My daughter (9) and I were recently downtown; as we moved through a subway station, she pulled on my sleeve to ask for some money for a woman who was panhandling. Rachel was so affected by the woman's face; "She looked so sad mom! Her eyes! All these people were walking by her and no one was giving her anything!"
Both my kids have always been very attuned to folks they see on the street, and we've struggled over the years to navigate comfortable action. I know that on one hand giving a dollar to two to someone will not make a tremendous difference in the grand scheme of things ... but on the other hand, it might contribute to a bit more nutrition that day, or a smoke if that's what they need most, and at the very least, an acknowledgement of their humanity and dignity. I also feel overwhelmed by the visible (and invisible) need in our city. Especially when I think about the tremendous privilege my own children have ... more than one quarter of children in Toronto live in poverty, and many of the people we see asking for a hand are asking not only for themselves. And yet I can't give to everyone we see. It's not sustainable, and it's not a hand up. That's why I try to contribute in more tangible ways, such as volunteering for and giving to organizations that provide a more coordinated approach to supporting those that need it. Organizations that not only provide food and shelter, but employment services, barrier-free healthcare for body and mind, and education. A dollar a day in the hand of someone on the street is not likely to make as great an impact as a dollar a day to a fiscally-responsible organization that makes a coordinated impact. My kids know I volunteer my services regularly, and we make space for it as a family. My son is old enough now to volunteer himself at street-level - he will be attending a workshop on Sunday with a group that facilitates teens' efforts. We've organized food drives and book drives. We've baked cookies for shelters. Both my kids donate a third of their allowance to causes that are important to them.
And none of that is directly related to the disappointment and despair that Rachel saw in that woman's eyes. The struggle was made more real as we noted that we were headed to a birthday party for a friend. We had planned to stop on our way to buy a gift. It felt gross to both of us to have not helped this woman only to spend $30 to buy a gift for a friend who didn't need more stuff. In the end, she decided she wanted to give the money to someone in need, in honour of her friend's birthday. So that's what we did when we got off the train. I handed her the cash and she gave it to a man sitting amidst a stream of people. She will tell you how much the man's face lit up when he realized what she was giving him. "Thank you, little lady," he said, with his hand on his heart. She lit up too. And proudly wrote in a card for her friend a simple note about what she had chosen to do, though not sure if her friend would understand, or share her perspective. I was a little concerned too for Rachel. But when we picked her up from the party, the friend's parents immediately expressed their gratitude and appreciation for the gesture.
And though our small contribution may not have changed the world, it made that man's day a little brighter. It reminds me of the story of the starfish ...
Wish I was talking about an early spring! Alas ...
Enjoy the latest from EcoParent Magazine!
Walking to school was front of mind for me last week. My nine-year-old daughter (who sometimes takes the schoolbus and walks home from the bus stop, and sometimes walks to/from school) was grumbling that she didn't want to walk. Understandably it's dark and damp right now, and making the same trek day in and day out is tedious. She moaned that it was too far, and it was boring. I could have launched into a tirade about some children around the world walking for well over an hour to get to school (to get clean water for that matter!), but I held my tongue. If you're interested, here's a great film on that topic, which I think she forgot she's seen; these walks certainly aren't boring!:
We did discuss how lucky she was to live in a neighbourhood where she could safely make that walk. We talked about "only boring people getting bored" (my kids love that one!) ... and in fact, when she mentioned this morning that she needed to practice her times tables, I suggested she could do that while walking to school - she actually thought that was a good idea.
I think the biggest frustration to her was that most of her friends don't walk to or from school. Her school is 100% optional attendance, meaning that many of the kids live outside of the 1.6km radius that makes them eligible for bus transportation by the school board. However, many kids are dropped off and picked up by a parent in a car - including from our bus stop, which should be well-within walking distance from home.
My kids are accustomed to me pushing priorities that run counter to what they see around them. I'm annoyingly persistent on nutrition, screen use, social justice, bedtimes, and environmental consciousness. And though I know they love and respect me for my strong (and sometimes rigid) values, it can be hard doing things differently. Walking to school kind of falls into that category.
