Monday, December 26, 2016

How To Stay Well This Winter - 5 Naturopathic Tips

The kids are back in school.  Temperatures have dropped.  Germs are flying.  And you don't want to spend another winter nursing everyone in the family back to health.  So what can you do differently this winter to keep everyone well?

Perhaps most importantly, take heart in the fact that kids who are in day care and get sick over and over again actually are less likely to get the most common form of childhood cancer.  There is a bright side to the constant snotty nose!

Also know that it's typical for a family to have one or two illness plagued winters.  It's usually the first time your first child enters school or day care.  He or she starts bringing home all the goodies from all the other kids, and the whole family gets slammed.  Over and over, each time with a different illness (it's not the same illness circulating through the family).   These illnesses are usually viral upper respiratory infections, which are commonly referred to as colds.  So most of the time, there's nothing wrong with anyone's immune system.  And usually after one or two seasons like that, the illnesses will be interspersed with longer periods of wellness.  Of course, if you're wondering about the integrity of your child's immune system, it's always best to go in for a check-up. 

Photo cred: Sonny Abesamis, Flickr

Back to what you can do.  Here's a review of the basics we've all heard time and time again, but forget to do:
  1. Wash Hands!  We're constantly reminded, but few people actually do it frequently enough, or effectively. It may be the best defense against illness.
  • You (and your child) need to wash
    • after using the bathroom
    • after blowing the nose
    • after coughing or sneezing (although we should sneeze and cough into the elbow)
    • before eating
    • at many other times that are not related to this article - find a comprehensive list here
  •  Are they doing it right?
    • get hands wet
    • then apply soap
    • scrub hands - backs, fronts, under the nails, and in between fingers
    • rub for at least 20 seconds
    • rinse well
    • dry with a clean towel
    • don't touch anything in the bathroom after washing
  • My favorite hand washing song is sung to the tune of Frere Jacques and takes about 20-30 seconds to sing:
Back of hands, back of hands
In between, in between,
Rub them all together, rub them all together,
Now they're clean, now they're clean!
Photo cred: gea79on; no amendments
  1. Get enough sleep!  So important, and so under-rated.  Most of us don't get enough, and that can lead to a sub-par immune response.  The Mayo Clinic provides an excellent summary of sleep and the immune system here, and you can read more here and here.  If you have trouble falling or staying asleep, or have other sleep problems, talk to your doctor.  Many people are fighting through fatigue due to undiagnosed sleep disorders.
  1. Consider the flu vaccine.  No, I didn't say get the vaccine.  I said consider the vaccine.  If you're shocked that I would mention this and appalled at the idea, fine.  But make sure you have envisioned the whole family sick with the flu before you make the decision to avoid the vaccine.  Yes, vaccines have risks.  Yes, getting the flu has its own set of risks.  No, the flu vaccine is never 100% effective, but getting it does decrease the odds of getting the flu. And it's a myth that getting the flu vaccine can give you the flu. **Make sure you make an active decision to get the vaccine or avoid it, rather than putting it on the back burner until it's too late.**
  1. Exercise?  Science isn't sure about this one yet.  Since moderate exercise keeps us generally healthier in many ways, it's not a far leap to assume that it would also boost the immune system.  Unfortunately, we don't have any great science backing up that assumption.  I think we will before long.  Meanwhile, here are two interesting articles:  one from Harvard (scroll down to "Exercise: Good or bad for immunity"; and one from Medline.
Here are 5 less basic, naturopathic tricks to try this time:
  1. Eat seasonally.  Butternut squash soup, mashed yams, pumpkin pie:  they are all orange, which means they are all high in beta carotene, the precursor to vitamin A.  Your body turns beta carotene into vitamin A, which is one of the immune systems most needed nutrients.  For some great recipe ideas, check out The Hands On Home (which also provides natural house cleaning tips and ideas for preserving), The CSA Cookbook, and True Food.
  2. Eat soup.  Chicken soup has been consumed by cold sufferers across the world for years.  Now we actually have some science showing that this practice may actually work!  We definitely know that chicken soup helps decrease and clear mucus, but it may also work on other levels to decrease your cold symptoms.  Bone broth, recently very highly touted as a miraculous cure-all may not be all that, but I think science will catch up to this tradition too.  It makes sense to me that simmering bones, where most immune cells are stored, for 24 hours or longer, probably results in an immune boosting cocktail.  Here's an article from NPR on what we do know about bone broth.
  3. Take vitamin D.  It's true that a few of us get enough sun or eat enough fish and liver (and fortified milk) that we don't need to take vitamin D.  The rest of us need to supplement.  The RDA for vitamin D is 600 iu daily for children and adults.  However, a lot of doctors recommend a higher dose, so check in with yours (you can take too much vitamin D).  The jury is still out as to whether vitamin D supplementation definitively reduces colds and flus, however, this small study is very promising.   For information on the many health benefits of vitamin D, read this article.  For more detailed information on the topic of vitamin D and acute illness, read this Medscape article or this study abstract.  Here are two vitamin D products I like on Amazon:  Carlson and Seeking Health.
  4. Decrease / avoid sugar.  Easier said than done during the holiday season!  We have one study that shows us that sugar impairs the immune system response.  Not exactly the most robust evidence.  However, with all the bad we know sugar does in other ways, and knowing that the sugar you're eating displaces immune boosting nutrients, it's worth steering clear of it.
Happy winter!

