The immune system is one of the most important systems of the body to develop. Many people are unaware how much a child’s immune system development impacts their overall health for the future.
By Tanya Lee, BSc (Hons), N.D.
Symptoms such as skin rashes, digestive problems, runny nose, as well as atopic diseases (conditions that are characterized by allergic hypersensitivity), such as eczema, asthma, and allergies, are good examples of what can happen when the immune system has not been exposed to the proper stimulus.
At birth the neonatal immune system is completely sterile and naïve, and over the next 12 years its daily environmental exposures dictates the proper development, and strength of the immune system. A child’s immune system first exposure is to bacteria when passing through the vaginal canal, and then to mom’s first breast milk (colostrum), with these two exposures being extremely important in activating the appropriate signals for immune system development.
From then, breast milk provides the child proteins that protect the child from certain microbial exposures, as well as factors to properly develop the immune system. Food introduction in the later months also dictates the development of the immune system. The function of the intestines and the bacteria lining (probiotics) is to monitor what can pass through the gastrointestinal tract in to the bloodstream. Early introduction of the more “allergic” food groups, such as grains, cow’s dairy, and soy, can trigger improper immune development as the gastrointestinal tract (the largest of the immune organs) has not been fully developed.
An underdeveloped gut in an infant is more “permeable”, meaning that there are gaps in the intestinal lining,allowing other larger structures to pass through and enter the bloodstream. When this happens, the naïve immune system automatically tags these structures as “harmful” and will develop antibodies so that future exposure to these proteins (and others with similar structures) will trigger an unwanted immune response.
Recent studies have actually found that kids with a strong family history of atopic diseases, such as asthma and allergies, have a lower incidence of atopic disease at 5 years of age if not fed dairy or soy, compared to those children fed cow’s milk or soy in their early years. As you can see, dietary exposure in the first years of life is crucial to ensuring that the immune system is working properly.
1) Vaginal delivery and breastfeeding (at least 12 months is optimal): This is the best way of priming your neonate’s immune system to develop properly. There are a number of limitations to this as complications can arise, preventing this step from being fulfilled. This is why we have step #2
2) If complications arose and you were/are not able to either give birth vaginally, or breast feed don’t fret! We can still ensure your little one’s health by providing a safe probiotic alternative. A good quality neonatal probiotic will contain bacteria similar to the ones found in breast milk.
3) Formula: if you are choosing to supplement using formula, try making your own formula (alternative health care practitioners can provide you with recipes). Some hypoallergenic formulas still use dairy, but the proteins are partially broken down, decreasing the burden of infants digestive tract. Supplementing with a probiotic while feeding formula is essential. Please visit www.specialtyfoodshop.com to view some hypoallergenic options!
4) Food introduction: Limit the amount of grains, and pure proteins to your baby before 9 months – by sticking exclusively to hypoallergenic vegetables and fruits, as well as breastfeeding before this time, we can cut the amount of exposure to hyperallergenic proteins in cereals and formulas. After 9 months, slow introduction to the more hyperallergenic foods along with breastfeeding can decrease the chances of developing an unfavorable reaction. Your alternative healthcare professional should be able to provide you with a comprehensive food schedule.
Note: I get a lot of new moms worrying that if they don’t give their child fortified rice cereals, the child will not get enough nutrients to grow (such as iron, calcium). Vegetables contain more than enough nutrients to give your child the iron, calcium, antioxidants and fats they need. The breast-milk should be able to provide the rest, but make sure your diet is just as healthy as your child!
5) Moms need to keep healthy too! Moms, keep your diet clean, healthy and full of vegetables and fruits. Much of your infants daily nutrient needs come from you! Supplementing yourself with a good probiotic, and keeping up with your prenatals can help keep your immune defenses up during the wonderful, yet stressful experience of motherhood.
Dr. Tanya Lee is a naturopathic doctor currently practicing in Toronto and Milton Ontario. Tanya was drawn to the naturopathic profession for its core beliefs in treating the whole person. Dr. Lee practices general medicine, with a special interest in children’s health, women’s health and pregnancy. For more information on Dr. Lee and her practice, please visit, www.tanyaleend.com.
Tanya Lee, BSc (Hons), N.D.
800 Bathurst St. Suite 201
Toronto, ON M5R 3M8
Health Centre of Milton
400 Main S. E Suite 210
Milton, ON L9T 1P7