I’ve helped kids with autism use nutrition supports, including gluten free diets, since 1998.
Some twenty years later, it still isn’t a standard of care to get a thorough nutrition screening with an autism diagnosis, and it definitely should be. It’s crazy that there is any question at all about the efficacy of this tool. But unless your doctor knows how to do the correct lab work up front – and they quite often don’t – you may be doomed to blow it, or not know in the first place how a GF diet may help.
Gluten free diets can be pivotal for autism, if, and this is a big if, you do it right. It can be daunting, so go for professional assessment and guidance, just like you do for any other treatments and supporting therapies. You don’t pick your kids’ psych or seizure meds off the web, or craft your own OT program; why would you do that for a complex nutrition piece? Somehow, many families still design their own medical nutrition intervention, and may miss key pieces.
And no wonder: None of the usual care team members for kids with autism get training in applied nutrition, nutrigenomics, or how to do an autism-specific nutrition assessment (or any nutrition assessment). Who do you ask? Neurologists, psychiatrists, developmental pediatricians, occupational therapists, feeding therapists, and behavior therapists are not nutritionists or dietitians. Even many dietitians and gastroenterologists in hospital settings, per feedback from my client families, don’t know what to tell families about this intervention. If they’re not telling you to explore nutrition intervention for a child with autism, it’s not because there’s “no proof” that it helps. It’s because they probably don’t know any better.
There’s no shortage of opinions and (poorly designed) studies touting that a gluten free diet, or nutrition support in general, is not a worthwhile measure for kids with autism. Much of this science is just plain badly done. Nutrition is not easy to research, because we’re talking dozens of moving parts: Vitamins, minerals, calories, protein sources, gut metabolome, gut micro biome, developmental status, food allergies and sensitivities, iron status, methylation impairments, mitochondrial disorders, and growth status to name just a few. Controlling all these variables is difficult. Most studies I’ve read about autism and nutrition simply don’t control or evaluate these variables very well, if at all. Here’s one bad example that got wide press, and another, here.
If you want to try gluten free diet, here’s a few tips below. I also strongly encourage you to read this book for details on how to get started, how to avoid pit falls, how to engage your care team, and much more.
- Get a blood test for anti-gliadin IgG antibody (not a celiac blood test) with your pediatrician or gastroenterologist. This will tell you if your child’s immune system reacts to gluten in a way that has potential to affect the brain.
- See this book to learn about other key lab screenings before you begin.
- You will have to eliminate all dairy and soy protein sources from your child’s diet as well as gluten. See this book to learn how, and why. If you don’t, you will not see much if any improvement from eliminating gluten alone.
- Get help with recipes, cooking, and shopping. I help families navigate this. There is a gluten, dairy, and soy free solution for just about everything your child is eating now.
- Many parents don’t realize that dairy food includes yogurt, any cheese from a cow (cream cheese, Parmesan, mozzarella, etc), butter, cream, buttermilk, kefir, raw milk, goat milk/yogurt/cheeses, lactose free milk products, ice cream, sherbet, cream soups or chowders, many sauces and dressings (Ranch), and any processed foods or baked goods that contain any milk ingredients. All of that has got to go, for a successful gluten free trial. If you’re breastfeeding an older child (over age two or three years), even that milk source may arrest progress with this intervention.
- You will have to replace all foods removed with foods of equal or higher nutritional value. If your child relies on dairy protein all day, you will have to work through measures to bust this picky pattern, and find different proteins. Read this book on milk-addicted kids for more help.
- Fix other nutrition deficits, especially weak iron status, which is common with undiagnosed gluten sensitivity. Have your doctor check your child’s ferritin level; it should be in a functional range of 40-60 (lab range will be reported as “normal” when ferritin is as low as 10. This may be “normal” but it is not healthy.)
- Fix your child’s gut micro biome; assess it professionally, and have your provider guide you to optimize absorption and elimination. Your child may need supports like digestive enzymes, probiotics, or herbal tools. I provide screening with stool tests in my practice as well as detailed guidance on how to use corrective supports.