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Mom, Take Care of Yourself

Moms, how many times have you been reminded about self-care?  Never?  You're sick of hearing about it?  Not often enough to get you to actually do it?  I'm betting that for most of us, it's the latter.

Self-care is in some ways a relative term.  What looks like self-care to some looks like torture to others (I'm looking at you, moms at boot camp!)  And what counts as self care for some (a shower once a week) is complete self-neglect to others.

So sit down, for 5 minutes.  Take a breath.  Think about what self-care is for you.

Consider the things that fed you before you had kids.  Do they still feed you?  Think about what (besides your kids) makes you the happiest, and calmest.

Consider your current actual energy level and average nightly sleep; if you're currently being awakened multiple times a night, now is not the time to start training for a marathon or writing a novel.

Consider the ages of your kids; what's appropriate for a mother of 2 children over 6 is likely not appropriate for a mother of 3 toddlers.

Consider, with a large grain of salt, what your friends and family suggest.  They know you, and they see things about you that you can't see.  But they are not you, and you know yourself better than anyone else does.

Consider how much time you can actually squeeze out of each day.  A daily 3 hour break while all the kids are at school is different from catching 5 minutes here and there at unpredictable times of the day.

Now, write down your self-care plan.  What activities qualify?  How many times a week?  For how long?  What enables you to check off your self-care for the week? 

Photo credit Flickr, Kanoktham Massage

Five self-care steps to take every day:
  1. Drink water - most of us don't drink enough
  2. Eat - eat nutritious food throughout the day
  3. Sleep - at least 8 hours uninterrupted (if that's not possible, then do what you can to increase sleep - take naps, leave the dishes and go to bed earlier, get someone to take one or two of your child's night wakings)
  4. Use the bathroom - No seriously.  Use it as soon as you need to, not 20 minutes later when you "have the chance"
  5. Get outside - you don't have to walk or run, but get some fresh air every day, even when it's cold and wet out (also clean your indoor air with house plants)
Five self-care steps to consider incorporating into your weekly routine:
  1. Exercise - not everyone likes to exercise, but everyone benefits from it, in the short and long term.  It can be boot camp, or it can be restorative yoga or a walk at lunch.  Don't undertake more than your body can handle.
  2. Sex - obviously moms of small babies are completely exempt from this one.  But moms who are romantically involved and have older kids should spend a little time on this, not just because it fosters a healthy relationship, but because it releases endorphins, so it feels good.
  3. Down time - it doesn't need to be yoga or meditation, but a few minutes alone, completely removed from screaming kids and nagging chores can do wonders for your sanity.
  4. Do something you did before kids that nourished you - whether it's writing, reading, baking, volunteering, or anything else, if it fed you before, it may feed you again.  Try it and see.
  5. Talk to a friend or family member - sit down with a cup of tea or a glass of wine, face to face or on the phone, and connect with someone you knew before you had kids.  Re-connecting with a grown-up loved one feeds your brain and your heart and reminds you there is life outside your child-rearing bubble, which is sometimes a good thing.
Again, you know you best.  So take these 5 ideas with a grain of salt (you are required to do the first set of 5!).  If they resonate with you great, otherwise, skip it and move on.  Do what works for you.

I meet more and more moms (and dads) who are doing more and more with their time.  We can't put self-care on the back burner, and then push it farther and farther back until we lose it.

Remember the oxygen mask on the airplane; put yours on first, and then help your kids.  We are better parents, partners, friends, and workers when we spend some amount of time taking care of ourselves.  It's a win, win, win.