We know that kids are not active enough. Something like 9% of school-aged kids meet minimum requirements for physical activity. That's a shocking statistic to me. We also know that "active transportation" (ie. walking/biking/scootering to get around) is correlated with a healthy body composition, and getting enough exercise. It's unlikely that walking a kilometer each way to school each day is enough to meet minimum requirements, but it is likely a marker of a more broadly active lifestyle. Active transportation also reduces carbon emissions and road congestion, and gives kids the opportunity to develop street smarts, confidence and independence. Before my kids started walking (and biking) places on their own, we did trial runs, talked about how to handle a variety of situations, and started out with shorter independent trips into the world. However, in our society we tend to fret a bit too much (in my opinion) about kids being ready to handle this responsibility. I had to write a letter of permission to my daughter's school and bus company because their minimum age for walking alone is 10. In a similar way, I had to advocate for her when our local library initially objected to her going in on her own to borrow and return books when she was 8. I am bummed that my daughter doesn't go to the playground unless I go with her because she has no one else to go with who is allowed to be there without a parent.
So after my chat with my daughter, I was a bit surprised to hear that walking to school was the topic of the day on the CBC show "Ontario Today". My self-righteousness was piqued, and I immediately called in to state my case. However, while I waited in the queue listening to other callers, the complexity of the situation became apparent. Sadly, I learned the reason for the topic of discussion: a five-year-old girl had died after being pinned between two cars in the parking lot of her school during after-school pick up. And other callers shared reflections of being dual-income families, needing to get to work on time - putting their child on a schoolbus, or dropping them off in the car was the only way they could manage it. Especially for those with really young children, it's tough to ponder sending them out the door on their own with no one remaining at home to help if something were to go sideways.
I hung up the phone, realizing that it was a trickier situation than just encouraging kids to get more exercise. We live in a city which is often unaffordable for families; people are doing the best they can to keep their kids healthy and safe. I still think that we could reconsider the validity of our fears ... most kids, given appropriate support and practice, would thrive with a little more independence. And I still think our kids need to be more active (perhaps parents could do a better job of reconsidering how they get places when they have the time and the distance is manageable). But the challenges are complicated, and the solutions are complex.
What about you? How do you get around?
While paddling out of Algonquin Park today (what a blessing that beautiful territory is), I was thinking about the value of preventative care. This is definitely not a novel analogy, and please forgive me if you've heard it before, but I thought it worthy of reconsideration, particularly as we spy fall on the horizon (sorry!).
We take our cars and bikes in for preventative care. Even if it's a simple oil change or chain cleaning, it's an opportunity for the mechanic to give it a good once over ... making sure the brakes are working, advising us on routine maintenance, etc. Certainly if we hear a funny noise, we'll take it in to get it checked out - sometimes choosing to live with the problem if it's not severe, other times investing in doing something to make the vehicle run better. And sometimes the mechanic might have some advice on how to avoid that problem in the future.
Many of us use our dentists in a similar way ... the semi-annual cleaning and check-up keeps us accountable (do you notice an increased frequency of flossing immediately before and after dentist appointments? I do!), and catches problems before they become bigger. Perhaps we need to adjust our brushing technique, or maybe a different toothpaste would work better. Or perhaps a little filling is called for instead of a huge root canal if we let it go.
Naturopathic care can serve the same purpose. Although most of my clients come to see me when there's a problem - and I'm always happy to support people's pursuit of healing from a concern, whether acute, recurring or chronic - preventative maintenance helps to keep concerns from emerging or exploding. Like seeing the dentist, or taking your car or bike in for a tune-up, investing in a seasonal or semi-annual hour with a naturopathic doctor can keep good habits on track. By reviewing the "pillars of health" - diet, exercise and sleep habits, and sources of stress (and strategies of managing it effectively) - and setting individualized goals, you are more able to commit to maintaining a healthy lifestyle. Going through a "review of systems" - a head-to-toe overview of your body's functions ... much like a mechanic's once over of your car or bicycle - can bring attention to niggling little things that may be more easily addressed when not full-blown. An adjustment of supplements or herbs based on shifting seasons and individual susceptibility keeps you from rotely taking the same thing for months and months - never a good idea.
My job is not only to keep you from being sick, but to help you to optimize your health so you can live as full and rich a life as possible. Preventative visits allow me the opportunity to support you in this goal ... one of my favourite aspects of my work! Seasonal transitions are a great time for these ... I look forward to seeing you and your family in the clinic!
lYesterday was the first really summer-like day of the year ... and while my family and I reveled in the warmth and the sun, it prompted discussions of sunscreens. My kids were asking questions about the chemicals in the sunscreens, exploring the risks of the gunk vs. the risks of sun damage - they are the children of a naturopathic doctor afterall ... they know to inquire about such things! So here are some thoughts and resources:
Sun exposure is clearly linked to the risk of skin cancer, which is the most common type of cancer in Canada. While all types of skin cancer are treatable, they can also be aggressive and deadly. Malignant melanoma is one of the most aggressive types of cancer. Here is more info on melanoma; bottom line: talk to your doctor if you have any new skin spots. The earlier skin cancer is identified, the better the prognosis.
