As the summer comes to an end, we turn our attention to the changing seasons and of course, the full swing of the back-to-school season. In ayurveda, as autumn sets in, it is characterized by the ascension of the Vata energy as the dominant energy expressed by nature. Vata energy is considered a combination of two of the five elements of nature: air and ether, which can be conceptualized as “the space between.” As a result of these two primordial forces rising, increases in dryness, coldness and winds naturally occur. We watch as the leaves slowly dry up, wither and fall to the ground, having completed their duties during the growing season.
Similarly, we often experience dryness, itchiness and sensitivity to the cold, and the wind, as this time comes into its fullness. Meanwhile, it also signifies a significant shift from the flexible summer schedule to the structured routine of school. In ayurveda, this would be considered a change in movement, from one set of activities to another, and routine is one of the therapeutic strategies we employ to ensure healthy Vata energy within ourselves, and when coexisting with the Vata energy rising in nature during this time.
For children and adolescents, they are further challenged by this season because of the period of their life that they are in. In ayurveda, children are considered to be in the “Kapha” stage of life from birth to puberty. This is characterized by structural growth, which Kapha, a product of earth and water, dominates. At puberty, they begin to transition into the Pitta stage of life, where the fire within them begins to grow, and they begin to differentiate themselves and find their purpose. Meanwhile, the Vata stage of life begins around 60 years of age. So, it is no wonder children can often face a multitude of unique challenges during this time of year. This is because Vata, you could say, is a primary energy that they are least associated with, and yet by nature of academic calendars and natures, this Vata energy can be quite forceful to them, and throw them off balance.
So, what can we do? The answer is simple: actively work to balance the Vata of the child to help harmonize the transition into the new season. Fortunately, ayurvedic medicine is extremely practical and also offers multiple different approaches to help find adaptive and easily applied strategies to help balance Vata.
Routine is Essential
As mentioned, Vata energy is all about movement and is sensitive to change. Therefore, routine and structure can be exceptionally important for keeping Vata in balance. Create a consistent daily routine for children that includes regular mealtimes, sleep schedules, study and play time. Ensuring that children get sufficient sleep during the back-to-school season will play a large role in ensuring a harmonious school season (and hopefully avoid the classic morning delays getting ready for school). While the research generally favors later start times for children at school to promote additional sleep (Wheaton 2016), this is not always offered by schools, so it is up to parents to set the routine. A regular sleep schedule and a calming bedtime routine can powerfully balance Vata energy. The child should be encouraged to wind down before bed with activities like reading, gentle stretching or taking a warm bath.
Talk About Fears
With each new adventure, from entering a new grade or new school to changes in friend dynamics as children grow and evolve, these changes can provoke the Vata within our children, and that can manifest as fear, which is considered primarily a Vata imbalance. Engaging in a discussion about stress management with children may evoke discomfort in us as parents as well, as it can alert us to the very problems our children face, which can make us feel protective. However, such conversations are crucial, considering the transition from a relaxed summer schedule to the structured routines of the school setting can induce significant stress. Additionally, this elevation of Vata dosha manifests may not only appear as mental stress but also as physical stress, leading to bodily discomfort, weakened immune responses and heightened agitation, which can be soothed by talking about it. A creative way that has been studied as a useful tool is to explore discomforts through drawing. One study found that human figure drawings (including stick figure drawings) were useful in identifying key fears in school age children (Carroll 1999). This is particularly interesting since oftentimes creativity and art is considered a Vata exercise.
Without question, dietary considerations are important for keeping all of us happy and healthy, and children are of course no exception. When balancing the Vata dosha, which governs the movements of the body, including bowel movements, there is an emphasis on fiber rich whole foods that are easily digested, such as cooked vegetables, soups and stews. It is also advisable to avoid cold and raw foods during this season, as they challenge digestion. If raw vegetables are employed, such as raw carrots for instance, try to balance them with warm tea given as a beverage around the same time as the meal. Additionally, avoiding stimulants such as caffeinated sodas and energy drinks are important, since this will agitate Vata and promote anxiety and sleeplessness. Lastly, given that Vata energy is dry by nature, extra hydration in the form of pure water or herbal teas will be exceptional to support children during this time of year, as the extra water balances the dryness of the season.
As discussed, changes in the structure of the family going from summer to autumn and no-school to school routines all irritate the Vata dosha, which is balanced by regular routine and warmth. To that effect, regular exercise is excellent to help not only establish routine, but provide warmth and movement, both of which benefit and harmonize the Vata dosha. Beyond that, the benefits of exercise are well understood to support all aspects of health. In particular, studies continue to show that regular exercise supports attention and impulse control in children (Den Heijer 2017). This modern research is in perfect harmony with the concept of the Vata dosha, with its focus on the mind as well as movement.
Focus on the Breath
Teach your child simple breathing exercises to help calm and balance their energy. Deep breathing exercises, such as diaphragmatic breathing or alternate nostril breathing, can help alleviate stress and promote relaxation. A study of seated mindfulness, breathing, loosening exercises, asana and relaxation techniques showed improvements in managing exam anxiety, perceived improved mindfulness and attention, as well as improvements in memory (Jain 2021). This complements ayurvedic theory about pacifying the Vata energy. As mentioned, Vata is associated with fear when imbalanced, and governs movement, including movements of thoughts across the mind. Yoga and breathing exercises regulate the breath, which in essence, provides structure and routine for a brief time, which can have wonderful results in children and adults alike. Having a family time to do yoga together would be ideal to help model for children not only the techniques, but how parents also benefit from these practices, which the family can share and use to promote open communication, further pacifying Vata.
