Whatever your kid eats is all that his/her brain has to work with, to build neurotransmitter balance, keep nerve impulses flowing calmly and consistently, and grow tissue.
In part 1 of this 3 part blog, I covered the hardest thing first: Food. It is the most important, and the hardest to do. It’s what many parents I meet put off until things get really desperate (as in, your child is about to lose a school placement due to impulsive, disruptive behavior). It means asking yourself how far you are willing or able to go, to improve your child’s well being and ability for learning. Changing up your kitchen, revamping all your meal prep routines, learning to cook more and prepare new dishes, and changing what you spend or how you shop for food is probably lower than root canal on your list of least favorite things ever (you’re not alone). True, it can be hard.
If you’ve found some peace with those questions, and know your “I-can-do-this” zone, dive in! Small changes count, there’s no right or wrong. You’ll find that the new habits just grow, and you’ll know which ones are so worthwhile, you’ll wonder why they didn’t start sooner.
High on my list, after restoring good food and good fats, is fungal. Huh?
This mycelial form of fungus takes over when Candida is present to excess, and disrupts a human gut
Candida, fungal overgrowth, intestinal candidiasis, yeast infection or sensitivity all refer to the same thing: Fungal microbes in your child’s body (gut, bladder, urinary tract, lungs, brain, lymph, you name it). While western medicine today doesn’t consider that an issue unless you have immune collapse, many of us in the functional medicine and functional nutrition realm see that it’s more complicated than that. Yes, fungal microbes are “normal” in a human body. But:
• Some of us may have way too much of this, to the point where it functionally interferes.
• Others may have genes that leave our immune response to fungal overload dead in the water – that is, we do nothing about it, and fungal (mold) toxins overload our bodies as a result.
• Still others may have an immune response to it that is highly irritating.
Any one of these three scenarios means that your child’s ADHD may be linked to fungal overgrowth! The good news is, this is easy to redirect. And you may be amazed at how differently your child functions as a result.
Why is this even on the map nowadays? Because in the last thirty years, children have received many more antibiotics than at any time before, and they receive them earlier (even in utero, or at delivery, if mom needs a C-section or has Group B Strep infection). We also use more and more antibiotics in feed animals, too. Antibiotics don’t kill fungal species, just bacteria – including bacteria humans need (especially babies) for normal immune function, digestion, and neurotransmitter balance (did you know there is more serotonin in your gut than in your brain, thanks to healthy bacteria?). In effect, antibiotics are like fertilizer for fungal overgrowth. So if antibiotics featured prominently, early, or both in your child’s life, sugar and carb cravings are strong, and ADHD is now an issue, odds favor Candida or other fungal strains as component you can work with. Fungal microbes make lots of toxins (alcohol, dermorphin, deltorphin, acetylaldehyde), which readily reach the brain, where they disrupt sleep, behavior, and learning. This tenet of the GAPS approach to psychiatric conditions has a pedigree in scientific review that you can delve into here.
So, what do you do about it? Clear that fungal load to gear up a healthier gut and whole body biome. Real food, less sugar and starch, and less processed food can do that gradually. But especially for kids whose appetites are fiercely rigid for starchy low protein foods, intervene with strong herbal anti fungal (drops or capsules) to clear this out. This changes appetites fast, and avoids a lot of conflict when new foods are presented.
What herbs? There are many to choose from, and they can have an impact as strong as or stronger than prescription drugs, in
Available as capsules also, a strong anti fungal blend.
my clinical experience. I have great respect for these potent tools: caprylic acid, undecylenic acid, olive leaf extract, grapefruit seed extract, berberine, allicin (from garlic) are just a few of the options. Single herb extracts or blends are widely available and I guide my clients on the use of these in my practice. Which ones may be most effective can be discerned with a functional stool test that cultures yeast strains and then tests which agents killed the found strains. In some cases, it may be that the fungal piece warrants a medication. Both Nystatin and Diflucan are FDA approved for use in infants and children. Meanwhile, I have found that the herbs can be as if not sometimes more effective, gentler to use long term, and easier to administer.
Along with the anti fungal support, probiotics help as well, to populate the gut with those friendly bacteria directly. These will ultimately keep Candida overgrowth in check on their own. It’s important while doing these things to work on better food (see part 1), because those gut bugs eat first, and they eat whatever your child eats. Give the food that the good stuff likes to eat for more success; Candida loves empty sugary food while a healthy biome likes a variety of foods that have fiber, varied carbohydrates, vitamins, and minerals.
