by pediatrician Dr. Alan Greene.
Alan Greene provides consulting services for, and is paid a fee by, Horizon.
What if there were simple ways that you could reduce the number of coughs, colds and fevers your child gets this school year by more than half? And when your child does get sick, what if you could cut the length of the illness in half? What if you could change the odds that your child will need antibiotics this year, and decrease missed school days?
In an interesting study, researchers randomly assigned 326 preschool children to one of three groups.1 In each group, the caregivers were given foil packets of powder that they mixed into four ounces of milk for the children to drink twice a day for six months. During the week, the milk was prepared and served at school; on the weekends the parents were in charge.
The first group’s powder contained Lactobacillus acidophilus, a type of probiotic or beneficial bacteria. The second group’s powder likewise contained probiotics—but it was a mixture of two strains, Lactobacillus acidophilus and Bifidobacterium animalis. The third group’s powder was nothing but an inert placebo.
The school year was quite different for the three groups, even though the kids were mixed into the same preschool classes. In the families who didn’t do anything, most kids developed a fever, cough and runny nose, and were treated with antibiotics sometime in the following six months. Just one strain of probiotics made a significant impact; two helped even more. Among those who were given the mixed probiotics, most kids did not get a fever, cough or runny nose, and weren’t treated with antibiotics over the next six months. If they did get sick, the illness lasted on average about half as long.2 A dramatic improvement!
What we think of as “our” body includes ten times as many bacterial cells as human cells. Promoting healthy, diverse gut bacteria appears to help keep us healthy. Food sources of probiotics include organic yogurt, kefir, tempeh, miso, some pickles and some cheeses. Probiotic supplements like those used in the study are available in many health, food or drug stores.
Unlike other vitamins, vitamin D can be made in our skin in the presence of sunlight. But modern kids tend to spend much less time outdoors than kids did a few generations ago, which could make a particularly big difference in the winter months. Today’s kids often don’t make the amount of vitamin D they need for optimum health. Kids who get less vitamin D may get three times as many colds and flus as others in their class.3 Could simply taking a vitamin D supplement reduce the incidence of respiratory infections in kids?
A 2010 study suggests the answer is yes.4
In a forward-looking, randomized double-blind trial, more than 300 schoolchildren were given either vitamin D or a placebo for four months during the winter. To ensure precise results, researchers who didn’t know which child was in which group tested the kids for laboratory-confirmed influenza A using nasal swabs. The results were impressive.
Taking the vitamin D supplement cut the rate of influenza A by more than one-third. And among kids who hadn’t already been taking a multivitamin before the study, taking the vitamin D supplement made an even bigger difference, dropping the rate of influenza A by almost two-thirds.
By comparison, a flu vaccine alone drops the flu rate by almost two-third in adults. It drops even more in preschool kids.5 (We don’t have accurate numbers for school-age kids.)
Food sources of vitamin D include milk, salmon, shrimp and eggs.
How we eat can influence how we fight off infections. Small changes could have a positive impact on your family’s health.
1Leyer GJ et al. Probiotic effects on cold and influenza-like symptom incidence and duration in children. Pediatrics, 2009 Aug; 124:e172.
3Urashima M et al. Randomized trial of vitamin D supplementation to prevent seasonal influenza A in schoolchildren. Am. J. Clinical Nutrition, May 1, 2010; 91(5):1255-60.
5Osterholm MT et al. Efficacy and effectiveness of influenza vaccine: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Lancet Infectious Diseases 2011.