Monday, February 21, 2011

Parent, Love Thyself!

We’re all busy, so let’s get right to the point: we parents are constantly striving to improve our children’s physical and emotional health. But do we do the same for ourselves? Do we make sure we get to bed on time? Eat our veggies? Play outside? Limit screen time? Not so much.

Does it really matter? Yes, yes, yes. Diet and obesity has overtaken tobacco use as the leading underlying cause of death in our country. But aside from avoiding that obvious setback called the end of life, we take care of ourselves not just to stave off illness, but to add quality to our lives. Taking care of yourself improves your parenting, your professional work, your love life, your family functioning and your general sense of well-being.

So how do we parents work self-care into our demanding, modern lives? Enquiring parent-minds found out during  “Nurturing the Person Inside the Parent” – the last in a series of three evening workshops at Sunstone Montessori School by naturopathic-doctor-cum-family-health-educator Krista Anderson-Ross.

Directing your DNA
If the loads of science showing the benefits of healthy behaviors like eating well, exercising, getting enough sleep and nurturing your mental health hasn’t been quite enough to motivate you to take care of yourself, an exciting new chapter in modern research could really light your fire: it’s called epigenetics.

In very simplified terms, epigenes are little on/off switches that live outside each gene. Researchers are learning that certain behavioral factors – among them eating well, exercising, sleeping well and having a positive mental attitude – can influence whether your epigenes turn a gene on or off. So, if you have a gene for arthritis, say, or cancer, you may have more control than you thought over whether that gene causes you problems.

Beyond the science, of course, is our own qualitative data: when we get more sleep, we feel better, tolerate toddler tantrums with more Zen, think more clearly and don’t crave sugar and other bad foods as much, right? And when we exercise, we feel sharper and more energetic, we feel better in our clothes, and our self-image soars. And…and…and… -- the list goes endlessly on.

Krista’s Top Five
No matter what your motivation – be it genes or jeans – Dr. Krista recommends adopting these five behaviors into your life:

#1 – Go to bed earlier, and sleep 7.5 to 8 hours per night, in a dark room. As Dr. Krista says on her website “The very best thing you can do for your overall health is to get enough sleep.”

Because of your circadian rhythms and sleep’s relationships with cortisol levels and when your body releases the beneficial hormone melatonin, each hour of sleep before midnight is worth two hours after. A regular pattern of 11PM bedtimes can wreak havoc on your hormone levels (like thyroid, sexual hormones and others) and affect many of your body’s functions. And because your eyes can absorb light through their lids, disrupting the deep sleep required for melatonin release, it’s crucial to sleep in the dark. One parent reported a dramatic improvement in her sleep (and her well-being) once she simply started wearing an eye mask to bed. And avoid technology – computer, TV, PDA – for 60 minutes before bedtime, as it has been shown to disrupt your body’s ability to relax.

#2 – Drink half your body weight in ounces of water each day. If you’re a 190-pound man, you need 80 ounces each day. Coconut water – the real stuff, not the kind saturated in sugar – is a great way to get some of your hydration – it’s full of electrolytes and other good stuff.

#3 – Get 20 minutes of active exercise a day. No need to work out for hours. But getting your heart rate up for 20 minutes a day helps control insulin levels (a key factor in preventing cancer), slows the aging process, and of course increases stamina, strength and balance.

#4 – Supplement Vitamin D3. Again, Dr. Krista: “Vitamin D3 is essential for the absorption of calcium in teeth, bones and muscle.  It’s a hormone regulator and prevents cancer by promoting cell differentiation. It plays an essential role in immunity and blood-sugar regulation as well as cardiovascular, muscle and brain health.”

Most of us – especially in the Northwest, don’t get enough Vitamin D from the sun – or from food. These is some evidence that while “normal” levels of Vitamin D will help fight bone loss and rickets, you need to be in the “optimal” level to receive many of its benefits. That range is 50-70 ng/ml. Vitamin D testing is a good idea to ensure you’re not overdosing or underdosing, as the dosage range depends on age, health, size and other factors. As a general rule, you need 1,000 IU per 25 lbs of body weight. So, a 50-lb child needs 2,000 IUS a day; a 150-lb woman needs 6,000.

#5 – Balance out the modern diet with daily supplements of Omega 3, probiotics, calcium, and anti-oxidants. In the old days, we ate organ meats, fish and other whole foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids. Aside from being crucial to brain functions, studies have shown omega-3s to be more effective at fighting depression than anti-depressants. In the old days, we also grew our food in soil rich in probiotics, and our cows and chickens ate good bacteria along with the grass and dirt they ingested. Probiotics are crucial to intestinal health – and as Dr. Krista points out, 80 percent of our immune system is in our guts. Eating raw and fermented foods like sourkraut, miso and kambucha can help; probiotic supplements are still usually needed.

For more information, contact Dr. Anderson-Ross at 503.804.0133 or via her website,