Summer is nearly upon us – and with it, a lot of changes, excitement, and challenges for our little (and too rapidly, I fear, not-so-little...
Back-to-School Basics… This Time, for Mama
Well, I’m back from an extended summer vacation – if by vacation, I mean having to entertain my amazing, precocious and only OCCASIONALLY demanding six year old 12 hours a day. Now he’s safely back in school, where someone else, in this case a beautiful young French woman named Katell, can be his intellectual and social coordinator — someone with infinite patience and a salary that rewards her infinite patience (although surely not enough!). Aaahh, I might dub the month of September Mommy Vacation, and renamed Summer Vacation ‘Summer Onslaught’, just so I stop mentally confusing the two and pretendingthat summer is something it’s not. Still, this summer has been fun, and I will certainly look back on Summer 09 – and all the Summers for that matter – with the careful, instinctual editing that allows us our nostalgia, and the capacity to make decisions like having multiple children via natural childbirth, trying that uber-complicated lasagna recipe again, inviting the in-laws to stay for a month, and all sorts of other fun, ‘summer vacation-like’ activities we would not necessarily afford ourselves if our memories were crystal clear.
So on to Mommy Vacation…although, in the interests of full disclosure, Mommy’s Vacation so far has turned into a parade of strange illnesses, ailments, rashes, remedies-gone-awry, even something resembling the flu – all for me, not him. This has given rise to new thoughts about Mommy’s ER, namely, that in all of the focus I have placed on Back-to-School Health in the last month (check out the homepage for some fun interviews I got to do in August and Natural Awakenings magazine for a back-to-school health piece), I forgot that Mommy’s ER isn’t called Kid’s ER for a reason. Mommy’s health may also take a hit in the Back-to-School calm after the storm, in much the same way that many friends and clients report getting sick the minute they go somewhere exotic away from home. We don’t usually get sick when adrenaline and cortisol, our stress hormones are pumping hard, but the stress still will take its toll as soon as we relax, or before, if we don’t give ourselves the same consideration we spend the summer giving our kids.
I never get sick, well, almost never – my first year in an acupuncture clinic a decade ago left my immune system strong after months of guerilla warfare. But the stresses of moving, setting up temporary residence in France, entertaining a fantastic number of out-of-towners in need of a Parisian holiday, and eating more food ‘tartare’ than I am willing to admit were enough to break down my resistances… Coupled with a list of twenty-five items in French I needed to buy in 2 days time for my son’s first day of school – or risk being responsible for his complete embarrassment and social alienation — may have been the straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back. After safely delivering him to his second week of class, now confident that I could keep this routine going happily for the requisite months ahead, I was side-swiped by an immune system on overload.
One bladder infection, one flu-ish virus, and one case of food poisoning later (I only wish I could blame it on some snobbish French chef, but my hubby and I agreed on route to the loo that it was probably my ‘detox’-soup-gone-bad that was the culprit), I have done some very personal reconnaissance on natural remedies for Mommys: what works, what doesn’t, and what works but tastes so awful that it’s just not worth it. ☺ I could write an anecdotal research paper on the learning from every illness, but I thought I’d ease back in today, and instead give you what wisdom I have to protect your immune system and keep yourself from getting sick in the first place. As a side note: you may notice that many of these suggestions look an awful lot like the suggestions I give for children. This to me seems almost poetically perfect – it’s a true case of ‘physician, heal thyself.’
1. Give yourself a bedtime
In most of my back-to-school talks, I talk about the trials and tribulations of getting your child back into a night-time routine that allows them to get the sleep their bodies so desperately need to grow, rebuild, repair. While we as mamas may not be growing – not physically anyway, predictable and solid sleep is just as important for us as it is for our little ones. Now I’m not talking about insomnia and disturbed sleep today, although this is such an important topic for moms, but I’m talking about those of us who generally sleep well, but just don’t allot ourselves enough time for it. I don’t know about you (I am willing to happily concede that many of you may be far more chipper in the mornings than I have been lately), but I think the first few mornings of school were harder on me than on my son. I had to get up an hour before him to make sure his lunch was packed, breakfast was ready, and above all, that his ‘uniform’ — a red tee-shirt with a lightning bolt which was mistakenly gifted to him on his first birthday in a size that now fits like a belly tee – had been laundered… again. Still, I didn’t go to bed any earlier than I had been going to bed all summer. As soon as I assigned myself an 11pm bedtime on weeknights (feel free to choose one that works for you, the important point here is that it is consistent, and set in only-slightly-malleable stone), I no longer gave myself the leeway to tackle that last work project, or fit in that last French-dubbed Tudors episode. The work will still be there, and history has already been written anyway – I know what happens to Anne Boleyn – and this way I give myself unapologetic permission for stopping the never-ending clean-up work or the never-ending desire to ‘unwind’ that is otherwise – well, never-ending.
