Smoothies? What’s not to love? If you have a kiddo who likes the idea of a personal power shake, you can make a functional food smoothie on the regular. You can even let your child experiment with favorite flavors, concoctions, or who knows what (my son once made us “green spaghetti” for dinner when he was six. It was GF spaghetti in water with green food coloring. Whatever! He was happy.)
I often work up concoctions for kids in my practice who can’t drink stuff like Pediasure to gain weight or can’t use dairy, soy, or other proteins.
And they’re not just for kids. Here’s what happened to me. Smoothies helped me get back on my feet:
In 2011, I abruptly fell very ill, three weeks after a physical in which my doctor deemed me fit as a fiddle. In that three week time span, something bit my ear. A spider? We’ll never know, but whatever it was packed a punch – and I didn’t realize it at first. Within a week, my legs were collapsing out from under me with shooting pains; I was dizzy all the time; my heart raced; any water I drank left me in greater amounts than I took in (over four liters/day urine loss – they measured); my blood sugar fluctuated (I once walked in for a blood draw after a good breakfast and showed a blood glucose level of 48, after it had been 135 fasting that morning); I constantly felt short of air. But, no fever, no rash, no clear clues.
I snapped this picture of a 3″ long female wolf spider carrying eggs on its back on a trail near my house. Nasty if they bite
I stumped one specialist after another. My entire endocrine system had lost itself, as did my immune system. I fell to multiple ordinary infections that my body couldn’t fight, and had inexplicably low white blood cells, beta cells, and neutrophils. Long story (including an old, unknown, untreated exposure to Lyme disease), but I’m still digging out, and into my third year of recovery. I can now drive again, work, stand up without reeling into dizziness, walk and trot, and ski (for short spurts). I can do yoga. I can travel by air again after being grounded for the first 18 months, as long as I have supplemental oxygen and a face mask (weird looking… but at least people steer clear of me and I get more room). I can get up in the morning and function, and even usually sleep again at night, mostly.
Anyhoo, after a year of rotating through many doctors, hospitalizations, near-death moments (literally), medications, herbs, supplements, and treatments, I had more stability in my endocrine system, but was still too weak and sick to return to work, do the athletic things I loved, or care for my family. I was still disabled, and still dependent on a home health aid. This, after spending all the prior fifty years of my life being healthy, physically active, and busy. At this point, I finally had a team of smart people vetted and assembled, after much poking, blood giving, X-rays, electrocardiograms, a tilt table test, and other trials and errors on me.
Just some of the prescriptions I was given, few of which helped – but changing what I ate became as essential to my recovery as finding effective medicines
Hours out of hospital, Christmas 2011. Still wearing an ICU bracelet and glad to be opening gifts at home.. but very sick with no answers.
Then one day one of my docs looked at me and said, “You have to do this with food. Your liver can’t take more medications for these infections.”
For the first time in my life, someone was telling me how to use food for health, instead of me telling them.
I’d already spent fifteen months as a disabled person, and that was enough. No hesitation. I already ate cleanly and was gluten free (easier in my house, with my 17 year old son being gluten intolerant since age 22 months). But I became even more strict about eating only organic and GMO free foods, went Paleo per the doc’s orders, and added all kinds of blended and juiced foods to ease my liver, kidneys, and adrenals back into health. Within two months, I felt markedly better. It was the beginning of my return to normal. I still have needed some medications here and there, and still rely on many glandulars, herbs, and food based supplements that my providers choose for me. But most of all, I have to eat really good food. It’s a lot of work every day, but my alternative option is.. not happening!
Pre-sick, I’d often start my day with no food at all. Maybe some green tea. Further back a few years, just black coffee. I’d eat light and gluten free but still ate grains. A dietitian friend asked me how much protein I ate in a day, and I was surprised to notice that it was less than half of what I really needed. Oops.
Now it was a new ball game. I had to start each day with a strong protein and healthy traditional fats meal. I was unable to exercise and was fearful that I’d balloon in weight. It turned out that my new foods didn’t do this to me, but some medications did. I included lots of lamb, red meats, bacon, coconut milk, and eggs, but my weight remained steady. My total cholesterol climbed, but my doctors were not concerned, because my level of healthy cholesterol was good. In fact, they unanimously interpreted this new lipid profile as protective against inflammation and infection, something I really needed. I ate a lot more vegetables and greens, less fruit, and zero store bought juice. Sweets and grains were out. Gone. Of course, I had already completely cut out alcohol and coffee.
The stretches when I needed longer term antibiotics were the weight gain moments. Antibiotics, I noticed, made it harder for me to avoid grains. They drove cravings for grains and sweets, increased my appetite, and I needed constant support to avoid fungal load in my body when I use them. This I don’t like, and I’m looking forward to having even more energy back so I can become more physically active again.
