I have come to associate the changing of Autumn to Winter, Winter to Spring with coughs, colds, and mucus. Spring truly is green, and this year has been no exception. As I type, I have my snuffling youngest in my arms, where she recently passed out.
It’s times like this when I ponder the important questions: How can I best look after my children? What do they need me to do? Most of all, why must my kids cover me from head to foot in snot?
If you are a sensitive soul, who dislikes mucus and bogeys (or nose monkeys- my favourite Portuguese expression, ever) my advice is to turn back now. Watch this video to take the bad taste away.
Anyone still reading? Thank you for staying with me. I did a little research to get some answers, and found a few emerald-tinted surprises.
Bearing in mind that Biology is not my specialism, unless you count study at GCSE level, I began by clarifying what snot is and what it is for. Then, buoyed on by curiosity, why there is so damn much of it.
The human body is a rich source of nutrients and water which various pathogens, such as bacteria, viruses, and fungi, seek to colonise for their own ends. Luckily for us, our bodies have lots of clever tricks for preventing these invasions. The stars of the defence line-up are white blood cells, which can engulf and consume pathogens, thus destroying them. Other forms of defence involve the production of substances which harm pathogens like sebum, sweat, or stomach acid. Mucus is a mass of sticky protein produced by mucous membranes which line the natural entrances to the body, such as nose, mouth, genitalia. When they sense a pathogen attack, mucous membranes make mucus to trap the nasties and prevent them from exploring our bodies for a place to call home. It is unknown why they should produce so much of it in response to cold viruses, but it is thought that they tend to be a bit jumpy and go into overdrive when they sense a threat. In ‘Human Defences’ the movie, the white blood cells would be the most likely of heroes. The mucous membranes would be the supporting characters who mean well, and provide loyal support to the heroic white blood cells, but are given to dithering followed by enthusiastic overcompensatory action.
This explains a lot, but as yet, the reason why I am doomed to be covered all over in green streaks whenever my children catch colds. So I kept reading and thinking.
It is well-documented that when children are breastfed, they receive greater protection from illness: when babies are exposed to pathogens they share them with their mother through activities like cuddling or drooling, so that her immune system can create antibodies, which are then passed to the infant in her milk. With their immature immune system otherwise handling only so many invaders, this gives the child’s chances of fighting off attacks a big boost. The act of snuggling in for a good wipe also releases oxytocin, which ensures that the breastfeeding relationship remains strong. So far, so good. There’s a description of how this all works on the Dr Sears website.
In an ideal world, this also acts like a sort of vaccine for the mother, as she is exposed to low dose of the virus and creates the correct antibodies before the enemy launches a full attack. Of course, sometimes you do catch stuff from your kids, but a notable number of times, I have been the only family member not to come down with a cold which is doing the rounds. This seems to be truer, the more children we have and the older they get. At the very least, there is the lovely warm oxytocin rush from being encircled by their little arms, before being used as a human hanky, which makes me feel better about it all.
Now, I am aware of a scratchy feeling in my throat and I wonder if I have just jinxed myself, but then I am writing in the space between getting my baby back to sleep at 6.30 am and my kids getting up at 7.30. I am a bit run down and that does make a difference to whether I pick things up. Unfortunately, those pesky pathogens prey on our vulnerabilities.
The breastfeeding factor explains why it is in my baby’s interests to cover me in bogeys and so on. It could also explain the older children’s behaviour: For most of human history, babies have breastfed for at least the first three years of life, which could explain why my older children continue to cover me in goo, even though they each weaned from the breast when they were around a year old. Even our eldest is still only four, and may well still have been a breastfed child, were we living in a more traditional society.
The story doesn’t end here though. When I was researching this, I came across a blog post about a hypothesis which suggests that breast-milk evolved first as a function of the immune system, and second as means of feeding young. This is based on what milk contains and how milk production occurs: Milk is full of immunoprotective proteins, which fight bacteria and fungi, and are also present in mucus secretions; the two main nutritional components of breastmilk, fat and sugar, are created by proteins, which are otherwise only associated with immunity; the parts of the body used to control milk-making also trigger inflammation and cause fevers, which is another facet of our defence mechanism. It is an elegant example of how nature likes to streamline processes by which our existence is possible.
Given that the body’s general defence system produces many other slippery substances like sweat, tears, and oils, it is quite plausible that breast-milk was once intended to cover the skin in a protective layer, in both women and men. This being the case, perhaps there is a message from deep within our monkey brains which tells our younglings they should rub themselves up and down on the nearest adult when ill.
So, I’m left with a feeling of awe over the cleverness of the human body, and a mild queasiness at the thought that breast-milk is really, really similar to snot.
Curiosity satisfied, I can turn to the business of how to look after a snotty family. I read up on evidence for the efficacy of some popular home remedies and found that the best bets were chicken soup and honey. There is a summary of some research on the matter here.
I loved this super-simple, one ingredient chicken soup, by Jack Monroe. Though, my heart truly belongs to chilli and citrus scattered noodle soups like this one. The kids eat it without the chilli and citrus. They can cope with a little kick, but have yet to travel with me up the Scoville scale. I also love to make this Korean ginger and honey tea. After all, it is nice to know you have centuries of Oriental Medicine behind you, when running round after sick kids and praying you don’t catch the lurgy. I mixed some with some baby oatmeal to make a porridge for the children, and I drank the tea.
Can you recommend a great cold-beating recipe? Hope everyone is well and full of the joys of Spring xxx