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Immune System

The immune system is one of the most powerful weapons we have when it comes to fighting off infection and disease. Its main role is to detect and remove foreign invaders that enter the body and cause infection and illness. It acts like a defence system, our very own personal army, working quietly in the background to keep us healthy and strong. The stronger our little one’s immune systems are, the less susceptible they will be to catching colds and flu. Here are my top tips for keeping you and your family fighting fit and healthy this winter and beyond….

1. Get Sufficient Sleep

As well as playing a very important role in children’s overall development, sleep is one of the most essential components of a healthy immune system. Lack of sleep reduces natural killer cell activity by up to 70% which can leave children more susceptible to colds and flu. The amount of sleep a child needs will depend on their age. Guidelines from the National Sleep Foundation are: 1-2yrs, 11-14 hours: 3-5yrs,10-13 hours: 6-11yrs, 9-11 hours’ sleep per day.

Top Tip: Stick to a consistent sleep routine, going to bed and getting up at the same time every day. Avoid screens 2 hours before children’s bed-time and ensure their bedroom is dark, cool and a no screen zone. All of these things will help with the onset of sleep and keeping them asleep all night.

2. Eat the Rainbow

What does that actually mean and why is it so important? There are many nutrients involved in keeping the immune system functioning optimally and a diet that is full of variety and colour will provide the body with the right mix of vitamins and minerals it needs to stay healthy. The chemicals found in brightly coloured fruit and vegetables contain nutrients that help the body create white blood cells needed to fight infection. Aim to serve 7 portions of fruit and vegetables per day or 25- 30 different fruit and vegetables per week. As someone who specialises in fussy and picky eating in children, I know how challenging this can be for some families but there are lots of ways to get kids to try new foods.

Top Tip: Get kids involved in the planning, prepping and cooking of meals as this will encourage trying more foods. Serve fruit and vegetables with every meal and snack. Grate courgette into porridge, add extra vegetables into mild curries, soups, casseroles and tomatoes sauces.

3. Add Fibre

Did you know that up to 80% of our immune system is located in the gut? When it comes to improving and supporting children’s immune health, one of the most important areas to focus on is the gut. Fibre found in fruit and vegetables feed the good bacteria in our gut and these bacteria play a very important role in the overall health of the immune system. Real food is the key here. Avoid processed foods and foods that are high in sugar as they have little to no fibre.

Top Tip: Consider adding these gut-friendly to your child’s diet: Probiotic, natural yoghurt – sometimes called ‘live’ yoghurt. Onions, garlic, leeks, asparagus and cooked, then cooled, potatoes. Smoothies for breakfast with grated carrot or courgette, spinach, frozen banana for sweetness and milk of choice. Add flaxseed for that extra fibre boost.

4. Keep Hydrated

Staying well-hydrated is important for children’s health in general. However, when it comes to bolstering your defences, water plays a very important part. Our immune system needs nutrients to function. And since our bloodstream which carries nutrients throughout the body is made mostly of water, proper hydration is key. The amount of water a child needs can vary greatly and an depend on age and physical activity. As a general rule, children age 4-13yrs should drink 8 glasses or1 litre per day.

Top Tip: Children don't always recognise they are thirsty and therefore may forget to drink. Offer water first thing in the morning and at every meal and snack throughout the day. Always carry water bottles when going out. Include high water content foods in the diet - berries, oranges, cucumber, lettuce, celery and tomatoes have a water content of over 90%.

5. Use Herbs & Spices

Cooking with herbs and spices not only helps enhance the flavour of dishes, but they also provide lots of immune-boosting properties. Garlic is a potent superfood, thanks to the active ingredient allicin, which helps the bosy fight viruses. Ginger and turmeric have anti-inflammatory and fever reducing properties. Most culinary herbs contain anti-inflammatory properties due to their phytonutrients – oregano, thyme and basil also have natural, infection fighting properties.

Top Tip: Get your cupboards stocked with good quality herbs and spices this winter. A little goes a long way. Sprinkle cinnamon on breakfast porridge or pancakes. Add basil and oregano to tomato, ragu sauces and include turmeric, ginger and garlic in curries, soups and casseroles.

6. Get Outdoors

Getting outdoors and keeping active is important for our immune health for 2 reasons. Our body makes vitamin D under the skin when outisde in daylight, which is the reason vitamin D is sometimes called the 'sunshine vitamin'. Some studies suggest that maintaining healthy vitamin D levels is important in supporting the body’s ability to fight off infection. Few foods contain vitamin D but salmon, tuna, trout and mackerel are amongst the best sources. Cheese, mushrooms and eggs contain small amounts. Getting outdoors and exercising is also very important for strengthening children’s immune systems. Aim for at least 30 mins outside daily.

Top Tip: In Ireland and the UK in the winter months, we don't get enough sunlight for our skin to produce sufficient vitamin D. It is advised that adults and children over the age of one should consider taking a daily supplement containing ten micrograms of Vitamin D, particularly between October - March.

7. Reduce Sugar Intake

Sugar is everywhere and most children are eating more than the recommended daily amount. Sugar increases inflammation in the body and affects the ability of white blood cells to fend off viruses and bacteria. In fact, the immune system stays depressed for hours after consuming sugar.

Top Tip: Swap sugary juices and cordials for water. Avoid sugary breakfast cereals everyday and try to offer a variety of breakfast and healthy snacks over the course of a week. Check out my facebook page Clare Hegarty Nutrition for lots of healthy breakfast and snack ideas.

8. Managing Stress -

We are going through times of great uncertainty and fear in relation to global and personal health. Parents and children are feeling the effects of this and stress related conditions in children are on the increase in Northern Ireland. The immune system and stress are very closely linked - increased stress levels can reduce the immune system’s ability to fight off invading germs and foreign invaders.

Top Tip: Kids need down time, time for creative play, getting outside in nature and taking time to rest and recover. There are many ways to relieve stress e.g. yoga, nature walks, relaxation techniques. The key is identifying the source o the stress and finding suitable ways to alleviate it.

There is no magic pill, no one food or vitamin supplement that will prevent kids from catching any virus, but a healthy lifestyle, one that includes getting sufficient sleep and having a balanced diet plus some daily exercise will help strengthen the immune system and keep it healthy and strong all year round.

For more information or to find out how you can work with Clare or to join her upcoming workshop on fussy/picky eaters, please email or follow on

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