For a long while, to rebuild my kidneys and adrenal glands, which were not working well early in this illness, I juiced greens, celery, ginger, and apples. This felt like a salve in my body – soothing and restorative! I ate seared kale, chard, Brussel sprouts, cauliflower, parsnips, and broccolini for carbs, instead of grainy snacks. For at least six months, potatoes were off my list too (a few are back in, and not causing trouble). Nuts and seeds figured in also – raw almonds, raw cashews, raw pine nuts, pumpkin seeds. That felt good. Once I was a little stronger, I could do liver purges, with water, olive oil, whole lemon, and whole garlic, or sometimes, with strong prescription herb blends that I drank as tea. This also felt really good, better than medications. I slowly, steadily gained strength.
Though I couldn’t tolerate these early on, eventually, I could put together a blender full of helping foods, protein, and supplements in the morning. This is my current morning blend, below. I love the orange-cocoa-sesame flavors. Each item here has been approved for me by my team (Tasmin Cordie DC, Jill Carnahan MD, Daniel Kinderlehrer MD). When it was my turn for help, I was deeply grateful for these smart people. I hope you can also find doctors and providers who know the power of food, and have the skill to choose supplements wisely – just as I do for the kids in my own practice.
I still have a ways to go. My goal is to be able to jog again, play soccer again, or run fast again, and just enjoy life. Even though I ate healthfully for the most part before, I wasn’t eating enough of the foods that really heal, restore, and regenerate. Eating this way takes more work, definitely costs more, but feels good. It doesn’t cost more than the health care expenses I rung up just in the first year that I was sick (nearly $60,000, only half of which was covered by insurance). I slip up some with a gluten free sweet here or a potato chip there, but it doesn’t toss me into a physical tailspin anymore when I do – a sign that my strength is continuing to build. Still, I won’t be going back to my old ways soon: Even with all this good food replenishing and rebuilding me from the inside out for the last 18 months, I have needed infused human immunoglobulin to kick start my flat-lined immune system.
Getting hooked up for my 2nd human immunoglobluin infusion. Two down, sixteen to go.
So, if you want to try a kick-butt morning smoothie, here’s a recipe (sort of) for what I’m liking this month. This one leans on more than the usual number of supplements, all of which come from whole food, and all of which I also use in my practice. I always start with crushed iced at the bottom of the blender for this one. Otherwise, I have a centrifugal juicer that is great for citrus, celery, apples, and firm veggies like carrots. For greens like kale, mint, or basil, I use my blender.
Vitamix is cool but this does the job too
Then I add a “milk” of choice. This can be entirely whole coconut milk (rather heavy); cut that with half unsweetened almond milk or just use almond milk (never sweetened). Today I treated myself to grass-fed organic cow’s milk (a rarity in my case); if I chance on raw goat milk from a neighbor or friend, that will be in for sure.
Next I add…
Apex Energetics Glycemovite ~1 scoop (pea based protein with additional amino acids, minerals, and herbs for blood glucose support). I used this for a while, but now am liking grass-fed collagen peptides even better. Kids who can’t tolerate many food proteins often do well with this.
Organic plain whey powder ~ 1 TBSP (GMO free, non-denatured whey protein high in immune modulators)
Klaire Labs Galactommune (prebiotics to support healthy gut microbiome; with beta glucans to support innate immunity, which I had mostly lost). Go even further for a depleted immune system with hypoallergenic, oral immunoglobulin support. This is another ingredient that has worked wonders for many kids in my practice too.
Organic flax seed meal (NOW brand is my current pick; adds fiber and omega 3 fats). Another top functional fat is C8 oil, aka caprylic acid, which is a medium chain triglyceride that is in coconut oil. The pure C8 oil is colorless, odorless, tasteless, and liquid. It has antiviral, anti fungal, and antibacterial action, and it is a fast, easy fat to absorb. You may have seen it sold as Brain Octane Oil or Dr Mercola’s Ketone Energy. This stuff feels good and can help kids with difficulty growing, gaining, and repairing gut tissue.
Organic sesame tahini ~1 TBSP (for flavorful creaminess, more fats, more protein, a little calcium, folate, and iron. Favorite brand? Once Again Tahini). Pick any nut butter your kid likes.
Next.. I rotate about a teaspoon of one item from this crew, for some omega 3 fatty acids, turmeric, or vitamin D (I don’t put them all in one smoothie!). All of these are flavored with orange oil: Apex Energetics Ultra D 5000, Apex Energetics Tumero Active, Pharmax Finest Pure Fish Oil or Cod Liver Oil. I use the Ultra D 5000 when my vitamin D levels are dropping below 50. The Tumero is a boost for anti-inflammatory help; this product is the best way I have found to get this very beneficial supplement into kids. It is a liquid that comes with a plastic oral syringe, so you can easily squirt the right dose into the mouth directly. It tastes good enough to do that. It can also blend well and will impart a strong orange flavor that goes well with other flavors kids might like, like cocoa, vanilla, or other fruit.
Unsweetened pure cacao powder, no added sugar
If you or your child still has a need for some sweet, options include stevia, in as close to its original plant form as can be had – beware strange blended products like Truvia that add chemicals and other ingredients. Or add 1/3 ripe banana, a small blob of raw organic honey, a dash of real maple syrup, 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon, or 1/8 cup leftover baked sweet potato. Those on GAPS or strict Paleo will pass on those options if they like. But, I have found after fifteen years in practice with some very picky eaters that it can be a winning strategy to pick your battles and celebrate the little victories. A homemade smoothie chock full of organic ingredients and healthy supplemental brain fats is way better than Pediasure, even if it does have a little stevia or sweet potato in it.