Which probiotic? Choose one with guaranteed potency, without the worthless fillers found in most over the counter probiotics sold at the supermarket or your local pharmacy. Certain circumstances will make probiotics hard to tolerate, so if you have trouble or no success with this piece, get help.
Some products are abysmal for potency – as low as a few million CFUs. Others don’t even specify dose, beyond something like “200 milligrams” of probiotic, which means nothing. I’m reaching for 25 to 250 billion CFUs (colony forming units) per dose, depending on the child’s situation. Which strains to choose matters too; some kids do well with one product that will go badly for the next, and vice versa. Buy refrigerated probiotics and store them there; do not microwave, boil or heat past “wrist” temperature, or put through vigorous blending or mixing. Tip: If purchasing probiotics through my client interface, defer the costly chill pack shipping. A small chilled brick pack is always included; the extra cost buys you foam insulation and even more chilled bricks, for about $60. Just buy usual ship method, and store the product in refrigerator immediately on arrival.
Probiotics are available as capsules, chewables or loose powder. Begin with whatever format your child will accept, at low dose (a quarter usual dose), and work up slowly. Going too fast may mean stomach aches or diarrhea for your child. Expect to see gradual, comfortable shift toward a soft formed bowel movement every day or every other day at the least. Not sure what that means? Check out the Bristol scale.
What else should you expect from working on the fungal part of naturally supporting ADHD, focus, and learning? Besides normalized bowel habits (a “4” on the Bristol scale, daily), look for less belly bloat, fewer sugar and carb cravings, more calm, more “okay, mom” from your child instead of the oppositional tantrum, longer stretches of effort at homework instead of “I can’t do this” after seven minutes, more ability to socialize with peers, and even some surprisingly positive reports from teachers.
Next up, Part 3 of my series on natural supports for ADHD, ADD, learning, focus, and attention: Minerals, and Beware Magic Bullets!
Got kids? You might have noticed, if they’re school age, that their teachers start to get itchy, usually around fourth grade. For many traditional elementary schools, that’s when the game changes. More sitting, less moving, more producing written work, higher reading expectations, and the type face for reading gets smaller. Many kids just aren’t there. Next thing you know, the teacher or principal uses the “m” word (which, by the way, is a legal minefield). Is it medication time?
Other kids have dramatic challenges from day one of circle time in pre-school. They can’t sit without poking a peer, jumping up and bolting for a favorite activity or toy, or shouting a lot.
You don’t need an official ADHD diagnosis to support children with these symptoms – they can learn and function more easily, more naturally, more innately either way. Here’s the first five things I do when a child comes into my office needing support for attention, ADHD, and learning, below. For more detail and further strategies, pick up a copy of Special Needs Kids Go Pharm-Free.
1) Food. The classic profile of an ADHD kid coming into my office is a kid who eats processed food often, plus a lot of starchy stuff, not enough protein and healthy fats, and sometimes, a lot of dairy. The bad news: Even if you chose the organic Cheddar Bunnies or the gluten free goldfish crackers instead of the regular ones, organic or no, either way, it’s still empty, starchy, over-processed stuff that doesn’t serve a growing brain well when eaten by the bowlful every day. Pretzels, power bars, yogurt tubes, corn chips, potato chips, bread, bagels, pizza, noodle bowls, breakfast cereals… All of it can be low for the minerals and protein that the brain needs to run its neurotransmitter loops, plus high in sugar or simple starchy grains and void of healthful fats that the brain needs.
Even if this was organic, it’s still starchy junk
Solution: Real food. Though kids can be fiercely picky, and making changes is hard, the rewards can be great. Yes, it takes extra time and planning, but even one or two good whole food meals or snacks a week is a step in the right direction. Think of eggs for breakfast as well as organic bacon; hash with last night’s roasted potatoes or parsnips plus some chopped garlic, pepper, and sausage; porridge made from pumpkin and whole coconut milk instead of cereal grains, with some sesame tahini, molasses and cinnamon. If bars are your kids’ thing, check out these recipes for ideas that are way better than the processed stuff from the store. Try some different smoothie recipes in the morning that let you build in minerals, protein, and fats. Move away from refined or sugary breakfast cereals, even if they are organic – they’re still sugary refined food. Check out BalancedBites.com for an avalanche of ideas and recipes.
