Studies have shown that probiotics can provide both adults and children various health benefits. With the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, more parents have gained greater awareness of the importance of enhancing their children’s immunity, and doing all they can to keep them safe.
Immunity vs pandemic
The Malaysian Ministry of Health is currently providing free vaccinations to prevent COVID-19 from spreading rampantly. This is being carried out in three phases:
- Phase 1: healthcare workers and other key personnel
- Phase 2: elderly, vulnerable with comorbidities and the disabled
- Phase 3: general adult population
However, at the time of writing, these vaccines will not be given to children under 12 years as clinical trials are still ongoing. Still, there are some worries as cases were reported when schools reopened. This means that their exposure to COVID-19 and also other diseases will increase.
It is therefore important for kids to strengthen their immunity in other ways. Parents should play their part by emphasising healthy lifestyles based on a few simple yet important basics, e.g. eating nutritious food especially fruits and vegetables, getting plenty of exercise, drinking enough water daily, managing stress levels and getting enough sleep daily for the body to recuperate.
Good digestive health enhances immunity
Another way to enhance both you and your child’s immunity is by paying special attention to your digestive health. This is because the gut (which includes gastrointestinal tract) is our body’s first line of defence against infections, thanks to our gut microbiota, or so called the collection of microorganisms (e.g. bacteria, virus, yeast, etc.) that live in our digestive tract system.
The gut microbiota plays a major role in our immune system in a variety of ways as it helps reduce pro-inflammatory proteins or chemicals, alerts our body’s immune cells to the presence of infection-causing pathogens, and even directly competes against disease-causing pathogens. A healthy balance or ratio between the good vs bad gut microbiota is necessary to enhance the process of immunity.
However, we sometimes experience a condition termed dysbiosis, where the balance between the good vs bad microbiota in the gut is disrupted. This will weaken or disrupt the normal functions of our digestive and immune system, thus causing various digestive symptoms such as diarrhoea,vomiting, abdominal pain to occur, or even allowing pathogens to flourish, thus causing illnesses and infections. Among the common factors that potentially lead to dysbiosis include:
- Poor and non-healthy dietary intake: Frequent consumption of low-fibre food, excess intake of refined carbohydrates, processed foods, sugary foods and starchy vegetables (such as potatoes), and sudden dietary changes. Other culprits include artificial sweeteners and food products that contain a lot of food additives (e.g. preservatives, food colouring, etc).
- Poor dental hygiene: Poor oral hygiene can lead to problems such as caries or gum disease.
- Certain medications: Antibiotics kill both good and bad gut microbiota but not viruses, so don’t demand antibiotics when you see a doctor. However, if prescribed, take the proper dose at the recommended time and finish the antibiotic course. Other medications that can potentially influence the imbalance between the good and bad gut microbiota include acid-suppressing medications, over-the-counter pain killers and steroids.
- Prolonged stress: Stress can cause the release of hormones, and some inhibit good bacteria in the gut thus leading to dysbiosis. Some hormones also interfere with the immune system, and suppress it or cause inflammation. It’s important to find constructive ways to deal with stress, especially with the uncertainties and disruption during the pandemic. Since stress affects children as well, ensure your child gets enough time for leisure activities, play and also rest and sleep.
Fortunately, we can also help to alleviate or prevent dysbiosis by including probiotic-rich foods in our daily diet. Probiotics are live microorganisms which confer positive health benefits to us. We can replenish the good bacteria in our digestive tract by consuming probiotic-rich food such as cultured milk drinks, yoghurt and other fermented food (e.g. cheese, tempeh, kimchi, etc).
Many studies have shown that probiotics can provide us with health benefits. Closer to home, a local study by researchers at Pusat Perubatan Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (PPUKM) in 2018 found evidence that probiotics in the form of cultured milk drinks (i.e. Lactobacillus acidophilus and Lactobacillus casei strains) provide noticeable improvements to digestive health and demonstrated positive inﬂuence on our immune system.
Focus on prevention
Probiotics can potentially be helpful in enhancing the immunity of children. This is an important and very useful fact since children are dependent on herd immunity to remain safe from COVID-19. Parents should not neglect the importance of hygiene and prevention SOPs in the new normal.
At the same time, make it a point to include probiotics in your child’s diet. When you enhance the immune system, you will make a difference in lowering the risk of not just COVID-19 but also other illnesses such as coughs, colds, etc. During this pandemic, every little bit of protection, strengthening and prevention is going to count!