Even though my passion for food, health, and nutrition began about forty years ago – when I was a teenager and first read Diet For A Small Planet – and even though I have spent many years learning and enjoying how to help others heal with food and nutrition – this experience has been a life changing one for me. I now know on a deep, physical and personal level how crucial food really is to owning and experiencing health. I had always been a healthy person who ate mostly clean and well, but once I was close to dying, only going full bore into even better food was what put me back together. The dozens of prescription drugs I was given weren’t saving me. It has taken over a year of rebuild from the inside out. That is what our bodies can do, given the right tools. I would be lying if I didn’t say that meditation and prayer didn’t also figure in. But now I feel even more delighted to help parents work with their kids to replace unhealthy foods that are processed, genetically modified, artificially flavored and colored, altered with strange additives new to human livers with wholesome, real, and hopefully organic food. For our youngest, most vulnerable family members, it might matter more than you can know.
Gratitude: Back on the slopes at Winter Park, Colorado, April 2014
Recently a salesperson visited our office with info on what she was calling a “medical food for ADHD”. It is a pill available only by prescription.
Sigh. Don’t fall for it.
When I looked at the literature for this product, there was a lot of slick pharma-esque marketing material, clearly created to appeal to pediatricians or psychiatrists accustomed to the ease of prescribing stimulant medications for children (and not familiar with the strategy of simply helping families enjoy actual whole food to feel better). It was to be sold via prescription only, even though it’s not terribly different from dozens if not hundreds of other preparations already out there that you can buy yourself.
The product that the salesperson brought in was simply a pill supplement of omega 3 fatty acids (think fish oils) and phosphatidyl serine, two things found in many other supplements, in some foods, and in healthy brains. Though the “white paper” for this product made it sound as though this was a breakthrough that only this manufacturer had studied, many authors have found the same thing that the scientist giving a lecture (and free dinner, in true, woo-the-prescriber fashion) on this product found: Clinical trials show these two compounds to be effective for many things, including inattention, dyslexia, low mood, impulsivity, sensory processing, and hyperactivity, while improving dark adaptation and tracking for the eyes. Yes, a child’s brain and eyes need DHA (docohexasanoic acid, an omega 3 fatty acid we know and love from fish oil) and phosphatidyl serine, a ubiquitous molecule in healthy brains that is part amino acid (from protein) and part lipid (from fats). I just recently posted on the crucial importance of ample, varied, and traditional fats in kids’ diets for this very reason.
No, these guys aren’t the first ones down the pike to notice that kids with ADHD benefit from these lipids (a fancy word for fats). Enzymotec, the company behind this, seems late in lipids-for-ADHD game at best – but they are definitely jumping on the increasingly popular pharma industry bandwagon to beef up their earnings by claiming special pharmaceutical status for “new” products that are just… a fancy word for food. While there’s no question that supplements of these deliver a benefit that is difficult to get by eating enough from foods, especially for omega 3 fatty acids, these are still naturally occurring substances that don’t necessarily need a slick, patented liposomal bubble around them to get absorbed into your child’s brain.
But what really irked me was the claim that this is a “medical food for ADHD” that offers a “whole new way to think about health” – as if using whole foods and high quality, standardized-dose, toxin-free fish oil, or liposomal supplements is new.
In order for anything to be a medical food, it has to be disease or condition specific, and it has to be something that a person can’t obtain from food or other naturally occuring sources. Here’s the FDA criteria for medical foods quoted on the website promoting this product:
Medical foods are artificial foods, formulated into complexes of fats, proteins, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals, that are FDA-approved to replace real, actual food. Besides vitamins or minerals, they have calories and protein in them. They are intended to substitute for food, meaning, a child could literally not eat any food and could have basic nutritional needs met with just the medical food version if necessary. If you fed your child nothing but these miraculous ADHD pills, you would surely have a problem, and you surely would not “cure” their ADHD, because they would be dying of malnutrition. And, having ADHD is not a condition that prevents anyone from eating or metabolizing DHA, omega 3 fatty acids, or phosphatidyl serine from a variety of foods or supplements. So, I am puzzled by the “medical food” status reportedly granted here.
Though artificial medical foods may sound a little horrifying, there is a place for this stuff: Kids who have had bowel surgeries or procedures, kids with an inability to eat orally for whatever reason, kids who have severe malnutrition and failure to thrive, infants with special situations that make usual feeding impossible, kids with severe inflammatory bowel disease or eosinophilic esophagitis or severe multiple food protein intolerance .. any of these can warrant using a prescribed medical food, in the form of a formula with all basic essential nutrients in it, including calories. I’ve used these in my practice many times, and at the right time and place, with monitoring, they are useful and successful. They can make it easy for an injured gut to quickly take in replenishment, because these are in a format that require little to no digestion or enzymatic action to be absorbed. But, because they alter gut bacteria away from what is ideal for humans (some literature shows that they favor growth of nastier gut microbes like Clostridia difficile, Helicobactor pylori, or excessive fungal species), my goal is always to repair a child’s gut to the point where they can eat real food again.