Sun exposure is also beneficial for a couple of reasons. Vitamin D is made in the body in response to sun exposure. Canadians are notoriously deficient in vitamin D due to lack of sun exposure during long stretches of shorter, colder days. This is possibly complicated by active efforts to reduce sun exposure, since efforts to reduce UV exposure may contribute to vitamin D deficiencies (though this is controversial); however, some studies have demonstrated that Canadians are spending more time in the sun, not less, and not necessarily with a corresponding increase in sunscreen use. Ironically, vitamin D deficiency itself is a risk factor for malignant melanoma; it has thus been suggested that inadequate exposure to the sun may also be a risk factor for skin cancer. It's hard to elucidate exactly what the ideal amount of exposure might be, since individuals have unique susceptibilities to both sun damage and vitamin D deficiency based on pigmentation, age, latitude and genetic variations. Vitamin D needs can also be met through food and supplementation.
Sunlight is also important for regulation of both mood and circadian rhythms. This may not require direct exposure of the skin to UV radiation, although some studies have acknowledged the presence of a circadian clock in the skin, a fascinating mechanism by which organisms (including humans) may regulate behaviour and immune function. This neat study convincingly shows that an indoor lifestyle disrupts our natural circadian pathways, with implications on cognitive function and mental health; more exposure to natural (vs. artificial) light may be a more appropriate approach to circadian regulation.
Acknowledging that some sun exposure has benefit, the connection of excessive exposure - particularly the kind that results in burns - with skin cancer should prompt caution. Kids are particularly vulnerable, so caregivers should both be vigilant about protecting them AND setting a good example of safe sun practices themselves (not cool to wrestle sunscreen on your child if you're not wearing it too!). There are a variety of excellent ways to minimize the risk of skin damage from UV radiation, including avoiding midday sun, covering up with long sleeves, hats, sunglasses and umbrellas, and wearing sunscreen!
But what about those chemicals?? The Canadian Cancer Society argues that chemicals in sunscreens are safe, and they very well may be. But perhaps there are some options that are better than others? A quick guide of things to consider:
- Oxybenzone: this is a common active ingredient in sunscreens; the concern with this one is allergy or immunosensitivity; best to avoid if an alternative is available
- Octinoxate: another common UV-filter with concern of toxicity; this one more concerning for its potential hormone disruption
- Fragrance: while not specific to sunscreens, fragrance is a catch-all term for any artificial scent added to personal care products; because there is no requirement to be more precise in labeling, a consumer has no way of knowing if the chemicals used are safe or not; best to always avoid
Mineral sunscreens work differently than chemical ones. Zinc oxide and titanium dioxide sit on the surface of the skin and reflect radiation off, rather than being absorbed the way chemical filters are. It means that sunscreens containing these ingredients are thick and white, and not always appreciated by the wearer, to which my kids can attest! One option is to look for sunscreens that contain a blend of chemical and mineral ingredients, and that do not use oxybenzone or octinoxate. The Environmental Working Group has a very comprehensive review of options if you're looking for more guidance!
Be careful too of SPF claims - regardless of how high your SPF is, if you're using sunscreen, apply a lot and apply often ... there is some suggestion that folks who wear sunscreen may actually be at a higher risk of skin cancer ... not because the sunscreen causes cancer, but because it is applied incorrectly and causes a false sense of security (resulting in more time spent in the sun inadequately protected).
One more thing to ponder ... UV exposure causes skin cancer by damaging the genetic material of skin cells. This occurs in part due to the generation of free radicals and reactive oxygen species. Our cells have mechanisms to neutralize these free radicals before they cause irreparable damage, particularly when we provide the right ingredients for these mechanisms in the form of nutritional antioxidants! A diet rich in antioxidants, including brightly coloured fruits and veggies, abundant herbs and spices, and flavonoid-rich green tea - even dark chocolate! - may protect our skin from damage due to UV radiation (along with other lifestyle-induced cancer promoters). So in addition to moderate sun exposure and thoughtful selection and use of sunscreens, here is even more rationale for eating a great diet!
Have fun in the sun!
I recently held a workshop at my clinic and my local library to chat about the top habits that can promote good health (and thanks to all of you who responded to my survey!). None of this is rocket science, but these behaviours go a really long way to keeping everyone in your family at their best. It can be tricky sometimes to stay on top of making good lifestyle choices; for each of these habits, I encourage you to consider if you're doing well, or if you could use some work. Consider how motivated you are to make a change - even a small one. What's in your way? How could you overcome whatever obstacles are preventing you from being at your best? Start small - make one small, tangible and measurable change for the better and see how it feels! Enjoy!