Herbs and Supplements
Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera)
It’s no surprise that screens are here to stay and online learning, in some capacity, is a fixture in student life. That said, it’s not uncommon for your child to struggle with staying on task with projects. Oftentimes, the struggle itself leads to all sorts of stressful family dynamics as well. However, there is hope for children and parents alike for kids who struggle with attention and focus. Ashwagandha has been used for thousands of years to promote energy while maintaining focus, and its scientific name, Withania somnifera, is a nod to its ability to also promote healthy sleep, so it helps on both sides!
Bacopa (Bacopa monnerii)
Bacopa has also been found to support cognitive function in children. In one study, 19 children received an extract of brahmi at a dosage of 50 mg twice daily for 12 weeks, and 17 were given a placebo. The mean age of the children in the two groups was 8.3 years and 9.3 years, respectively. The children were evaluated using numerous cognitive function tests at baseline, four, eight, 12 and 16 weeks. A significant benefit was observed in bacopa-treated subjects at 12 weeks, as evidenced by improvement on sentence repetition, logical memory and paired associate learning tasks. Evaluation showed these improvements were maintained at 16 weeks (Negi 2000).
Probiotics are among the best supplements to support respiratory health, immune function and overall digestion. As we enter the cooler months, its pediatric probiotics will prove extremely useful in minimizing days lost to minor infections and tummy aches—and also, they support healthy brain development. A recent systematic review and mathematical analysis confirmed that probiotics reduce trips to the doctor and the overall impacts of flu-like respiratory tract infections (Lenoir-Wijnkoop 2019).
Vitamin D is primarily associated with healthy calcium metabolism and bone metabolism, but it also plays a huge role in immune health. One study found that children of low vitamin D status had lower immune function compared to children with supplemental vitamin D (Brett 2018). Specifically, IL-6, an inflammatory molecule secreted by our surveying immune system, was increased. So, vitamin D may play a role in how our body deals with everyday germ insults by supporting a fast response to any bugs before they get a chance to cause trouble.
As the back-to-school season approaches, incorporating ayurvedic strategies can help support both children’s well-being during this transitional period, as well as the whole family who all experience this transition each year. Establishing a consistent routine, addressing fears and stress through communication, emphasizing a balanced diet, practicing breathing exercises, and considering herbs and supplements, can contribute to a smoother and healthier transition. By prioritizing these approaches, parents can promote balance and support their children’s overall well-being as they navigate the challenges of the new school season.
1 Brett, N. R., Lavery, P., Agellon, S., Vanstone, C. A., Goruk, S., Field, C. J., & Weiler, H. A. (2018). Vitamin D Status and Immune Health Outcomes in a Cross-Sectional Study and a Randomized Trial of Healthy Young Children. Nutrients, 10(6), 680.
2 Carroll, M. K., & Ryan-Wenger, N. A. (1999). School-age children’s fears, anxiety, and human figure drawings. Journal of Pediatric Health Care: official publication of National Association of Pediatric Nurse Associates & Practitioners, 13(1), 24–31.
3 Den Heijer, A. E., Groen, Y., Tucha, L., Fuermaier, A. B., Koerts, J., Lange, K. W., Thome, J., & Tucha, O. (2017). Sweat it out? The effects of physical exercise on cognition and behavior in children and adults with ADHD: a systematic literature review. Journal of Neural Transmission (Vienna, Austria : 1996), 124(Suppl 1), 3–26.
4 Garaiova, I., Muchová, J., Nagyová, Z., Wang, D., Li, J. V., Országhová, Z., Michael, D. R., Plummer, S. F., & Ďuračková, Z. (2015). Probiotics and vitamin C for the prevention of respiratory tract infections in children attending preschool: a randomized controlled pilot study. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 69(3), 373–379.
5 Jain, D. (2021). Impact of Yoga Intervention on Exam Anxiety, Mindfulness, Attention & Memory in School Going Children. Delhi Business Review, 22 (2 ), 85-90.
6 Lenoir-Wijnkoop, I., Merenstein, D., Korchagina, D., Broholm, C., Sanders, M. E., & Tancredi, D. (2019). Probiotics Reduce Health Care Cost and Societal Impact of Flu-Like Respiratory Tract Infections in the USA: An Economic Modeling Study. Frontiers in Pharmacology, 10, 980.
7 Negi KS, Singh YD, Kushwaha KP, et al. Clinical evaluation of memory enhancing properties of Memory Plus in children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Ind J Psychiatry 2000;42:Supplement.
8 Wheaton, A. G., Chapman, D. P., & Croft, J. B. (2016). School Start Times, Sleep, Behavioral, Health, and Academic Outcomes: A Review of the Literature. The Journal of School Health, 86(5), 363–381.
Growing up near the Himalayas, Dr. Shailinder Sodhi developed an early interest in ayurvedic plants and herbs, and received his BAMS (bachelor in ayurvedic medicine and surgery) degree from Dayanand Ayurvedic College in Jalandhar, India in 1985. In 1993, he received a naturopathic medicine degree from Bastyr University, as well as a degree in diagnostic ultrasound from Bellevue College. Dr. Sodhi practices naturopathic medicine along with his wife, Dr. Anju Sodhi, and his brother, Dr. Virender Sodhi, at the Ayurvedic and Naturopathic Medical Clinic in Bellevue, WA, which he established in 1989. In addition, Dr. Sodhi serves as president of Ayush Herbs Inc., a manufacturer of high-quality ayurvedic herbal formulas, is an adjunct faculty member at Bastyr and has been published in several natural health magazines.