2. Back to Grandma-s Chicken Soup: make yourself an immune-boosting brew
One of my favorite Autumn recipes these days is also one of the easiest. At least once a week, I brew up my own version of Grandma’s Chicken Soup. Chicken broth, in fact, does have immune bolstering properties (grandma was right), but this can also be made with water and a little miso. Get out your quart size pot, and throw in four carrots, 1-3 cloves of garlic, 1 onion, and as many shitake mushrooms as you can afford – at least 4-6 (dried and reconstituted in warm water is fine), and you have yourself a GREAT immune brew. I like to add some greens and maybe some soba noodles, or you can go traditional with chicken chunks and big fat egg noodles – that’s up to you. The important part is to incorporate the beta-carotene of the carrots, and the amazing immune-boosting properties of shitakes. The immune activity of shitake mushrooms is attributed to a polysaccharide they contain called lentinan (which has been shown in studies to bolster the immune systems of immuno-compromised HIV patients, have anticancer effects, and even fight the flu with more efficacy than some prescription drugs).
If you think you are really on the verge of getting sick, take yourself to your nearest Asian grocery store or herbal store, or even stock up online, with astragalus (also known as Huang Qi in Chinese). 4 tongue-depressor-like pieces of astragalus can give your immune system an even greater boost, (you may want to omit the astragalus if you have a serious auto-immune condition, although the thinking on this varies).
3. Up your vitamin C
We tell our children to drink their OJ, but at back to school time, I recommend taking this a step further and including mama in the higher doses of vitamin C… (as another side-note, many of the children I see are allergic to orange juice, so do much better with the following recommendations… me too, for that matter). Consider getting yourself a high-quality vitamin C supplement, or upping your intake if you already take one. Vitamin C is a rare miracle of nature in that you cannot overdose on it – your body simply will not use more than it needs – so you can take 1000-3000 mg in divided doses throughout the day with peace of mind. If your stools start to get loose (if I don’t mention it, who will? ☺) , back off on the amount you are taking. You can also get great doses of vitamin C from acai berries or juice, goji berries – or as my family calls them, ‘expensive, salty raisins’ that can be put in your oatmeal or eaten by the handful, and any kind of citrus. You can back off this regimen after the initial few weeks of school have passed, or keep it up – vitamin C is also great for taking environmental pollutants and rendering them harmless, always an immune bonus.
I occasionally get a little bit self-conscious about my constant lecture and article mantra that the majority of our immune system resides in the gut, but it is such valuable info in our understanding of our health, that I’ll repeat it here for any mama who has missed it. The mucosal lining in the intestines is our primary line of defense against most invaders hitting our system to begin with, and the beneficial bacteria that resides in our guts is responsible for hindering the passage of or downright eliminating over 500 kinds of microbes that are pathogenic and opportunistic (think 500 ex-boyfriends just waiting at your door with your beneficial bacteria as your bouncer holding the keys). The trouble is, most of us were children of the ‘60s and ‘70s, when breast-feeding was not so a la mode – which, studies show, significantly impacts the amount and variety of beneficial bacteria in our systems, even into adulthood. We were also children of the sexual and dermatologic revolution – even the most conservative among us has possibly taken birth control pills and/or antibiotics, both of which can wreak havoc on our gut flora. SO, at back to school time especially, consider incorporating more beneficial bacteria – either in the form of yogurt, or probiotic supplements, or both. When I’m looking for a probiotic supplement, I look for a variety of bacterias, and I tend to rotate my brand of probiotic (when I finish one, I buy a different kind, and rotate thru my favorite brands this way, cyclically), because each brand and batch is going to be a little bit different. I take it in the morning on an empty stomach (when my stomach acid is low – helps to keep the probiotics alive). Probiotics don’t just help immunity – they actually help your body to produce certain B vitamins and to repair intestinal damage – both of which can really help your immune system as well.