If you haven’t yet engaged a comprehensive nutrition intervention for your child with autism, let’s talk! For many children, when done thoroughly, and with compliance on your part, you may be surprised at how your child’s functioning can improve.
This will make a lot of people mad:
Feeding clinic may be a waste of time and money
Not at all to diminish the important work and skills of occupational and physical therapists. They work hard at helping kids learn to chew, swallow, touch, and tolerate the act of eating – kids who are tube fed, kids who’ve never mastered chewing by age four or six years, kids who only drink but can’t eat, kids who gag and vomit to different food textures, kids who stop eating at the slightest interruption or sudden sound, kids who are in growth failure because they can’t eat. This is important work.
But there are important underlying triggers for these feeding problems to rule out and repair, before you spend thousands on sessions in which you sit behind a two way mirror and watch your child try to touch whipped cream, corn chips, and broccoli with peers, before the rigorous home sensory protocols before each meal (trampoline, Nuk massage, Wilbarger protocol), not to mention stringent food routines at the table.
If your child has had a traumatic brain injury, a spinal cord injury, began life on a feeding tube, or has a physical or developmental disability that impedes feeding skills, then of course rehabilitative therapy is in order.
And, after you’ve been through challenges unimaginable when you became pregnant – that is, the challenge of your kid actually not being able to eat, gain, and grow – and your child has suffered, you’ve been to every specialist, and you know your local children’s hospital hallways backwards and forwards, it can feel downright offensive, insulting even, that there may be something simple, overlooked, that could fix this. Wouldn’t your team have told you?
A lot of parents get stuck right there. They outright reject that a solution as simple as correcting nutrition and digestion first could be a thing. Unless this is a complex, inscrutable drama that requires ivory tower specialist care, and week after week with an occupational therapist, a lot of folks feel like bad parents. So they turn away from the simple.
Forgive yourself for not knowing. Forgive your care team. Occupational therapists, GI doctors, and even pediatricians are not nutritionists. This isn’t their purview. If they had known, they would have told you, of course!
For kids who go from infancy to preschool with a mysterious lack of progression for feeding skills, screen for underlying physiological triggers that can keep your child from being able to swallow, chew, and eat normally. Even for kids with physical disabilities and complex conditions who benefit from feeding therapy, footwork on these underlying interlopers can make eating work even better.
Also, know this: I had one of these kids. Been through it, seen it, worked with OTs and PTs (some fabulous, others not so much). I know the trauma, cost, and stress that accompanies this situation. And, yet another mom just left my office today, telling me with deep exasperation what a waste of time (and money – thousands of dollars, not covered by insurance) it was to send her young son to a renown feeding clinic, for months, carefully following instructions for the home plan too, only to get feeble progress out of it at all. Is this you?
Before you go through costly, strenuous therapy that may inch your child forward, but not quite produce the progress your child deserves to grow, thrive, and just plain enjoy food – investigate these problems. Your child will be healthier, because they will be able to digest and absorb food more comfortably.
Nutrition and digestive problems turn kids into picky eaters
Fix these, and their appetites can quite abruptly improve. If you need help fixing these, schedule an appointment with me. You may see changes in as fast three to four weeks, depending on your child’s condition at start, and your compliance with a nutrition and gut health care plan tailored to your child. Here we go:
1 – Fungal Dsybiosis: Your child may have had thrush, you may have had a C section, maybe there were antibiotics in the mix for you while pregnant or breastfeeding, maybe you have a lot of yeast infections in your past, or maybe your child needed antibiotics early, often, or both. Whatever. Somehow, your child may have been left with a fungal burden somewhere in the digestive tract. What this does is (a) buffer the stomach so it is less acid, which makes you never feel that hungry (b) constipate you so you never feel like eating because you are always full of ______ (c) give you serious cravings for very few foods, namely, starchy sweet stuff, or dairy food and (d) bloat your belly. Solution: Screen for fungal dysbiosis with stool or urine testing; ideally include Candida and Saccharomyces antibody testing too (blood tests). Give a protocol to drop the fungal burden and restore healthy gut bacteria balance. Your kid will feel more hungry, poop more regularly, and will want new foods, usually in about 3-4 weeks. Other nutrition measures may be needed, but this is a foundational piece that can relentlessly dog kids’ appetites. Note: Probiotics can help, sort of. The stuff on store shelves is usually too low potency to make a dent for kids who truly have a significant fungal burden in the gut. If you’ve used them and your kid is still picky, they’re not working, and you need a deeper strategy.
