This is because the intestinal flora helps produce immune cells and regulate the immune response against pathogens. In contrast, an unhealthy intestinal flora can lead to a weakened immune system, making the body more vulnerable to infection and disease. Several factors can affect intestinal flora, including diet, medication, lifestyle and stress. Eating a diet rich in fibres and good bacteria can improve the diversity and health of the intestinal flora, thereby also supporting immune function.
A healthy intestinal flora is also vital for children. At birth, almost no bacteria are present in the baby’s intestines. The digestive tract’s population of bacteria starts only from birth and are transmitted through the birth canal (the mother’s vaginal flora) and then through breast milk. The composition of the intestinal flora is thus determined by the bacteria that enter the intestines during the first years of life.
The immune system and a healthy intestinal flora are therefore vital to our health and well-being. By understanding how the immune system works and taking steps to support it, we can better protect our body from disease and improve our overall well-being.