5. Omega 3 fatty acids
Great for brain and nervous system function, improved memory, and cognitive functioning that we associate with back-to-school, omega 3s are also immune system regulators. I started out by taking my son’s strawberry chewy omegas out of part curiosity and full laziness (whatever bottle I have in my hand is what we’re all getting that day ☺). After actually NOTICING that I felt “smoother”, for lack of a better word, on the days I stole his supplements, I decided to invest in my own (I have since asked around and decided that it is completely kosher to eat my son’s, at double the dose). Omega 3s are now one of my “desert island drugs” (– my variation on my French teacher’s favorite game, what book would you bring to a desert island. She’s ruthless and only allows me only one book. I, on the other hand, will allow up to five supplements…)
In addition to being a vital immune nutrient, omega-3s play roles in preventing depression, heart disease, premature births, ulcerative colitis, diabetes, Alzheimers, and helping to alleviate inappropriate immune responses such as rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn’s and lupus. There is much research and published information on omega-3s, but the bottom line is this: one of the best sources, fish oil, should only be taken daily on a supplemental basis because of the amount of mercury in fish today. For vegetarians, algae-based DHA supplements are an exellent source of omega 3s as well. You want to get a supplement that is high in EPAs and DHAs that can really best be found in fish and micro-algae. Flax oil is a wonderful nutritional supplement and has ALA (alpha-linoleic acid) that can be converted into EPA and DHA, but in some people this conversion is difficult, which is why a good EPA/DHA supplement should be incorporated into your routine as well. It will help your immune system stay strong. And if it helps you feel smarter and ‘smoother’ like me (I’m not afraid to let the placebo effect it surely has on me work alongside the great research), so much the better…
Again and again we hear it, and hopefully we do it, for all kinds of reasons. (does walking up five flights of stairs in our delightfully elevator-free 17th century building with groceries or a sacked-out six year old count? My 9th grade P.E. teacher would be so pleased.) This time the reason is our immune system. Our lymph system, the system responsible for escorting toxins away from vital organs and out the exits, only operates at its best when we help it – in the absence of a heart that pumps, like our circulatory system has, our lymph drainage only happens when we circulate lymph ourselves – via movement and exercise. For a nice change, the cardio rate is not the most important aspect of exercising for immunity – it’s the increased movement and circulation, although increased breathing and the resulting increase in oxygen intake are also great for immune building. A good slow or fast yoga class, walking, or jumping on a trampoline (it is one of the best ways to get the lymph system moving, provided you are coordinated enough not to fall off), are all great ways to keep the lymph system flowing and immunity heightened.
Well, mamas, I have to justify my favorite leisure activity somehow… Not only are baths tools for relaxation for many of us, however, with the right additions to your bathwater, you can make your bath even mildly detoxifying. Consider a mineral salt bath, adding dead sea salts, or their economic cousin, Epsom salts for both relaxation and detoxification. Epsom salts (magnesium sulfate) break down in warm water into magnesium and sulfur. Magnesium, often deficient in women, is responsible for over 300 body functions, including cellular energy production (the energy that helps our cells to cleanse themselves, among other life-giving activities). Sulfates are an important component of a detox pathway in the body known as sulphation. Add 1 cup of salts for every 6 inches of water. For improved absorption of magnesium and further detoxification, add baking soda – ½ cup for every cup of Epsom salt. Sit in this bath for 20 minutes (or however long you’d like!) After the bath is over, be sure to rinse off with a glycerin soap, to remove any impurities from the skin.
8. Downplay the sugar (or in my case, ‘lay off the nutella crepes, will ya’?!’)
Finally, I say this for kids all the time – and don’t think I take it lightly, I like sweet coffee and dessert after dinner – but sugar, in particular, white sugar, does impair the immune system. White blood cell functioning can be impaired for up to five hours after a sugary snack. While diehards may eliminate white sugar entirely, I am not so die-hard. If you are like me, aspiring and failing at eliminating sweet treats – and frankly, no longer even trying–, I recommend picking immune-onslaught times on which to focus your will-power. Before airplane travel, if someone in the family is sick, and definitely at back to school time, lay low on all sugars, but especially white ones. I’m on an applesauce with cinammon kick these days, in moderation. Or try substituting proteins (nut butters, hard-boiled eggs) and foods high in magnesium (oatmeal, leafy greens, almond milk), when sugar cravings are high. Your body will thank you.
I hope that some or all of these tips that I’ve provided will help you keep your immune system stronger than I kept mine this Fall. Now that I’m back on track, I can vouch for each and every one of them – my recovery was swift, all things considered, and my energy is now surprisingly high. That said, if nothing comes out of this blogging moment other than to remind you, dear Mama, to take the same care of your health that you would with your child’s – even just sometimes! – then my work is done here. For those of you who, in spite of your best efforts, have still found yourself sick this Fall, stay tuned. My back-to-school new leaf is to devote time to mommy’s health as well as kids health. After all, who can parent effectively with a splitting headache, fatigue, body aches, and/or peeing every 5 minutes? This parenting business is complicated enough. So lets put my recent spat of illness to good use…
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