2 – Bacterial Dysbiosis: Your child may have a bacterial imbalance in the stomach, upper small intestine, or colon. This can make eating very uncomfortable. The small intestine normally harbors little bacteria; when too much is there, kids can have a lot of trouble eating. This will continue until these infections are treated. This is called Small Intestine Bacterial Overgrowth (SIBO), and your doctor may need to prescribe antibiotics to treat it. Some herbal treatments work well also; probiotics can make it worse. Kids with bacterial dysbiosis feel full quickly. They may gag, or vomit violently, even to the point of shock (they go limp, become pale, you may have even rushed them to the ER where they needed IV fluids – this is FPIES) if they eat the wrong foods. Pressing children to eat when an infection is active in the gut is truly unnecessary and will be unsuccessful too. Solution: Talk with your GI doctor or pediatrician about possible SIBO. And, do functional stool testing such as GI MAP (one of the tests I use in my practice) to identify what microbes may be interfering. This test can give detail on what your child needs to balance bacteria in the digestive tract, so they can eat and digest food more normally.
3 – Reflux Medications: These drugs, which are not approved for use in children by the way (with one exception), diminish digestion by reducing acid in the stomach. Great for an initial reprieve from what may (or may not) be a painful reflux, but bad longer term. The more stomach acid is reduced, the less your child is able to digest food, and the more food will sit in the stomach and – you guessed it – reflux up to the throat. Many kids in my practice end up on highest allowable doses of these drugs, but still have feeding problems with weak appetites and texture aversions. Reflux medicines also exacerbate fungal infections in the digestive tract, creating even more dysbiosis and difficulty with feeding and eliminating. Solution: Unless your child needs “mercy” dosing of a reflux medicine to ease pain, talk to your doctor about weaning off of it. For more help with that process, check this blog and contact me for an appointment.
4 – Weak Iron and Zinc Status: These minerals have a lot to do with what we feel like putting in our mouths. Even adults with poor iron or zinc status will do weird things like hang around, sniff, or even lick gas pumps, chew on paperclips, or refuse to eat vegetables. If your child is mouthing objects beyond early toddlerhood, or insists on eating non food items into school age years, it’s time to straighten this out. It could help normalize eating “behavior”. Solution: Have your pediatrician run labs for ferritin, serum iron, transferrin, iron binding capacity, and serum zinc. These should be solidly in the middle of the lab range – not near either end. If these labs come back looking a little weak, get guidance on supplementing these minerals. Iron and zinc won’t be well absorbed, by the way, if your child takes a reflux medicine – so this is another reason to get off that stuff. It reduces absorption of minerals and B vitamins. Not what your child’s developing brain needs.
