Norovirus seems to be circling like a vulture this winter, and snuffly kids are popping up on every park bench. On a local parenting e-mail group, it was reported that two-thirds of the kids and teachers at one D.C. elementary school were out sick one day in December. Together, this has made me frantic to keep my kids healthy, especially through their recent midterm exams and now into the heart of winter. From their perspective, my boys are motivated to take their self-care up a notch because it would be tragic to get sick and miss the many basketball games, bar mitzvahs and birthday trips to Sky Zone that fill their schedules.
One of my children asked me why people are more likely to get sick in the winter than the summer. In general, it is because people spend more time indoors in close quarters, where they breathe recycled air, touch the same surfaces and therefore more easily spread germs. The parched air also dries our sinuses, causing irritation and prompting our bodies to make more mucus to soothe the irritation. This extra mucus is a breeding ground for the bacteria in the air and a landing pad for Norovirus to swoop in for the kill. People often also find themselves worn down and stressed out from the holidays, so they’re more susceptible to illnesses in the new year.
If a body, specifically its immune system, is strong, it should be able to stare down any cold virus without blinking. But if the immune system is stressed, overtired or weakened, that cold virus will stalk its prey and win every time.
So what am I doing to keep my kids and their immune systems healthy during winter?
Sugar has been shown to suppress our immune system by lowering our white blood cells’ ability to engulf bacteria, which can lead to more instances of colds, flu and other illnesses. This effect can start as soon as 30 minutes after sugar consumption and last up to five hours. So if you really want to stay healthy this winter, step away from the sugar.
Many children unconsciously slow their water intake during the winter perhaps because they rarely sweat in the colder temperatures. Yet water washes bacteria and viruses from our throats and through our digestive tracts before they have time to set up shop and do damage. So make sure your children drink lots of water: Send your child to school with a water bottle and to bed with a tall glass of water, and place a full pitcher on the table at every meal.
Befriend bone broth
Often called the miracle food, bone broth is nutrition in its most absorbable, operational form. It boosts the immune system, reduces inflammation — such as a sore throat or a Norovirus-damaged stomach — washes away germs in the mouth and digestive tract, builds the gut lining, contributes to restorative sleep and fights infection. Bone broth is our go-to when we see signs of sickness and want to hop back on our feet quickly. Make soup with it, boil rice or pasta in it and drink it warmed with a sprinkle of pepper.
Feed on pre- and probiotics
Prebiotic foods such as garlic, onions, artichokes, avocado and cider vinegar act as nourishment for the good bacteria in our digestive tract. We need the good bacteria to be strong enough to do their job of fighting off the viruses and harmful bacteria. At the same time, probiotic foods such as miso, sauerkraut, pickles and kombucha are fermented and deliver the good bacteria directly into the digestive tract, boosting our immune function and enabling us to ward off illness.
Devour vitamins and minerals
Vitamins such as D, C and A are supreme immune boosters that empower our bodies to fight off colds, while zinc helps create and activate our immune system’s white blood cells. So gobble up citrus, leafy greens, orange and yellow vegetables such as carrots and squash, and nuts and seeds.
The long nights and short days of winter are nature’s way of insisting we get more rest. The body’s metabolic rate naturally slows, encouraging slower, less-active behavior. Try to put your kids in their nests a little earlier than normal and see how greedily their bodies lap up the extra sleep.
First published in the Washington Post on Thursday, February 2, 2016.