Seeking balance as a busy parent
It’s difficult to find the balance between the stressors of life and optimising your health at the best of times, but throw children into the mix and I’m sure many people will feel it is nigh on impossible. From ensuring the children are at school on time with a healthy packed lunch, homework done, PE kit ready, letters signed and dressed with their top the right way round, to keeping a house and, for many, maintaining a job, is it any wonder parents feel like there is simply no time for themselves? As wonderful as it would be, I’m not about to tell you the secret to finding more time in your day; I am, instead, going to share with you some of my top tips for dealing with the stressors of life to help keep you going. After all, you can’t pour from an empty cup, and whilst you might feel fine in general, even low energy can be a sign that you are not optimising your health, and you need to ensure that you are looking after yourself to sustain your busy lifestyle.
Why a little breath can go a long way…
The beginning of the day – getting everyone, including you, ready to go off in their various directions – is arguably one of the most stressful times of the day and this is reflected by the body’s higher cortisol levels, produced by the adrenal glands. The adrenal glands are hormonal glands sitting above the kidneys producing many hormones including cortisol. Cortisol is important as it provides fuel for the body in times of stress and, working opposite but in balance with melatonin (the sleep hormone), levels are generally higher in the morning as this helps to stimulate the wake-up response. Ideally, we should then eat and switch to fuel from food to support our energy throughout the rest of the day. Whilst having elevated cortisol levels in the morning is normal, this can be increased further when there is added stress. Starting your day with 5-10 minutes of deep breathing before getting out of bed can help to calm the nervous system and awaken the parasympathetic nervous system, required to aid proper digestion needed for eating your first meal of the day.
We breathe all the time, but don’t really consider what’s going on behind that automatic, subconsciously controlled act. The oxygen we breathe in brings life to our cells, providing oxygen to the blood, which in turn provides oxygen and nutrients to every cell in the body. Each of us is made up of a mass of over 37 trillion cells, and ensuring each cells is working optimally allows for the body to work better as a whole – after all, you don’t want a team of injured players. Breathing also supports energy production, as well as the removal of waste from the cells. If you have never actively engaged in breathing exercises before, I would highly recommend you try it out as it helps you to create a meaningful link between the power of the breath and the feeling of ease it can bring, with deep breathing putting you further into a state of relaxation.
Finding 5-10 minutes in the morning to focus on the breath may not feel possible but consider opening an app such as Calm, Breethe or Thirdear and taking part in a morning breathing exercise rather than hitting the snooze button. Whilst it may appear counter-productive to awaken when the alarm initially goes off and engage in breathing exercises, a relaxing 5-10 minutes will leave you feeling a lot more calm and refreshed than being ‘alarmed’ every few minutes, repeatedly. Give it a go and see how you feel.
Exercising deep breathing is a useful tool to incorporate throughout your day, not just on waking. When running around in your busy day, it is easy to engage in more shallow breathing, engaging the chest muscles rather than the diaphragm, which in turn provides less oxygen to the cells. If you are feeling particularly stressed, try to focus on your breathing, which will benefit your body as well as your mind with its calming effect. This is a particularly useful and easy to use tool for the parts of your day when you feel most agitated, being stuck in traffic for example.
Eating is your opportunity to nourish the body – seize every opportunity
With so much going on, it is easy to fall into a routine of eating out of habit rather than engaging in mindful eating. ‘Mindful’ may sound ‘hippie-esque’, but it simply means to be consciously aware of something. Similarly to breathing, the act of eating also provides the opportunity to nourish the cells, giving it both the macro- and micronutrients it needs to allow the body to flourish. Plan ways in which you can add in more nutrient-dense foods rather than mindlessly (the opposite of mindful) grabbing a sandwich, cake or packet of crisps, for example, to simply tide you over.
We’ve all heard it before; breakfast is the most important meal of the day. This is especially true if you have a busy schedule as many people often skip breakfast and find that it’s suddenly 2pm before they have even eaten; by that point, they reach for the easiest option, i.e. whatever’s left in the canteen or available at the local shop. By ensuring you eat a good quality (nutritious) breakfast, you are not only providing energy to get you through to your next meal, you’re also providing your cells with those essential nutrients to help your brain stay focused for the day ahead, allowing you to better co-ordinate the children, pets and tasks that lay ahead. Eggs are great for starting the day as they are easy to prepare, provide protein and fats and are complemented quite well by most other foods. Why not consider boiling several at the weekend so you have a supply at hand for the week (store in the fridge but do keep separate from raw ones!), serving with some avocado and a slice of rye toast, or perhaps whip up a frittata for the whole family with lots of added vegetables such as peas, spinach, tomatoes and onions. If you are vegan, or want something that you can eat on the go, why not invest in a blender and get creative with smoothie making, use water or milk as a base, adding in a small portion of fruit such as berries or pineapple for sweetness, a banana or nuts to thicken the smoothie, and some spinach (or kale if you’re feeling adventurous) to benefit from the multitude of nutrients provided in leafy green vegetables; plus a serving of your favourite protein powder to provide an easy to consume breakfast loaded with nutrients to help sustain your energy levels and feed goodness to your cells.