5 – Opiates: Wow, what WHAT? Yes, your kid might just be a little high on opiates all day long. Common signs: Do they wake up from 1 to 3 AM all silly or active? Are they constipated? Do they have a crazy voracious appetite and a big head (above 90th percentile)? Are they verbally delayed? Do they bang into stuff and never cry about it? Do they really, really seek proprioceptive input, to the point of endangering themselves? Are they hyper? Do they meltdown fiercely when hungry, or if you don’t hand over that favorite mac and cheese, yogurt, or noodles and butter STAT? Addictive, opiate-like neuropeptides can form from wheat, dairy, and soy protein in a gut with certain digestive impairments. This will make a child relentlessly, extremely, fiercely picky for wheat and dairy food (maybe a little soy too). Yes, food proteins can be misappropriated into compounds that look like opiates to the brain. This happens when digestion is weak and the gut is too permissive; that is, the intestinal wall lets bigger-than-it-should molecules across into circulation, something a healthy intestine won’t do. These opiate-like compounds have various names: Dietary peptides, polypeptides, casomorphin, gliadorphin, or exogenous opiates. Urine screening is available to identify these. These will cause a lot of problems, including stunted language development, social delay, some crazy, even violent or aggressive behavior – and, uber picky eating. Feeding clinic will go nowhere if your child is swimming in opiate like peptides from milk, yogurt, Pediasure, bread, pudding, crackers – any wheat or dairy food. It’s all your child will want to eat, and anything that looks or feels different will be a non-starter. Solution: Start with my e book on milk addicted kids. If you need help getting your child out of this hole, set up an appointment to get started. Your child may need a strict gluten, casein/dairy and soy free diet (the prime opiate offender foods).
Get your kids clear of these five physiological problems and you may be amazed at how swiftly they graduate out of feeding clinic. Ignore any one of them and it is going to be a longer haul. Check out my quick video recap, click here. Thank you for stopping by.
Getting your kids’ annual physicals this month? Take this check list with you to your appointment. There are straight forward, nutrition-focused solutions to all of the problems on this list. No drugs, no therapy, no ongoing visits to behavior clinics. Simple measures may resolve these problems without drawn out drug trials or therapies that leave your family frustrated and exhausted. If your pediatrician is stumped about how to use real food and nutrition tools, let’s talk soon!
1 – Diarrhea is not a developmental phase
How often have I heard, “my doctor said it’s ‘toddler diarrhea'” or “Clostridia difficile is common in kids, it doesn’t need treatment” or “it’s okay because my kid is still growing” or “it’s because he has FPIES“. Yes, infants and toddlers have varying stool patterns, but there is usually a reason for it that can be fixed. And it should be, because chronic diarrhea robs your child’s brain and body of critical nutrition. Teething, fevers, and stomach bugs can disrupt potty pattern for sure, but the operative word here is transient. Funky poop should resolve back to a comfortable pattern within a few days or a two weeks at most. Expect a baseline pattern of formed (not hard, not dry) stools every day that are easy to pass. Ongoing loose, explosive, mucousy, irritable, burning, or foul stool is not healthy, normal, or necessary to put up with. It is a sign that something is awry – food intolerances or allergies, background infections, reflux, or weak nutrition status to name a few. It can also make it harder for kids to potty train, when they never know what’s coming!
The other clear sign for good digestion and nutrient absorption in kids is steady growth pattern, with no flattening trend for weight, height, or body mass index. Daily eliminations that are soft formed (or soft gold mush for breast fed babies) are a sign that your child is digesting and absorbing his food well (in ancient Ayurvedic medical traditions, anything less than a soft formed elimination after each meal is considered constipation!).
Kids who have chronic diarrhea also often exhibit what can be misconstrued (and fruitlessly treated) as behavior or psychiatric problems like anxiety, irritability, low motivation (fatigue), bad sleep patterns, or inattention. What I so often find is that once digestion and stool pattern are supported, these problems fade too, as kids absorb nutrients and energy more reliably. Who wouldn’t feel better?
Long short – if you have a cranky little who can’t sleep well and who has a lot of loose messy stools, investigate. Don’t mask symptoms with long term drug dependence – fix the underlying problem. Your child’s gut health can likely improve with non-drug, nutrition-focused measures… even with conditions like FPIES. And if your school aged child is struggling with chronic loose stools, fatigue, and poor energy, expect it to be better. If your pediatrician can’t help, and a gastroenterology referral was a dead end too, schedule an appointment for integrative nutrition with me today.
