When we picture ourselves with children (prior to having had them), we imagine smiling, joyful exchanges with happy and healthy tots. Lots of laughter. Lots of love. And, thankfully, it feels like that a lot of the time. But, come cough and cold season, come teething, come separation anxiety and imagined bumps in the night, come tantrums and accidents, feeding battles and screaming fits, the dynamic can very swiftly swing towards a sleepless, stressed and demoralised household. We have all been there. Repeatedly. We wait for things to pass, to get easier, for coughs to clear and tempers to quell. And then we face another day.
But what if our approach was less about damage control? What if we could stay one step ahead of the seasonal ailments and developmental milestones? Given that most days the parenting of young children is an assault course of the most exhausting nature, this can sound like a bloody tall order. I say this at the end of a week with very little sleep and two of the worst tantrums on record (at a very popular London tourist attraction no less), so this is not about the higher ground. For me, it’s about considering my life in terms of a set of weighing scales. There will always be things that bring me down, that knock me for six, and it’s about how quickly and effectively I respond – to de-stress, relax, reassess, decompress – that determines how soon I’m back in a healthy, balanced place.
I spent two years researching (and five years living the theory for) my first wellbeing book, The Body Balance Diet Plan which decodes the medical science of Ayurveda (India’s most ancient wellbeing wisdom) for the modern, busy, life-juggling reader. I learned an inordinate amount – not only about how we can bolster our bodies by eating in tune with our own unique constitutions (to find out what body type you have take our discover your dosha test) but also how we cannot expect to feel healthy, balanced or strong in body and mind if we are not responding to the changing seasons. A raw veg, leaf and shoot salad may look like healthiness epitomised, but if you’re eating it in the cold blustery depths of winter your body will not think so. By learning how to feed myself, and my children, as late summer rolls into chilly autumn, and a mild winter descends into a glacial new year, I am able to equip myself and my family with a glowing, nourished, resilient foundation of good health. Of course the children still get ill – they need to, or they’ll never develop strong adult immune systems – but it’s how ill they get, and how quickly they recover, that is a good sign of their flourishing immunity. It is not about counting vegetables or force-feeding fruit, the Balance Plan approach is far more subtle than that. It involves some key, sensible and modern-research-backed additions to the family diet (such as proven probiotics) but more importantly, an adaptation of Ayurvedic living, which understands precisely how and why we should eat different things as the seasons change.
Here are my simple, seasonal principles of staying healthy and well, throughout the course of the year.
We often hear that our immune system is situated in our gut: what this means is that 70 per cent of the antibacterial and antiviral cells within our body are situated in the walls of the stomach and intestines. Our stomach also produces acid, which kills off most pathogens, and our small intestine produces mucus, which blocks further potential pathogens from entering our bloodstreams. So, when your gut lining is weakened, your immunity will also be compromised.
I really cannot overstate the importance of a healthy stomach in the pursuit of good overall health. New Biokult Infantis, £11.95 (boots.com) is the first proven and safe-from-birth probiotic, which can be rubbed onto the nipples to boost the baby’s immunity in line with your breast-milk, or added to bottle milk. Probiotic powder is also a great way to boost the system of a child who is repeatedly poorly. The Organic Pharmacy Strawberry Probiotic Powder, £21.50 (theorganicpharmacy.com) and Wild Nutrition Multi-Strain Biotic, £25 (wildnutrition.com) are great for sprinkling into milk, water, juice and onto cereal – boosting gut health without your little ones even knowing it. My hands down favourite probiotic, though, is Symprove, which you take as a course to improve gut health for the long-term. It can also be used by children, but smaller dosages are advised (symprove.com)
Adding herbal gut soothers to your child’s diet can help if they’re prone to upset tummies and/or diarrhea or constipation. I make fennel tea for both of my young children if ever they complain of tummy pains as it’s great at getting rid of trapped wind. I boil up a tablespoon of fennel seeds (available in the world food sections of larger supermarkets) until the water turns light, golden green, but you can also use teabags (but this is less effective). Let it cool, and then stir in some honey.
If your child is often constipated, try giving them fresh, seasonal, room temperature fruit on an empty stomach, before they eat the rest of their breakfast. Mango and papaya both contain enzymes that encourage bowel movements and I’ve found these to be most effective, but almost all fresh ripe fruit is good (apart from too-acidic citrus fruits and banana, which can constipate).
You should also get your children used to delicate, sweet, nourishing spice. Spices are the most effective immunity boosters in the world. When I make porridge for my children, I always sprinkle chia seeds, baobab powder and cinnamon into the pot too, and all three are very high in antioxidants, while also boosting immunity. I then drizzle raw honey or maple syrup over the porridge, both of which contain anti-bacterial properties and are great at warding off colds. When I make pancakes I always add cinnamon and jaggery (a lovely malty natural sweetener, rich in folic acid and B vitamins), while cinnamon is a great immune booster.
If my children get the beginnings of a cough, I give them a little spoon of Neal’s Yard Remedies Elderberry Syrup, or Pukka Elderberry Syrup, £12.46 (pukkaherbs.com). The latter also contains Manuka honey and is chock-full thyme, ginger, aniseed and black pepper – all gold-standard immune-boosters. Turmeric is also a powerhouse spice, and it’s particular antioxidant, curcumin, is where the goodness lies. You can take curcumin supplements too, but absorption is vastly improved when turmeric is eaten with black pepper and within fat. So used as a base with ghee, or coconut oil, within a curry that also contains black peppercorns is a great immune-boosting option.
Our Food Editor (more commonly known as daddy) Mr Rushton also brews up his infamous Immuni-Tea whenever the kids get the beginnings of a bug, and we’ve also given it to our eldest to help heal bruising (after a horrid accident involving an iron gate), and which really did seem to take down pain & inflammation (turmeric & nigella being both anti-inflammatory and analgesic).