For portable school snacks, work in some raw or roasted nut and seed options and avoid things roasted in GMO oils, like canola, soy, corn, or cottonseed. Brain-safer oils are organic sunflower, safflower, or olive oils, or just choose unfrosted (raw) nuts or seeds. Make a trail mix of your own (a few chocolate chips and raisins won’t hurt); introduce your child to a simple crunchy option like raw whole almonds, which go well with pepperoni slices, raisins, and a smidge of raw goat or cow’s milk cheese. Nut butters are an option, though many are sugary, so keep these in less frequent rotation rather than daily.
For kids who like crunch, pick from naturally crisp and sweet veggies like orange, yellow, or red bell peppers or young asparagus. Pack finger food sized slivers or stems. A dip like hummus or white bean dip will add protein, healthier carbs, some minerals, and fats. Familiar favorites like apples and grapes may work better for your child as a Waldorf salad (which adds some fat and protein) than on their own (just carbs). Vary this with other fruits like mango, cantaloupe, or kiwi, and add any tolerated nut or seed plus a healthy fat like mayonnaise, avocado, olive oil, or sesame tahini. A variation that always vanishes in my home is this salad, to which we add sunflower seeds and dates. For protein snacks, experiment with organic beef or turkey jerky; cold curried chicken salad with raisins, sunflower seed, celery and mayo; hard boiled or deviled eggs; organic salami slices with raw almonds and a few chunks of cheese. Long short, work toward more, not less, whole unprocessed protein and calorie sources. These give the brain a variety of amino acids, fats, and minerals to work with toward easier neurotransmitter signaling and cell to cell flow.
2) Fats. Eat more of these. Most kids I encounter with ADHD, ADD, and problems with focus or attention don’t eat enough total fat. I see this when I review their food intakes – they’re skewed heavily for starchy carbs. How much fat is good? Exact grams per day will vary per your child’s age, weight, and other needs, but bank on at least 50-60 grams per day from food for starters. Fats are critical for kids’ brains to grow and function normally; without them, serious impairments in brain and growth will occur. Besides allowing more total fats, vary them – that is, fats and oils should come from a variety of whole foods (vegetables and vegetable oils; nuts, seeds and their butters; meats and poultry; whole coconut milk, butter or ghee, fish if you eat it), not one source (as in, just cheese or hot dogs), not processed foods (hot dogs, cereals, power bars, crackers, chips). I definitely encourage organic especially for fats, since fat tissue and oils are where pesticides,heavy metals, and other toxins accumulate in plant foods, fish, and livestock. Expensive, but when you can afford it, buy organic.
What about fish oil, and omega 3 fats? Yes, use these, if ADHD, ADD, dyslexia, and other learning or visual processing issues are on deck. I’ve found that many families are attempting fish oils at potencies that are too low to get a benefit, don’t use it daily (as you should, just as you would for a medication), give up too soon, or don’t give a format their child will accept. My clinical experience mirrors what is seen in many clinical trials: Omega 3 oils do work for ADHD and learning, if used consistently (daily for at least 3-4 months), and at the right dose. Omega 3’s offer multiple benefits (anti-inflammatory effects, less anxiety, better visual processing, calmer behavior, to name a few) without side effects. One of my least favorite side effects of stimulant medications for children and teens is the impact on weight, growth, and gain. These medications can suppress appetite and impair growth; I’ve seen it many times. This in turn injures focus and learning. Children should not have to trade a nourishing, adequate food intake in order to focus and learn!
How much is right? For DHA omega 3 (docosahexaenoic acid), I start children at 800 to 1000 mg daily at least, and may go up to 3000 mg. I rarely see a therapeutic effect below a gram (1000 mg) daily for DHA, which is noted for improving focus/attention and tasks like the visual tracking that permits reading or writing across the whole page. EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) omega 3 fatty acid is my go-to when there is more mood, tantrums, or volatility in the picture. In that case, same idea: Dose higher than you might expect. I typically see shifts starting at 2000-3000 mg of EPA per day; some kids may go as high as 6000 mg. Caveat: If your child uses any psychiatric medication, let your prescriber know if you’d like to use fish oils. EPA and DHA omega 3’s can be used together. Brands for purity, potency, acceptance (will your kid eat that?), and most rigorous screening for toxicity? Pharmax and Apex Energetics. You can purchase these brands through Nutrition Care For Children if you like, or surf the web to find them. Nordic Naturals is my next choice, and this is widely available in stores.