1. Eat more fruits and veggies
Increasing fruits, vegetables and other plant-based foods increases fiber (critical for good digestive function), improves satiety (helpful for moderate caloric intake), increases anti-oxidants (necessary to reduce cell damage and aging), and offsets the consumption of less healthy options. Aim for at least 7 servings of brightly-coloured fruits and veggies daily!
2. Drink more water (or herbal tea)
Minor dehydration leads to sluggishness, brain fog, constipation and irritability. Drinking more water (coffee, juice, pop and alcohol don’t count) boosts cognitive and physical performance, clears the mind, elevates energy, promotes detoxification and helps maintain a healthy weight. Try keeping a refillable water bottle with you that you aim to drain at least twice per day. Check out my recent post on the subject for more inspiration!
3. Get outside
Time spent outside reduces stress, increases physical activity, and nourishes environmental stewardship. It may also support our natural symbiosis with microorganisms, which is good for our immune systems - especially the kids’. Aim for at least 30 minutes outside daily. Check out David Suzuki's 30x30 Challenge!
4. Go to bed
We all have different needs for sleep, but getting what our bodies need is important for stress management, immune system function, healthy body composition, mood and mental health. Try to have a consistent bed- and wake-time, create an optimal sleep environment (dark, comfortable, quiet), and keep screens out of the bedroom! Take a look at the recommendations from the National Sleep Foundation for your sweet spot!
5. Move your body
Nothing is more critical to good health than physical activity. From promoting healthy body composition, to encouraging detoxification and elimination, to improving cognitive function, it’s tough to do too much. Aim for 30-60 min of moderate to vigorous physical activity (get your heartrate up, break a sweat) every day, and increase from there. Check out the Canadian guidelines - how are you doing??
6. Detoxify your stuff
We are swimming in sea of over 80,000 industry-made chemicals, many of which are known to be harmful to our bodies, and many more which have not even been tested for safety. Children are particularly vulnerable to the effects of environmental toxins. Choosing alternatives to plastics (think food packaging and toys), fragranced personal-care items (visit www.ewg.org/skindeep/ for more), and industrial-strength cleaning products (vinegar and baking soda work miracles!), you’ll be giving your body an enormous break! Once again, Suzuki for the win!
7. Create space for mindfulness
In a world bombarded by social media, sensationalized news reports and high-paced schedules, a little bit of mindfulness goes a long way. Purposefully paying attention to the present experience has myriad benefits to all facets of health. Practice moving/eating/sitting/breathing mindfully every day until it becomes a more natural and automatic part of daily being. Kids respond really well to this - try youtubing “mindfulness”, with or without “kids” and see what pops up!
8. Touch someone
We all need physical contact. We take it for granted in infants and children, but our need for touch doesn’t decrease as we get older. Touch impacts our hormones and immune systems in important ways that are necessary for good health. Hold hands. Hug someone. Caress a shoulder. Go for a massage.
9. Have a sense of purpose
Purpose is one of the most important aspects of psychological well-being. Stress is more tolerable when we feel there is a point to the task. Feeling appreciated and like we are making a difference in the world actually bolsters the immune system and positively impacts mood. Caring for children, volunteering, contributing to your community, and engaging in fulfilling paid work can all satisfy the need for purpose. If you are lacking a sense of purpose, consider engaging in inventory of your values and attributes, and brainstorm how you are or could be sharing them with others.
10. Be grateful
Gratitude is one of the most impactful practices on happiness, stress management and well-being. Overwhelmed with the pressures of work? Be grateful you have a job that pays the bills. Tired of the cold winter? Be grateful you live in a country that is (generally) safe, democratic and … cold. Seek opportunities to be (genuinely) thankful to shift your outlook and increase happiness and health.
And a bonus ... Be moderate
It’s possible to go to extremes on either end of the healthy behaviour spectrum. Certainly there are some things that are just never a good idea, but some less-than-healthy behaviours are often balanced by the pleasure they bring. On the flip side, exercise, extreme diets and environmentalism can be taken too far. Unless there are unique concerns, enjoy a glass of wine or a piece of cake mindfully and intentionally - savour the pleasure of the experience. Creating space for some flexibility and compassion for yourself is important for a balanced existence.
Let me know how you're doing!
Here's a recent publication (written with a student) on when to worry about your child's fever, and what to do to help them get better ... better!