2 – The most important thing for fighting infections is strong nutrition
Forget the vaccine debate. Nutrition status is the single most critical factor (of the “greatest public health importance“) to influence whether kids get sick, how often, for how long, and whether or not they have complications with illnesses or infections.When kids do get sick with serious bugs like flu or measles, well nourished kids fare far better, with a less complicated, shorter course of illness and full recovery. For over seventy years, data have piled up to show what a huge impact nutrition has on the immune system, from several angles – from your kids’ tissue stores of vitamin A, to total protein intake, growth status, iron or zinc status, inflammatory chemistry, and more! You can help your kids stay well even as they are surrounded by sniffles and coughs at daycare or school, by setting them up with tip top gut health and food. Judicious use of supplements, probiotics, and herbs can work wonders too – just be sure to tailor these to what your child needs, not a one-size-fits-all approach. Music to my ears: When parents whom I’ve worked with tell me, “We didn’t have any colds this whole winter!” It happens.
So what is nutrition status? It isn’t what supplements you’re eating, whether you’re vegan or Paleo, or even what food you give your kids. It’s a number of things that are classically measured in children to assess how healthy they really are. These are not all included in a standard well check or school physical, but some may be added on if you ask your doctor. Strong nutrition status is evident in:
- Solid growth pattern in your child’s expected channels for weight, height, and body mass index. Your child can be expected to proceed at percentiles achieved at birth, unless s/he had a special circumstance that needed support very early, such as low birth weight or premature birth; even this can be expected to improve some as your child grows. Though pediatricians generally won’t address growth regression until children fall way down the chart, drops of more than fifteen percentile points that persist for more than three months warrant investigation for cause.
- Mid range lab findings for serum iron and ferritin (not at high or low edge of the range); normal blood count; normal chemistry panel with serum protein, albumen and other findings in mid lab range.
- Infrequent illnesses with short duration and full recovery.
- Strong clinical signs for healthy hair, skin, teeth, and nails; no or few cavities in the child’s lifetime.
- Ability to play, sleep, learn, and eliminate comfortably.
3 – Your child may need iron when s/he is not anemic
It’s common at annual physicals to check hemoglobin and hematocrit for kids, which is done with a finger stick blood test. These are two tests to check if your child is anemic. The problem with this is that these are low sensitivity tests that don’t pick up pre-anemia. Pre-anemia is a thing! It is a state in which iron stores are depleted, but hemoglobin and hematocrit are still in the normal range. These kids need iron support, and depending on diet, food intake and other factors, the fix may be just the right food, or may require the right iron supplement (there are several) or even an iron prescription. Kids in pre-anemia will have any or all of these features:
- shiners under eyes, pallor
- more frequent infections and colds; may take longer to recover
- irritable; crabby one minute, happy the next
- hyperactivity with fatigue – “crash and burn” pattern
- math may be most difficult subject (iron is related to math learning!)
- difficult sleep pattern, insomnia, can’t settle to sleep or sleep through
- picky or weak appetite; may want to chew non food items
- in girls in puberty, menstrual flow may be heavy, fatiguing, and/or with clots
Since iron is poisonous as well as essential to our bodies, don’t give iron supplements without guidance. Request thorough testing to find out if your child needs iron, vitamin B12, protein, or just the right food to correct anemia. I can help you with this as well, by finding an easy to tolerate iron supplement or B12 protocol, as well as how to work in replenishing foods.
4 – That allergist referral won’t find all your kids’ food reactions
Allergists check one thing: Allergies. They look for reactions by checking IgE (immunoglobulin E) responses to foods or other substances. They may measure histamine and tryptase levels too, among other things that relate to those swift and dangerous reactions that have you grabbing the Epi Pen. But there are many other types of reactions to foods that disrupt stools, skin, behavior, and functioning. If allergy testing was negative for your child, but there are frequent colds or congestion, asthma, eczema, messy irritable stools, weak picky eating, or other nebulous symptoms, assess more deeply. So far, while insurance coverage for food allergy testing is common, it is not common for testing for food sensitivity reactions, or other immune responses to foods. Identifying these can make life a whole lot better for kids struggling with multiple symptoms – but, be prepared to go out of network and possibly pay out of pocket for these tests. Depending on your insurance and your child’s nutrition diagnosis, it may or may not be covered. I guide parents with this testing, can authorize it if your doctor does not know how, and interpret findings to build a nourishing diet for your kids.
