It’s “Back to School” season. But for anyone with kids, this is a dreaded time of year, and might as well be nicknamed “Back to Flu” season. Kids get each other sick at school and at parties and playdates and it can get passed around an entire family over and over. This is not only unpleasant for the sick person or people, but it disrupts schedules and plans and wreaks havoc on households.
As a mom, I’ve had years to observe my kids – as well as myself and my ex – go through this process and to see how best to treat sicknesses big and small. A few things are important to remember.
- It’s okay for kids to get sick. It’s also okay for adults to get sick.
We are organisms on this planet and we are susceptible to immune challenges all the time. Our bodies learn to fight sickness by fighting sickness. A child free of colds and flus is not the goal for a healthy child. The notion of “health” as being free of any immune challenges is something created by the people who want to sell you medicine! Health in the Eastern tradition of medicine – which is thousands of years ahead of our system – believes in balance and freedom from disturbances in the natural desire of your body to be in balance. Obviously, no one wants to or should be sick all of the time, and there are absolutely times the body needs help from Western medicine, but our notion of health is, in my opinion, kind of skewed to begin with.
- Treat the cause, not the symptom.
Another tenet of Eastern medicine is to treat the cause and not the symptom. Western medicine – think of your average commercial for cold medicine – treats each symptom in a way that simply makes it go away. But that does nothing to make you better. So if you have a runny nose, Western medicine gives you medicine to “dry you up” and make you stop having a runny nose. Now, in my line of work, sometimes you need to not have a runny nose. But your nose running is an efficient, if inconvenient, way the virus leaves your body so you can be better. In the same way, if you have an allergic reaction of, say, watery itchy eyes, that will pass with time, without taking antihistamines. Again, if you need to work in a job where you can’t be having watery itchy eyes, by all means, use medicine. But whenever I have a reaction to something and people pull out whatever over-the-counter allergy medicine they keep on hand, I always say no. And my eyes eventually calm down.
This seems like a good time to say the following: there are people who have severe allergic reactions. Those people know how to handle their symptoms and work with medical professionals to do so. I am not a medical doctor and I am not suggesting that people should never take medicine. I am simply trying to shift the way we look at health and symptoms generally speaking.
- There are other ways to treat sickness.
When I tell people that I rarely use Western medicine and have given my kids Western medicine literally twice in their lives, people assume my kids never get sick, or they assume I eat some perfect macrobiotic diet or that I have everyone in my family on expensive supplements or that we have a personal doctor in our home. None of those things are true. A shift in how we talk about sickness can make a huge dent in the way we treat sickness.
Here are some of my most favorite medical things I’ve found life-changing for me and my family and our overall health.
Issues with Dairy
I discovered as an adult that a tremendous amount of my medical complaints related to my consumption of dairy. And this is before I even became or wanted to become a vegan! Many people have digestive troubles because of dairy. Many people – like me – have accumulation of mucus leading to chronic sinus infections and a need for antibiotics because of dairy. Mammals are not made to drink the milk of other mammals; we are the only mammals that do it. Upwards of 75% of Latino, African-American and Asian people do not have the ability to digest lactose. It’s a real thing. I know so many non-vegan people in my life who have cut out dairy even moderately and have seen their health improve drastically. If you have a funky tummy or tons of congestion, considering experimenting with eliminating or even cutting back on dairy.
Other Food Issues
I discovered while breastfeeding that certain foods that I ingested negatively affected my breastfeeding nursling. The symptoms were a fussy baby who couldn’t sleep for more than a few minutes at a time and seemed really unhappy. Fortunately, our pediatrician is a Lactation Consultant and he – yes, he is a Lactation Consultant – and helped me quickly identify foods that were irritating my baby. It was through this process of learning about foods and breastfeeding that I discovered that some babies – and adults! – have food sensitivities that don’t look like “typical” allergies but can be very upsetting to overall health. I became a Certified Lactation Educator Counselor after I had my second son and was trained to alert parents to these most common allergens: dairy, corn, soy and wheat. If you have a fussy baby or a baby or child with constipation or diarrhea unrelated to a virus, look into eliminating or cutting back on some of these ingredients. I know it’s a drag, but so many babies and children are put on suppositories and acid-reflux medicine, and that’s a lot of medicine and yuckiness for small people. Shifting diet is a much easier and much less expensive and invasive way to go.
The home remedies of our grandparents’ era are not all witchcraft and superstition. One of the best things to do for congestion, for example, is pour boiling water into a glass bowl and put a towel over your head and inhale the steam. It makes your nose run, but as I discussed above, that’s the point of congestion: it needs to get out! I used to put a cut up onion in a handkerchief by my son’s pillows when they were congested. Sure, it smells weird, but it encourages the mucus membranes to release. It helps them get better faster, without medicines that are full of chemicals, and are processed by a body designed to heal, if properly stimulated.
Soup is good for sick bodies, because it’s full of fluid which encourages you to pee and flush your system, and soups that have vegetables cooked for a long time have a ton of minerals and vitamins that replenish your body. [While chicken soup is colloquially known as “Jewish penicillin,” many agree that it’s actually the long-cooked vegetables that are so nourishing, and not necessarily the chicken!] Know the symptoms of dehydration and don’t rush to give Pedialyte or Gatorade simply because your child has a fever and seems sleepy and doesn’t feel like eating a lot. The body knows that sometimes it needs rest, and calling your pediatrician’s office and speaking to a nurse before giving supplements is a great option if it’s open to you. Juices and tea and soup and tons of water are terrific for healing; you often don’t need much more than that.
Sleep and quiet time and holding is critical for healing. If you can get your kid to nap while sick, it does everyone a favor. They heal better and you get a little break from what can sometimes be exhausting: my boys have lots of requests when sick so naps give me a second to not be getting anyone water or handerkchiefs or a snack or a back rub. A lot of holistic people with small children don’t show their kids TV when they are sick because it takes away from energy that could better be spent in quiet recuperation. I followed this when they were young, and I don’t even watch TV with them now. But my boys seem to do fine at an older age watching some cartoons when they are sick at their dad’s, and I think anything to pass the time works at this point, as long as it’s not upsetting or violent or scary, which for a lot of sensitive kids, takes some energy to process.
Here are two of my favorite books to have as reference if you are a parent or even a non-parent who is interested in learning about the integration of Western and Eastern medicine and health.
Dr. Lauren Feder: Natural Baby and Childcare: Practical Medical Advice and Holistic Wisdom for Raising Healthy Children: a general reference and encyclopedia of ailments, sicknesses, and conditions, with both traditional and Eastern and holistic suggestions for treatment.
Ted Kaptchuk: The Web That Has No Weaver: The first ever Western doctor’s analysis of Eastern medicine. This book is part personal journey, part catalogue of the complexity and intricacy of Eastern medicine and its applications for Western culture.
The human body is an amazing thing, and sometimes Western medicine helps it heal. For those of us who like to integrate Eastern medicine and philosophy into our lives, the human mind can be supported to help the body heal in amazing ways, and I hope I’ve given you some food for thought to consider as you take on the fall and the winter and the back to school season with all of the germs it brings!