Next week I will be offering two workshops on the top 10 healthy habits for families. I have ideas about what I think are the most important behaviours to make routine, but I'm curious about others' experiences. Let me know - what behaviours are important to you, and what makes it difficult to make them habitual? I will work your responses into my workshop - where I hope you'll join me!
One of the simplest things many of us can do to improve our health is drink more water. It need not be from a bottle (though it's a great idea to carry a re-fillable glass or stainless steel one!). It need not have gone through reverse osmosis. We are blessed in this part of the world to have cold, clean water that comes out of a tap - inexpensive, life-giving, miraculous. And yet many of us don't drink enough. The consequences? We are sluggish (water is necessary to deliver nutrients to our cells and tissues); our brains are foggy (our brain cells depend on water to bring them essential oxygen and glucose); our bodies ache (water helps to clear away waste from our natural metabolic reactions); we are constipated (water bulks up our stool, making it easier to eliminate); we are DRY (cracked lips and knuckles, anyone??). Drinking more water might even help maintain a healthy weight! Kids in particular are vulnerable to dehydration, and may not recognize when they are thirsty.
I'm not talking coffee. I'm not talking juice. I'm not talking pop - diet or otherwise. I'm talking the real deal. BUT there is no magic volume - that "eight cups a day" rule doesn't hold much ... water. How much we need depends on how much physical activity we're getting, how dry/hot the environment is, whether we're struggling with an illness, and how big our bodies are. It also depends on how much moisture there is in our diets. A person who eats a diet rich in fresh fruits, veggies and water-based foods (think soups, stews, porridges) needs less water straight-up. Being mindful of our thirst and taking a quick peek at our urine after going (kids love this) should give us a clue ... healthy urine should be see-through and pale yellow ... not perfectly clear, and not as dark as apple juice. Unless you are really going overboard, particularly if you're an endurance athlete, there's rarely harm in working in more water. Ready for some tips?
1. Just drink it! Cold or warm, flat or fizzy (just watch the sodium content) ... find what turns you on. Savour it!
2. If plain water bores you, jazz it up with some added fruits or veggies! Sliced cucumber or lemon, or a handful of berries look lovely in a pitcher of agua and add a touch of flavour. When that beautiful pitcher is at the front of the fridge, or in a prominent place on the counter, who can resist??
3. Teas (the non-caffeinated version*) count! The bonus is that they can be individualized to your health needs. That's an entirely other blog post (stay tuned!), but start with these suggestions: chamomile when someone needs to chill; peppermint for an after-meal digestif; ginger with lemon for a refreshing pick-me-up; or nettles for an extra hit of iron. I suggest making a big vat of your family's favourite and drink it room-temperature or cold.
4. If your kids are used to drinking something else (milk, juice ... or even pop), and refuse to drink the plain stuff, slowly dilute what they will drink (with or without their cooperation) over time until it is mostly or completely unadulterated water. Then work on the other strategies mentioned above!
* black and especially green teas are full of amazing antioxidants and can definitely be enjoyed; however, the caffeine can be a bit dehydrating if that's all that's being consumed, and may be too stimulating for some
As my daughter and I were walking the other day, she - somewhat randomly - inquired about how people become blind. I told her there were many ways, but there were a few that were most commonly responsible in Canada. She asked me if there was any way of preventing blindness, and I told her that yes, most cases of blindness in Canada are preventable (think diabetes, macular degeneration) or treatable (visit http://www.cnib.ca for more info). I told her that the best way of keeping her eyes as healthy as possible was to eat her fruits and vegetables and move her body lots. She gave a huge sigh and we both laughed, because that's what she always hears from me. Eat your fruits and veggies. Move your body. Get enough sleep.
She's kind of tired of hearing it, but I hope that with the regular prompts - and even more powerfully, modelling by the adults in her life - it will seep into her consciousness and her habits. Because it's not just her naturopath mom who thinks this is important. This article in the journal Cureus is an excellent overview of the importance of establishing these lifestyle behaviours in childhood. If we want our population to be healthy, if we want the adults of tomorrow to be capable of being productive members of society, then these are the foundational habits that are critical to foster in our young people today.
The recipe for a healthier kid, and the adult they will become? Independent of all other factors (with acknowledgement of the challenges inherent in achieving some of these habits influenced by the social determinants of health):
1. Lots of fruits and veggies (and other good nutritional practices that go along with this).
2. Lots of movement (also tied to awareness around time engaged in sedentary activities like media use).
3. Lots of sleep (acknowledging its impact on stress reduction, growth, and immune system function).
How is your kid doing? How are you doing?