5 – Nutrition CAN reduce ADHD symptoms without medication
Big topic. Pediatricians are trained to offer behavior therapy as a first line of intervention for young children with ADHD; if that doesn’t work, their next recommendation is for medication with behavior therapy. But what they don’t learn is how to help children achieve functional focus with nutrition, gut health, and food. So much can be done! Stimulant medications have many drawbacks and side effects. Search my blog posts on nutrition and ADHD – there is ample to mine there. You can also view this free lecture on nutrition and ADHD.
Children as young as three years old can be given stimulant medication, per FDA guidelines. It may seem like an easy quick fix, but there are other options. This is not without costs to your child’s health and well being; suicidality may increase in older kids given these medications. Help your child eat and absorb the nutrients his brain needs to focus. Take out the toxins, inflammation, and noise in the body. You may be amazed at the difference nutrition care can make.
Why doesn’t my doctor practice nutrition?
Pediatricians don’t have a lot of time when they meet with you for a school physical or well check; insurance companies tightly control what topics can be addressed in those visits, how long the visit can take, and how much a doctor is paid for that service. When your pediatrician wanders from the format, he essentially won’t get paid for his time. And, they need to have a high volume practice to make money – meaning even less time to listen to you, educate you on meals and nutrition, or research new topics on their own. Further discouraging nutrition in pediatrics is that drugs are much more profitable. Drug companies now wield heavy influence over pediatric care, from the time a doctor begins medical training to every week in practice, when drug company sales reps visit with samples, glossy brochures, pens, free lunches, treats, or incentives to write prescriptions. It’s irresistible and easy. There is no such format for nutrition intervention for complex problems. Last but not least, pediatricians are not required to complete much training in nutrition. They simply may not know what to do.
In my nutrition practice, I give clients lengthy appointments to integrate all facets of your child’s care into an individualized nutrition care plan, including lab studies, history, growth status, food intake, and aspects of your lifestyle. I write detailed care plans for each encounter. This takes a lot of time that pediatricians don’t have. If you’re stuck, get started today with an appointment. Or go to my home page (scroll down) to download your free Sensory Nutrition Checklist – begin today with some easy tricks to help your kids function better!
I’m now serving my second generation of clients, working with moms who where were not even born when I finalized my credentials as a dietitian/nutritionist. Recently I did a double take noticing that a young mom I was working with was born on my wedding day – Wow!
It has been quite a journey. I’ve watched earlier clients’ kids, and my own son, grow up to be more functional and able, after rocky and uncertain beginnings. But I have some bad news for you young moms: It is a lot worse out there than it used to be. It’s very different for you than it was for my generation. There’s a whole new normal, and it ain’t pretty.
More than half of US children are now chronically sick or disabled – meaning that it is now more common for kids to have chronic conditions or developmental delays, than it is for them to be healthy, growing strong, and developing or learning normally.
During my graduate years in public health nutrition, this was unthinkable. CDC goals we worked with then have not come close to being met. We’ve not only fallen short, we’ve actually violated the very first goal to “prevent morbidity and disability “- ! Both have increased dramatically for US children in the 21st century.