The other irksome thing about this product is that it further demonizes ADHD, which is something I don’t think families need. In order to get the FDA to approve a product as a medical food for ADHD, the manufacturer has to frame ADHD as a diagnosable condition that precludes a patient from getting this nutrient in other ways.
Of course, this isn’t true for ADHD and these lipids.
Many, myself included, consider much of what is diagnosed as ADHD in kids as the net effect of toxic overload from environment and GMO foods, over use of vaccines and antibiotics, and a diet heavy on nutritionally vacant processed foods. This is reversible, as I have witnessed many times in my practice, as many parent anecdotes report, and even as literature studying these lipids have found. You don’t need to fatten the portfolio of a pharmaceutical company to make this happen. Kids eating foods that deliver ample traditional healthy brain fats, varied protein, and minerals are supporting their brains better for learning, growing, and thriving.
I’ve seen products like this before, and have wondered: Do the people creating these realize these products are deceptive, in that equally effective, non-prescription products may be had? That even though they have gone through all the hoops to get FDA approval to sell natural substances from foods in this way, and trumpet claims for having patented them, that people can actually just go buy or eat this stuff on their own? Who knows – but obviously, Enzomytec investors hope you and your doctor believe that ADHD is a mysterious condition that only their magic pill can cure. This company’s own literature admits that the FDA does not require pre-approval for medical food status, a loop hole that many pharmaceutical firms leverage to sell you stuff that may actually be available to you from eating a rich and varied diet, or from good quality supplements that may be cheaper. As it becomes more and more apparent that whole, organic foods plus thoughtful use of naturally occurring food sourced compounds in supplements can work better than a prescription drug for many conditions, pharmaceutical companies are scrambling to come up with these “medical foods” as a way to cash in.
Perhaps this is a win for those among us who only do something when it’s ordered on a prescription pad. We’ve all been there. How many of us have been told to eat differently for a child’s (or our own) health, only to pass on it, in search of that magic bullet pill instead? Fair enough, sometimes that is what it takes. But just so you know: Eating mostly whole food is better for your brain and body, than eating mostly processed food plus a pill or two. For example, you might be amazed to try fermented cod liver oil instead of these prescription pills, and your child may experience far greater benefits. If you like, add a GMO free, soy free phosphatidyl serine pill also once a day, and give it a good two months. Your child will gradually shift with better attention, calming, and focus as these healthy fats re-populate brain, eye, and nerve tissue.
Can kids be addicted to dairy food? Yep. Like, literally? Yep.
Here’s a common scenario in my pediatric nutrition practice: Young child, growing weakly or even presenting with failure to thrive (unable to grow above 5th percentiles), with developmental question marks (slow to talk, social anxiety), and behaving fiercely at the drop of a hat (tantrums). There may be reflux and constipation, possibly medication dependent. Worst case scenario, the child has required tube feeding, has Crohns diagnosis as a toddler, or has had a few scoping procedures with no clear diagnosis (which can be even worse!). Parents are weary and have been around the block: Specialists in GI disorders, developmental pediatrics, feeding therapy, and perhaps a neurologist or speech and language pathologist have all had their go’s at the child, but – improvements – if any – are meek, and dependent on pharmaceuticals or weekly therapies.
This is what dairy addiction can look like. Kids become so picky for foods with milk protein and nothing but milk protein (Pediasure, yogurt, milk, cheese), that they drive their health downward until they don’t grow, can’t play, can’t poop, can’t learn, can’t sleep. Seen it! Many, many times.
Or, this: Maybe your child isn’t this bad. Perhaps they just like I mean love a lot of dairy food. To the point where suggesting something else is a fiasco, and meals are tense. No veggies, beige foods only, no variation allowed. Lots of rigidity. Often, these kids are growing like gangbusters. Big heads, no problem gaining weight, and they love being loud, rough, and hyper – to the point where, once they’re 9 or 10 years old, this isn’t so cute anymore, and teachers are looking at you sideways for when you will medicate for ADHD.
Even in that case, you might be surprised at how differently your child behaves, grows, sleeps, or interacts, once that dairy protein (casein) is no longer a major feature in their day.
There’s absolutely nothing magical about dairy. Many other foods can deliver protein, healthy fats and oils, and more minerals, including calcium.
What’s going on here? This mechanism is not an allergy (though allergy or sensitivity may be present at the same time – that’s a different reaction altogether). In this case, a chemistry has evolved in which your kid is literally addicted to milk.
If milk protein isn’t fully digested, it can enter the bloodstream in a form called casomorphin, which, you guessed it, looks like morphine to the brain and central nervous system. Casomorphin is quite addicting.
A short list of foods can make these potent, habit-forming “dietary opiates”, if a gut is “leaky”, and not finishing digestion: Wheat, gluten, soy protein, and pea protein concentrates (like Ripple milk, or Daiya cheese products, or most vegan protein powders).
