How to Build a Healthy Immune System

The following article was written by Sam Russo, ND, LAc and was originally published by the Vermont Association of Naturopathic Physicians. NOTE: In 2015, sadly Dr. Russo testified in support of removing or tightening your right to choose.(Listen to what he said here).

Immune support for children

January 27, 2010 | Sam Russo, ND, LAc

Working with the Young Immune System

Every parent wants a healthy child. Good health depends on a healthy immune system. The job of the immune system is to protect and defend the body against infection from disease-producing microorganisms such as the viruses, bacteria, fungi, and para¬sites that live in our environment. When the immune system is healthy and functioning properly, it fights off the micro¬organisms and sets up a healing response to repair the damage. Often, the body never shows any sign of the fight. At other times, the signs of illness are present. A healthy, efficient immune system is the key to a healthy, happy child who will resist infection, allergy, and chronic illness.

Healthy development of the immune system depends on good nutrition to provide the body with the essential building blocks needed for the defense system. Proteins are essential as a source of amino acids needed as building blocks for the immune tissue and organs and for anti¬body production. Essential fatty acids (EFAs) are especially important to a healthy immune system. They are crucial to the normal functioning of (white blood cells, also called lymphocytes) and the production of messenger molecules used for communication between cells. Many vitamins and minerals are vital for a healthy immune system:
• Vitamin A is vital in the production of white blood cells, for healthy lymph tissue, for building a strong thymus and spleen, organs that are incubators of white blood cells. Vitamin A is also necessary for the healthy turnover of cells lining mucous membranes which form our primary protective barrier. Beta-carotene is converted to vitamin A in the body.

• Vitamin B6 is necessary for healthy mucous membranes and is also used by the immune system to produce Iymphocytes. B6 requires zinc to help the vitamin to be utilized by the body.

• Vitamin C plays a big part in defending the body from bacteria and viruses. It stimulates activity of macrophages, cells that eat up invading microorganisms and encourages antibody response. Vitamin E is a powerful antioxidant that promotes balance of the different types of lymphocytes, enhances the production of antibodies and macrophages and aids the immune system’s resis¬tance to viruses. The mineral selenium enhances the effects of vitamin E.

• Magnesium is a key mineral in the metabolism of EFAs into cellular messengers (prostaglandins) that regulate the activity of the white blood cells.

• Zinc is probably the most vital mineral to a healthy immune sys¬tem. It is involved in production, of lymphocytes called T-cells that manage other lymphocytes and destroy microorganisms. Zinc is also needed in tissue healing and repair, and has a strong antiviral activity. It plays an important role in the utilization of B6 in immune health.

• Selenium enhances the activity of macrophages, increases the production of anti¬bodies, and increases the T-cell’s ability to destroy bacteria.

• Bioflavonoid compounds are found in green plants and many fruits. They enhance the effects of vitamin C as a therapeutic agent, have antiviral activity, stabilize mast cells, special cells that release histamine to cause inflammation., . Bioflavonoids prevent free radical damage to muscles, joints, blood vessels, and many other organs.

• Coenzyme Q10 enhances the energy produced in the immune cells, increasing immune activ¬ity.

All of these essential nutrients can be found in a diet rich in organic fresh fruits and vegetables, good whole-grain fibers, and good-quality fats and oils. A diet low in saturated fats, refined processed foods, refined sugars, and additives will help to sup¬port good immune system development by providing the needed nutrients.

The following foods tend to have little nutritional value, and they weaken the immune system by blocking the function of essential fatty acids in the body and depriving the immune system of nutrition. These foods are “antinutrients” as they are so nutrient-poor they use up stored nutrients needed for health. These antinutrients also use up the enzymes needed for digestion and other body systems, they increase the need for certain nutrients, and they cause some nutri¬ents to be excreted from the body. This is why it is not only important to minimize antinutrient foods in a child’s diet but also to provide the body with a vari¬ety of vitamins and minerals that will help it counteract the effects of poor quality foods.

• Sugars and refined carbohydrates as found in…will counter the effect of EFAs in the body. Sugar increases the loss of magnesium and other minerals through the urine and depletes the body of B vitamins, leading to a weakened immune response. Also, repeated meals of sugars and refined carbohydrates alter blood sugar levels and stress the body, another inhibitor of good immune function. • Bad fats, including hydrogenated oils, margarine, and fried fats, block EFA metabolism. Unhealthy fats will destroy cell membranes. They will also produce sub¬stances in the body that create more tissue breakdown and unfa¬vorable cellular messengers called prostaglandins that promote inflammation in a harmful way.

• Processed, preserved foods and soda contain large amounts of sodium and phosphates. The amount of sodium found in processed and preserved foods is much more than the body needs. Excess sodium intake can cause mag¬nesium, potassium, and other crucial cofactors to be lost in the urine. High levels of phosphates in the body disrupt good bowel absorption of nutrients such as calcium and magnesium. This can lead to problems in EFA metabolism, muscle and bone develop¬ment, and cardiovascular health as well as impairing the ability of lymphocytes to properly migrate to areas of the body . Soft drinks and soda pop are very high in phosphates and are best avoided altogether.

• Modern agriculture uses many pesticides and herbi¬cides in the mass growing of fruits, vegetables, and grains. Their residues remain on most foods to some degree and interfere with the use of vitamin B6 in the body. B6 deficiency can lead to poor EFA metabolism, dysfunction in blood sugar regu¬lation, and a range of neurological conditions. Animals fed pesticide-treated food concentrate pesticides in their tissues. Therefore, choose organic foods whenever possible, including dairy, eggs and meats.


The prudent use of antibiotics is a powerful therapy. Antibiotics resolve infectious diseases, reduce suffer¬ing, and save lives.. Yet, over-prescribing and misuse of these medicines have led to other problems , such as a rise in secondary infections after antibiotic treatment. Some of these problems include:

• Antibiotic-resistant bacteria

• Destruction of friendly bacteria

• Yeast overgrowth

• Immune suppression

• Nutrient loss because of digestive irritation, diarrhea, or dysfunctional intestinal microorganisms.

In general, avoid the use of antibiotics as much as possible for minor infections. If they must be used, accompany them with good immune support through vitamins, minerals, herbs and probiotics (beneficial gastrointestinal bacteria) such as Acidophilus.
Diet, exercise, and appropriate use of supplements support good immunity. Prevention of recurrent illness and controlling active illness through immune support will build stronger immunity in a growing child. Immune support for a healthy child is supportive for overall health [overall and great for the whole family.
Dr. Sam Russo graduated from Bastyr University and has practice as a primary care physician specializing in non-surgical orthopedic medicine in Winooski, VT.