Whilst starting your day with a healthy and nutritious breakfast is great, don’t stop there; ensure you use every opportunity to nourish your body rather than eating food containing little nutritional value. If your body was a car, you wouldn’t put the wrong fuel in as it would cause a lot of problems to the engine: similarly, don’t waste your money on food that won’t fuel you optimally. While the idea of eating healthy can seem overwhelming at first, begin with small steps like adding more vegetables to your plate, filling your sandwiches with more salad, swapping a packet of crisps for some hummus and carrot sticks, or snacking on a piece of fruit and a handful of nuts. Healthy eating is not about having a prescriptive diet; it is about having lots of small healthy habits that accumulate to form a well balanced diet.
Adopting those old-fashioned practices – eating as a family
Remember when you were younger and you would eat your evening meal with your parents, and you weren’t allowed to leave the table without a few more mouthfuls of vegetables? Family meals appear to have evolved over recent years falling into one of two categories: parents prepare something quick and easy for the children in order to get them settled and ready for bed, then prepare a second, and often more nutritious meal for themselves, or parents ensure that their children get a highly nutritious meal but then have no energy to prepare anything for themselves, turning to a slice of toast or some cereal. Why not prepare one meal for the whole family to enjoy together. Not only is this a time-saving exercise, but it also creates a positive and loving environment around mealtimes for the whole family. It may not always be feasible to eat together so strive to have a family meal together on as many days as you can. Again, removing distractions such as the TV, mobile phones and tablets, and talking with your family about your day, is a great way to relax the body and allow the body to switch on the parasympathetic nervous system, allowing for optimal digestion.
We often associate gratitude with prayer and religion; however, you don’t need to be religious to show gratitude for the things you have in life. Use your family mealtime to discuss the things you feel grateful for with your family. This has a positive and uplifting effect and can really enhance the sense of wellbeing for all.
More time-saving solutions
Let me take one chore away from you…cleaning. It’s difficult to juggle the tasks of a busy parent on top of cleaning chores so why not reduce the amount of time you spend on unnecessary cleaning. According to the ‘hygiene hypothesis’, germs build strong immune systems; what more of an argument do you need to put down the kitchen spray? The hygiene hypothesis was formulated in the 1950s to suggest that the more germs a child is exposed to, the more robust their immune system is likely to be. Not only is an obsession with cleaning potentially having a negative impact on the immune system, more cleaning products than ever are being used, many of which contain chemicals considered ‘endocrine disrupting chemicals’ as they interfere with the carefully regulated balance of hormones within the body, affecting many areas of health including reproduction and metabolism, and also being linked with obesity and a higher risk of cancer. Give your hormones and immune system some much needed TLC by cutting down the amount of time you spend on cleaning duties.
It is well established that exercise is important for health but when do busy parents have time for the gym? Movement and exercise don’t need to be restricted to just one environment though, so find ways in which you can increase movement throughout the day. Walk the children to school and back, run around the field with your children, dance around the kitchen whilst waiting for the dinner to cook, take the dog for a walk or even a gentle run as a family, or go for a family bike ride. There are many programmes available online to help you incorporate more movement into your day, from online zumba classes for those who like to dance, online yoga courses for those who want something more restorative, online HIIT classes for those who feel they need something more demanding, or online primal play courses for those who want to try something different; with the internet available at our fingertips to find such classes, there are simply no excuses for not moving more. Engaging in something energetic, such as exercising, helps you to feel more energised and has a positive effect on the immune system and your sense of wellbeing. The trick is to find something that you enjoy so you look forward to doing it rather than feeling like it’s a chore, leading to a negative association around the word ‘exercise’.
Get your much-needed recovery
If you don’t wake feeling refreshed, try going to bed earlier. As simple as this may sound, it’s not so easy to put into action thanks to 24 hour access to other people’s lives through social media. Getting into bed whilst checking emails and looking at your neighbour’s latest holiday pictures can quickly eat into your much-needed sleep time, leaving the brain active when you do finally decide to put your phone down, making it more difficult to fall asleep. This often leads people to picking up their phone again and having another scroll. It can be difficult to break the habit so try having a ‘phone free zone’ for the first hour and the last hour of your day, aiming to be in bed at least 15 minutes before your bedtime to allow some relaxation before drifting into a peaceful night’s sleep. You’re not going to feel refreshed after one decent night’s sleep, but once you form the healthy habit, over time, you will start to feel more refreshed on waking. Remember, the body needs plenty of time to sleep as it is supporting your health with tissue repair, providing recovery for the immune system and helping to consolidate memories, amongst many other things.
For busy parents, we recommend: MindCare Balance which contains magnesium and L-theanine which work to support the nervous system; all of the B vitamins, to help with energy production and a fish oil capsule to support the structure and function of cells. The addition of vitamin C and zinc will also support the immune system which can become compromised in times of stress.
Whilst no one thing will ever make the challenges of being a busy parent easier, it is often a combination of many small actions that can make all the difference. Parents spend a lot of time ensuring their children have a healthy routine whilst neglecting themselves, but you cannot pour from an empty cup. You’re just as important as your children so give yourself the same care as you give them; eating nourishing meals with them, forming healthy sleeping patterns, moving and playing with them, and most of all, forming precious moments that you will forever cherish.
If you require more support, feel free to contact our approachable team of nutrition professionals who will be more than happy to support you further or point you in the right direction.