Not long ago, you could measure this with a urine test. This was never a standard-of-care test, and your pediatrician will likely never have heard of it. Called urine polypeptide test, it screened for the protein fragments (“peptides”) leftover when dairy protein (casein) is poorly digested. It also screened for same from wheat protein (gluten). These over-sized peptides can exist to a tiny, insignificant degree, after a healthy gut with good digestive function takes apart a wheat or dairy meal. But with weak digestion, an overly permissive gut wall (aka “leaky gut” – a gut that lets these too-big peptides pass through to circulation), and the wrong gut bacteria (that worsen rather than lessen the impact of these peptides), these peptides will show up in urine in larger than expected amounts. (Nowadays, the only test available for this is a blood draw to see if you make enough of the enzyme to break down dietary opiate peptides.)
If they’re in urine, or if the enzyme is lacking to break down food-sourced opiate like protein fragments, then they are circulating widely, and can also be in your child’s brain.
Why is this bad? Because these peptides mimic opiates. They bind the same receptors as drugs like morphine. They are indeed potently addictive. Children who adamantly refuse foods other than just wheat, just dairy, or both may have this addiction active in their brains. Here’s a schematic to show what happens:
This is your kid’s brain on dairy or wheat overload. Source
Not only does this deny a child all the other foods, besides milk or wheat, needed for their brains and bodies to grow and thrive, it can cause constipation, trigger behavior that is hyper, volatile, or downright violent and combative; interrupt learning, social skills, and language development; cause a pattern of wakefulness between 12:00 and 3:00 AM; and delay potty training (sensations are dulled with these opiate-imitators).
In my experience, the more diet-sourced opiate measured in urine, the less verbal and more developmentally delayed the child will be. In fact, clinical trials with naltrexone, a drug used to treat opiate addiction, have shown better behavior in children with autism and increased verbal ability.The more functional the child is, the less likely that casomorphin will fall out of range – but if symptoms are active for constipation, hyperactivity, difficulty socializing, rageful reactivity, slow language progress, or dilated pupils, then I will look at eliminating the dairy anyway.
Most every child in my practice, whether they have an autism or sensory processing disorder diagnosis or no diagnosis at all, presents with nutrition challenges that can be addressed for better learning, growing, and being. Your child doesn’t have to be “special needs” to have a problem with dairy – see if the info below applies in your house.
If your kid really likes these and eats 3 or 4 per day.. uh oh
What’s A Milk Addicted Kid?
These are kids who still rely on fluid milk as a major protein and calorie source, well past the age of twelve months, when weaning off breast or formula – as the bulk of daily calories and protein – is typically under way. They drink 40-60 ounces of milk a day (about five to eight cups), and displacing solid calories because of milk intake. This lowers intake of other foods that kids need by age two or three. Milk addicts refuse other foods. They are often oral tactile defensive – that is, they hate varied textures in foods, hate to eat or chew, perhaps have delayed chewing skills (which is why some stick to the bottle in the first place), or still rely on suckling a bottle, thumb, or pacifier to calm themselves. Oral tactile issues or oral motor delays may keep this child drinking from a bottle beyond age three or four. When they accept foods, it’s often dairy items only – sweet yogurt, cheese, ice cream. A few random solids might be in the diet, but on balance, their diets lack vegetables, meats, fruits, or foods rich in essential minerals, vitamins, and healthy brain fats. There is often pallor, allergic shiners, white dots on fingernails, and a blank countenance. Growth failure or a weak growth pattern is common in this scenario, but overweight and gaining well isn’t unusual either.
Either way, parents of milk addicted kids are often told by their doctors and feeding therapists – unwittingly – to turn to high-calorie milk-based drinks like Pediasure, Peptamen Junior, Carnation Instant Breakfast, or Boost, in hopes of providing a few micronutrients and extra calories. This won’t work, because it leaves the child still dependent on, and addicted to, opiates formed from casein, the protein source in these drinks. For non-dairy nutrition boosting options, click here.
These children often have neurological and sensory challenges that make a cold-turkey switch off of milk a sure fail. If bottle feeding is still in the picture, the cold turkey approach can really backfire, entrenching your child’s dependence on the bottle or milk, and fear of losing these, even more deeply. In this scenario, you need a nutritious milk replacement, minerals replenishment, correction for imbalanced gut microbes, and a sensory integration plan to replace the neurological organization that sucking on the bottle gives the child.
Developmentally, milk addicts (especially those with an autism diagnosis) who eat a lot of dairy seem to show the more profound language delays. When they are on the younger end, say age three or four years, they may speak more like a one to two year old, or be non-verbal. If they are school age, say six or so, they may have expressive language praxis issues, meaning that they can talk but not in a typical way. They may use echolalic language (repeating what they hear), misuse pronouns or refer to themselves in the third person, or misunderstand social context. This is often the first area of functioning that shifts when dietary opiates begin to disengage: Your child may begin to use language in a new, more typical way; make eye contact; or comply more typically with your requests.. within 2-3 weeks of being dairy free.