I’m always asked: What about flax for omega 3’s? I do have some young vegetarians in my practice, not to mention a few who won’t touch fish oils no matter how good they actually taste when manufactured well. Flax is my lesser choice. It takes a good bit more of it to dose effectively, and at higher doses, it may interfere with thyroid function. That said, a tablespoon of ground flax seed daily is a useful addition to smoothies both for its added healthy fats but for fiber as well. It helps smoothies thicken up into a creamy texture too. Meanwhile there are some products from Barlean’s that meet needs for the super picky tasters out there, though these don’t entirely replace whole food sources of healthy fats, which your kids should be eating every day.
Stay tuned for part two of natural supports for ADHD, focus, and learning – where I cover my next three punch list items for helping kids learn the way they were built to learn. Thanks for dropping by!
Every so often my husband travels to China for work. I’m always fascinated when he shares pictures of food and what people eat there. It’s so different from what Americans eat. Sweets are rare, and baked goods unheard of for the most part. This factory lunch (cashew chicken, baby bok choy, rice, and scrambled egg) was served during a work day, and it cost about seventy five cents in US currency. No gluten, no processed fats, no GMOs, no additives or sugars. This fresh food was prepared on site, and is the sort of stuff usually reserved for wealthier shoppers at stores like Whole Foods in the US. Another cool thing? My husband looked on in surprise as all the office workers put their heads down on their desks for a brief nap after lunch. Meanwile, many working Americans are limited to rushed eating from food deserts that sell only sugary, trans-fat, artificial, processed convenience food.
A middle class is taking shape in China. More Chinese nationals can afford to buy stuff, or take weekend trips to Hong Kong, which is about two hours by train from Shenzhen, the pollution-choked maze of factories where my husband’s work takes him (and where just about everything you buy is made). By the way, if you believe that environmental regulations are too burdensome for businesses, spend some time in Shenzhen. You’ll be glad to return to the US, where breathing does not routinely singe your throat or chest, and rotting trash or wafting sewage don’t color most every stroll.
Despite the dirty air and streets, my husband says he can feel energized while working in Shenzhen. Besides enjoying the cheerful and generous demeanor of his Chinese counterparts, he is convinced it’s because of the food. Even though our household is a mostly organic, non-GMO one with lots of real food prepared daily, he notices a difference when in China. There is virtually no processed food, and GMO foods are not yet fully permitted. Everything is fresh and sourced locally. The idea of eating previously frozen meat, or beef grown in one country then shipped to another to be processed, was a shock to his co-workers. The meat and fish that his Chinese co-workers eat walks or swims right up until meal time. Here is a duck fish plucked from its tank just prior to cooking:
It was served ten minutes later as a stew, cooked right at the table of a nearby restaurant, for another work-a-day lunch:
Despite meager wages and a decidedly gritty urban environment, China’s working class is able to access fresh whole food. Unlike America’s working poor, who are challenged by food deserts that span neighborhoods or regions, Shenzhen workers can tap an outdoor market where every conceivable fresh food item can be purchased. Here’s eggplant, potatoes, tomatoes, cucumbers, and different types of peppers…
Mushrooms of every sort, garlic, ginger, onions, spices, dried fish…
The market covers about an acre, and conditions are rustic. There are fresh meats and chickens as well:
One night a celebration was had at one of the factory workers’ homes. My husband was honored to be included. Their spartan kitchen had a small cold-water-only sink, and one plug-in burner. A dorm-sized refrigerator was there too. This is the entire kitchen, where a visiting neighbor joined in to prepare the meal:
So tiny was their apartment, the vegetables had to be prepared in the bathroom doorway.
Still, my husband’s hosts produced a delicious multi-course meal.
Isn’t this humbling? Many of us in the US have kitchens with microwaves, one or two ovens, four or six burner stoves, tall refrigerators, freezers, disposals, and cabinets full of mixers, blenders, toasters, food processors, juicers – but still find preparing real, whole, fresh food every day too hard to do.
With all the hubbub in academic circles now for the human biome and how crucial it is for brain and immune system development, it’s interesting to see that very young children here are free to explore in spaces that would have most American mothers swooping their toddlers to safety.
China is experiencing rapid changes in its economy and social structure, as it mingles more with the rest of the world in its eagerness to cheaply manufacturer everything we want to buy. Pressure is mounting for the Chinese to accept GMO foods as well, but government officials are finding resistance. I hope China can keep its rich and diverse food culture in tact.