Ask Amma

How to boost immunity

In How on 30 October 2013 at 10:25 pm

Our son is falling sick often. Last week he had another virus attack and this time it was foot, hand and mouth disease. He is doing a lot better now. But has lost some weight.  We feel it is certainly to do with his immunity, that he is falling sick so often.  How can we boost his immunity?

Parents of a 1 year old near Baltimore

Immunity depends on individual as well as community factors.  The example of Roseto* suggests that in a close-knit community, one is less prone to illness.  Although most discussions of health and immunity focus on tangibles, such as food, exercise, sleep, hygiene, environment and safety, intangibles play as much a role or more in keeping our immune system strong.  

While the study focuses on heart disease, there are lessons for health as a whole.  Creating community is a tall order, especially when we hardly know our neighbours and live far from our nearest relative, let alone our extended families.  But when we understand that “people nourish other people,” then we may direct our energies toward building a community where that actually happens.  Where we play outside, chat on the porch, share our joys, sorrows, and are there for one another.

On the other side of the scale, it is also important that we rebuild our relationship with the microcosmos.  Let us look within.  The immune system comprises millions of bacteria in our gut.  Everything entering our bodies has to contend with this mass of flora that utilise the inputs to keep our body running, or defend us from viruses and bacteria that would run us down.  It’s eat or be eaten and it’s on in full swing in the gut.

So, how’s that gut doing?

Exclusive breastfeeding for at least six months gives time for the gut to mature while having all food predigested by a grown human – usually baby’s own mother but another mother will do nicely as well.   Proximity of the mother to the baby ensures that both are exposed to the same environmental germs and that therefore, the mother’s milk is custom-made to deal with those very germs.   Second best is donor milk from another human mother through a milk bank or community program such as Eats on Feets.

Beyond infancy, breastmilk continues to provide custom-made antibodies to germs in the environment, and it also helps to build a child’s immune system in two major ways.  First, it allows the child to adopt foods gradually, with no target of eating a given amount of food in a certain amount of time.  Second, when a child is ill, s/he is free to breastfeed exclusively and not be burdened with digesting any food at all.

This is the approach that gives a fair chance for a child to adapt to whole foods, eaten fresh with simple home preparation as opposed to industrially processed foods that are stripped of nutrients and fiber and loaded with salt, fat, sugar, and artificial flavors, preservatives and other additives that burden the body’s digestive system and trick the taste buds.

Good nutrition is the basis of a functioning immune system.  Those who are chronically undernourished need to increase the quantity and quality of food they eat every day.  Those who have plenty of food also have health problems stemming from poor eating habits.

GntVegCartAssuming that you have access to a variety fresh foods, you can look for ways to improve your diet within your budget.  Although fresh fruits, vegetables, and whole grains are getting expensive, especially when sustainably harvested, they still come out priced lower than packaged food of comparable content.

If you want to identify ways to improve your immune system, I would start by keeping a food diary for at least one week.  Write down everything you eat and drink – meals, snacks, and beverages, including glasses of water.

Fruits-and-VegetablesKeeping this record should make you more aware and help you make better choices. How much raw food are you eating?  How much fermented food – rich in immune-supporting “good bacteria?”  How often are you eating packaged foods?  Look at your kitchen shelves.  How many contain raw materials, how many contain processed, ready-to-eat foods?  Are you eating at the table, with family or friends?  Or are you eating in the car, at your desk, or while watching TV or text messaging?

Your lifestyle also contributes to your digestion and hence your overall health and immunity.  Note how much time you are outdoors, how much exercise you are getting, how happy you are, and how much sunshine and how much sleep you are getting.  How about your colon?  Are you getting enough fiber, and enough probiotics?  If you have taken antibiotics, either directly or indirectly (e.g. via milk from cows injected with antibiotics), you may need to try harder to boost your gut flora.

Here’s a tool that can help make the record keeping a little more fun:  the USDA Food Tracker.
See also:  Simple Raw Snacks
* See The Roseto Storycited in the opening of Malcom Gladwell, Outliers, “The Roseto Mystery.”
  1. […] Family Living William and Martha Sears, The Baby Book Michael Pollan, Big Food vs. Big Insurance How to Boost Immunity Pauline W. Chen, Teaching Doctors about Nutrition and […]


  2. […] rich).  And if you believe Malcom Gladwell and his sources, there is also the role of close-knit community in promoting longevity – that is certainly declining globally.  And in some populations, […]


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