What To Do About Milk Addiction
1 – Talk to your child’s occupational therapist, if you have one, about what can replace the bottle in terms of its sensory benefit. Children with sensory integration disorder using a bottle at a late age may legitimately need this oral activity for self-calming, which they might not have mastered in other ways. Suddenly removing it with no alternative may trigger more setback than progress. A few inches of surgical tubing can be knotted for a child to suck, chew, and pull. Teething rings as for infants may work too. If your child craves and actually eats non food items, this is another problem called pica. It needs assessment and treatment, as it too can impair IQ, learning, or development. Read about pica here.
2 – If your child eats wheat and dairy foods, but mostly relies on the dairy, then replace gluten foods first and go gluten free. Kids don’t usually notice that the cookies, pasta, bagels, microwave macaroni and cheese, frozen pizza and so on are being replaced with gluten-free versions, as long as they still have their dairy fix. But gluten still has to go, because gluten can trigger the same opiate effect on the brain that milk protein does. Same goes for soy, and pea protein – so, don’t turn to Ripple milk, vegan protein powders (which often have soy or pea protein source), Daiya cheese substitutes (pea, again), soy milk, soy tofu, soy frozen treats, soy cheese substitutes, edamame, soy yogurt, and so on. Swap in the widely available gluten free versions first, with zero fanfare – and zero explanation, unless your child is functional enough to ask a few questions.
Pro Tip! —> Do not expect your child’s approval or even recruit their opinion at this point.
3 – After the gluten is gone, a few weeks in, approach the bigger battle: Withdraw all dairy protein (casein and whey). Begin with casein-free ingredients where they won’t be noticed. When baking, making smoothies, mixing mashed potatoes, or using a pancake mix (gluten free), sub in milks from almond, cashew, hemp, coconut (full fat canned or from carton) but not oat (contains gluten) or soy. Do not use soy milk or soy yogurt – it will trigger the same opiate chemistry. Eventually, your child will completely avoid fluid milk from any mammals (including you mom!) and products made from those milks: Butter, margarines with milk ingredients, cheeses, yogurt that is frozen, creamy, Greek, low fat, any fat, or fat free; Lactaid and lactose free milk (still has casein in it); cream soups and dressings (Ranch dressing, chowders, soups thickened with cream or milk), ice cream, sherbet, pizza or anything else with cheese, Goldfish or Cheezits or cheese puffs, and so on. Avoid foods whose labels say casein, whey, calcium caseinate, powdered dry milk, butter milk, cream, sour cream, cottage cheese, cheese, Parmesan, milk solids, or butter. “Dairy free” does not mean casein free, so read labels carefully.
My go to cheese substitutes omit soy and pea proteins: Miyoko, VioLife, TreeLine, and Kite Hill are my faves.
4 – Balance gut microbes. These help finish digestion. Long short, if none of this is working, a troublesome gut biome would be high on my suspect list – so get this part sorted out. Need help? Contact me!
5 – Get detox on board: A simple step is nightly Epsom salts baths to replenish magnesium and sulfur. Both minerals help liver, gut, and kidney tissue release toxins that may pile up as your child’s gut biome shifts with the new foods he’s eating. Magnesium is calming as well, while sulfur is key for many digestive and liver enzymes. Use about a cup per tub, or a half cup for a toddler weighing less than 30 lbs. Soak your kiddo for 10-20 minutes.
6 – Put in some healthy fats! Oils from nuts (if allergy-safe for your child), sesame oil, olive oil, coconut oil, ghee (clarified butter), avocado, grape seed oil are all excellent and healthful choices that you can sub in for cooking, baking, and dressings. Nut butters and nuts themselves also provide healthy varied fats. Fish oil supplements are a useful boost too, since milk addicts don’t get much (if any) omega 3 fatty acids. There are some excellent kid friendly products out there.
7 – Minerals! Supplement these until interest in mineral rich foods kicks in. Minerals are abundant in leafy greens, vegetables, bone broths, meats, eggs, and herbs. But before your kid is eating that stuff daily, bridge the gap with a mineral rich supplement. It should contain at least 15 mg zinc and cover selenium, chromium, manganese, molybdenum, and boron also. What about iron? Hard to say without you being my patient and completing an assessment with me. Iron is potentially toxic and deadly if dosed incorrectly. If marginal, it creates multiple functional problems (insomnia, hyperactivity, immune compromise, depleted serotonin and more). But don’t supplement it without guidance from your doctor. Or me.
You’re Good To Go!
The first few weeks of this may feel hardest, but stick with it – for a good four months at least. Some children respond quickly, some slowly. It all depends on the child’s nutrition picture at the start, and everyone is different. But one thing that usually happens in the first one to three weeks of total casein (and gluten and soy) removal is… Fireworks! When the opiates begin to vacate endorphin receptors in his brain, your child may start to be very unhappy with this new plan. They are experiencing withdrawal symptoms and it doesn’t feel great. The may stop eating, have more tantrums, not sleep well. Brace yourself – but don’t crack now. If you’ve done all of the steps here faithfully, you will minimize or possibly even totally divert the discomfort that this new food intake may briefly create. It’s temporary, and it is prelude to much healthier eating that feeds your child so he can learn, grow, and thrive to potential.
Can you redirect ADHD and learning disabilities without prescription drugs? Such a big topic, so I split it into three parts. Short answer: Yes, you can. Bonus: Your child will be healthier over all from these efforts too.
Parts 1 and 2 covered the hard and crusty bits first: The right food, the right fats, and fungus (yup, I said fungus.. read part 2). Those may be the most important nutrition steps you can take to redirect a child struggling to learn, focus, pay attention, understand what h/she is reading, write, or even socialize more happily. I have seen these steps reduce or eliminate the need for prescription stimulants in kids, and make for happier, healthier, more functional children.
But there’s still more you can do. Part 3 is a finishing touch: Adding some minerals. You can skip the more labor intensive fixes for food, fats, and fungus if you wish. But, your child is less likely to enjoy as much success in tackling ADHD naturally.
Why is this true? Because no matter what you eat, your gut is full of microbes – that’s your gut biome. You need it. With a sterile gut, you would die. Microbes do a lot for us. They “teach” the immune system, regulate inflammatory responses, keep pathogens out by killing them for us, impact neurotransmitter balance, and make extra nutrients for us. They can even exchange genetic material with stuff that you eat (which is one reason why GMO foods are scary – human gut microbes have been found to produce the same pesticide that GMO foods are engineered to make, after volunteers ate a diet of GMO foods.)
Junky, starchy, processed, sugary diets promote a lousy gut biome. That means more toxins and trash for your brain and body, because those microbes produce their own waste, and then you absorb it. These toxins can be agitating, irritating, and measurable with a urine microbial organic acid test, in case you’re wondering how to find them. Some of the toxins that gut microbes produce have been linked to autism and seizure disorders.
With a healthy biome, which you develop from eating whole unprocessed un-sugary food, “waste” is the good stuff: some B vitamins, acids to kill pathogens and regulate gut pH, clearance of toxins, completion of digestion so nutrients are more available to you.
Long short? Your gut bugs eat what you eat, and they eat first. So, clean house (see parts 1 and 2) before you begin a supplement protocol for ADHD or attention and focus. Otherwise, you’ll just be feeding those expensive supplements to the garbage gang. This is one reason why children can react or regress dramatically when given a new supplement, before cleaning up the diet or without first directly treating gut microbes that shouldn’t be there. You might just be fertilizing the weeds, so to speak; they bloom, and create an explosion of toxins that can be systemically absorbed. No good. It’s also why you might see a supplement do nothing in particular, when all signs indicate it should really help. Things can really change once that gut microflora environment is in good shape. Even prescription medications for ADHD can work better (or not be needed at all), once these pieces are optimized.
Once you’re ready to supplement, pay attention to minerals. These are critical for the brain to focus and learn. Iron, zinc, copper, magnesium, calcium, selenium, and chromium all have tiny but crucial roles to play, in helping the brain smoothly produce neurotransmitters – as well as dismantle neurotransmitters as needed, to keep things balanced. Serotonin, dopamine, GABA (gamma amino butyric acid), and dozens of other neurotransmitters let us do what we need at the right moments: Sleep, relax, be alert, concentrate, read, remember, process, react, stay calm, and so on. These amazing chemicals do all sorts of things in our brains. Too much serotonin can build up and create more anxiety, or even a deadly state called serotonin syndrome, but too little can leave you depressed, or paradoxically, too anxious. Too little dopamine can mean you can’t focus or learn very well; too much can mean you have obsessive compulsive behaviors. Too little GABA may mean you have seizures; too much can leave you lethargic. It’s all in the balance, and the body uses a steady supply of several nutrients to maintain that balance: Glucose, iron, B vitamins, protein, magnesium and more.
Pumpkin seeds have it all: Minerals, essential fats, fiber, protein
Most kids I encounter with ADHD are eating diets low in minerals. They tend to eat starchy, sugary diets that are marginal for healthy brain fats, low for good proteins, and nearly nil for minerals. If your child isn’t eating a lot of fresh vegetables, leafy greens, seeds, or nuts /nut butters, and fresh meats or eggs, then they aren’t eating a lot of minerals. This describes most kids I’ve met in my practice.
First on my list of minerals to check is iron. It has a history when it comes to attention deficits. Kids can need anywhere from 5 to 15 to as much as 50 mg per day, depending on their iron status. This one is a deal breaker for turning tyrosine, an amino acid that we get from protein we eat, into dopamine in the brain, which allows us to pay attention. Children with poor iron status will have attention problems; they may also be quite hyperactive as they languish in a weakened status known as pre-anemia. Before medicating, ask your pediatrician to do an iron study. Because iron is so complex in its many roles in the body, your doctor will have to do more than look at just serum iron (which means little all by itself) or hemoglobin and hematocrit (which many pediatricians like to check with a quick fingerprick and blood drop). Before iron is supplemented, do this careful footwork first with your pediatrician.
An iron study, a tool I use often in my practice, should include a blood draw for serum iron, transferrin, ferritin, iron binding capacity, and a blood count to show how red blood cells look. Ferritin levels (in my experience) should be at a robust 40 or better for kids to have optimal functionality from iron status, even though the reference range drops to 10 or even 6 from some labs. Low ferritin means low levels of iron are available for the body to use. Whether or not a child is being placed on a medication for attention, iron status should be solid; otherwise, it will interfere.
Iron rich foods? The usual suspects include red meats and eggs, but I also like to suggest pumpkin seeds or sunflower seeds, sunflower seed butter, dark leafy greens (chard, kale, spinach), cashews, molasses, quinoa, and of course, legumes like lentils and all sorts of beans. Eating iron rich foods with citrus or vitamin C will help the gut absorb more iron. Even using iron cookware can help.
Pallor, shiners at eyes, insomnia, and fatigue should trigger an iron assessment.
If you and your doctor find that your child needs an iron supplement, consider easier to absorb forms like ferrous bis-glycinate rather than ferrous sulfate, which can be harder for some to tolerate. Iron supplements in the correct form and dose do not usually trigger constipation. Iron is one nutrient that most microbes really, really like. For that reason, I hesitate to enrich iron in kids without first knowing status for bowel microbes or other infections. If a child reacts especially badly to efforts to reverse iron depletion, it may be because gut microbes are enjoying that iron and creating a toxic bloom. Clear those out, and things can go better.
Next on my list is magnesium. This mineral is needed for smooth nerve impulse transmission and can be quite calming when used correctly. It works with B vitamins to allow the brain to have a steady supply of glucose, which is its preferred fuel. Skip the blood work, because this is a safer mineral to supplement (iron can quickly become toxic). You can go directly to magnesium rich foods: Banana, dark leafy greens, unsweetened cocoa powder (omit the sugar by using the powder in smoothies with some stevia), avocado, lentils, chick peas (hummus), pumpkin seeds, and nuts. Another trick: Let your child soak in a tub near bedtime with a cup of Epsom salt in it. This is magnesium sulfate, which handily absorbs through skin to enrich pathways needing this mineral. The sulfur helps too, as it is needed to run liver and digestive enzymes. This can help your child fall and stay asleep easier.
If supplements are easier, there are many that give magnesium, in powders, capsules, and liquids. Know this: Magnesium citrate and magnesium oxide are particularly effective laxatives, so if you don’t want that result, dose carefully or use a different form (magnesium glycinate for example). And, the body carefully balances magnesium relative to other minerals, especially calcium. Many products include both in a 2:1 ratio (twice as much calcium as magnesium). Kids need about 300 mg magnesium daily. Some in my practice with constipation and neurological challenges safely use up to 700 mg. Don’t do this without professional guidance. Magnesium can reach toxic levels, where it will impact cardiac, nerve, and muscle function.
Next stop: Zinc. When I hear a child is wiggly, chewing shirts or sleeves, gnawing on pencils, paper, or fingers, bothered by tags and fabric, and just all around distractible, I will look at zinc. It’s not imperative to do blood work here because clinical signs for weak zinc status are easy to spot (white dots on nails, penchant for chewing fabric, picky appetite, sluggish growth pattern and appetite), but blood work can give you a concrete idea of what is needed. Zinc levels should be squarely in the middle of the reference range, not toward the bottom. Blood work can also reveal levels of zinc relative to copper in the body. An upside down ratio (too little zinc, too high copper) is often present with aggressive, impulsive, inattentive, or combative behavior. Correcting this ratio with careful supplementation can lessen these behaviors.
Most of our zinc is found in the brain, and in the hippocampus in particular, which is pivotal for memory and mood. Marginal zinc status has many impacts on the brain and how it balances things like GABA (which gives a calmed, attentive state) and glutamate (excitatory and unable to remember or learn). Less zinc will tilt that balance away from GABA.
Zinc is found in foods already mentioned here – nuts, seeds, meats, pork, chocolate, eggs, tahini, chick peas, legumes – and in others like salmon, scallops, flax seeds, or garlic. It needs a properly acid stomach to initiate its absorption, like any minerals. Supplements abound, from liquid (tasteless to those needing zinc, metallic tasting to those in good zinc status) to lozenges to capsules. I often place children on 25-40 mg of zinc daily, when warranted.
Scallops are full of minerals, protein, and healthy fats.. if you can get them
Chromium, selenium, iodine, and calcium all have parts to play in optimizing attention and focus as well. You’ll find these in the same foods – seeds, nuts, meats or pork, fish, dark greens, or deep colored fruits like blueberries or cranberries. You can choose from multivitamins that provide a strong complement of these minerals, but whole food sources deliver additional benefits: Good energy sources, fiber, proteins, healthy fats and oils, and in some cases, phytochemicals not classified as nutrients but noted for other benefits (anti-inflammatory, anti-oxidant, or neuroprotective).
Nothing ever exists in a vacuum when it comes to nutrients. A lot of one mineral may mean displacing another – so monitoring the whole child, the whole diet, and the whole complement of supplements, if you use them, is important. Approaching your child’s ADHD as a nutrient balancing act rather than a stimulant shortage can not only resolve the attention piece, but can create better health over all for your child in the end.