Type 1 diabetes has quadrupled. Children under age 10 are now getting diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes – actually unheard of when I was trained in the late 1980s; this was only diagnosed in overweight, middle-aged people at that time. At least 80,000 kids in the US are diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, a severe and chronic inflammatory bowel disease, and its incidence in children is increasing. I meet kids each month who have similar symptoms but have never been diagnosed, and I just worked with my first toddler diagnosed with Crohn’s disease this spring. During my training, this wasn’t even mentioned as a condition that a young child could have. Even the phrase “toddler diarrhea” didn’t exist (diarrhea is not a developmental phase!). Babies and toddlers were not diagnosed with, or given medications for, GERD (reflux drugs like Nexium came to be so overprescribed, they were called “purple crack“). Asthma, cancer, allergies, and of course – autism – are all increased far past their 1985 levels, with no signs of slowing down. And are you tired of hearing yet that autism has shot up nearly 150-fold since 1975, and that some estimate that half of US children will have it by 2025? How will this country function, populated by sick and disabled adults? How will we pay for their care?
Those are big questions. But here is the question that has had me scratching my head for the last twenty years: What are our pediatricians doing about it?
Are they even thinking about reversing these trends, in any meaningful way?
If they are as young as you are, it’s doubtful they know how miserably we failed at reaching the CDC’s goals from the late 20th century, for population health. Or that they’ve had much of a deep dive into child nutrition and its role in development, learning, behavior, and immune strength. I also do wonder if they know what it’s like to see kids who never need any prescription drugs, because they’re just …healthy.
Being sick repeatedly throughout the year, needing multiple rounds of antibiotics, being developmentally delayed, having an impacted, inflamed, or ulcerated colon, being unable to eat anything but milk, yogurt, or Pediasure, or having only loose, burning, foul stool or impacted hard stool may be common nowadays, but it isn’t normal.
Your kids should be healthy, comfortable, vibrant, eating, eliminating daily, sleeping well, growing, playing, and thriving! If they can’t because of a chronic condition, then they still deserve to reach their fullest potential, enjoy their highest well being, and feel good as often as possible.
From my perch as a pediatric nutritionist/dietitian, I have watched it get harder and harder to restore kids’ health, away from the chronic gastrointestinal, feeding, growth, developmental, and allergy/immune problems they have. Kids bodies seem more compromised, their immune systems more confused, their intestines less functional. The work is more complex than it was in 1998 or 2000. Diagnoses like FPIES (which my own son had in 1996, before there was a name for it), milk protein intolerance, food allergies, intolerance to breast milk, and EoE are not unusual now, but they earned no mention during my training in infant and child nutrition in the late 1980s.
I often wonder how pediatricians of my generation reconcile this. Do they notice, like me, that children are sicker, as government data show?
Moms under 35 have it rough. You are..
- The first generation to grow up with more antibiotics, vaccine doses, psychiatric medicines, and just plain more prescription drugs than any other.
- The first generation to grow up eating GMO foods.
- In the years you were conceived, patent and marketing laws for drugs changed – and dozens of new drugs flooded the market, whether we needed them or not, and regardless of non-drug options that may have worked as well or better.
- The goal posts have moved for what counts as valid published medical “science” – much of it is now ghost written by the pharmaceutical industry.
- Environmental protection laws are either being stripped or unenforced, allowing more toxins into air, water, and food.
- You are now bearing children with more toxic burden than any parents before you in America’s history.
In short: It’s a lot harder to have healthy kids these days. Your bodies were exposed to more toxins, sooner, than people of my age. And now your children are exposed to all of this even before they’re born, in utero.
So now what? It’s simple: Remember that your kids get to be healthy.
That is their birthright, and their normal. Expect them to be healthy, not chronically sick. But you have to do some serious footwork, even before pregnancy, to help them get there. If your kids are already here on the planet, there is a lot you can do to diminish their odds for chronic disease, developmental injury, and psychiatric conditions. If your kids are already affected by these problems, there is still plenty to do with food, nutrition, and good support for immune function and detoxification – you might be surprised to see how well your kids can be.
Here you go:
- Eat organic whenever you can. It matters. I actually did some work on this during my graduate studies (eons ago) and found that yes, organic foods are more nutritious, and have fewer toxins (though not toxin free, thanks to widespread use of pesticides and GMO crops in the US).
- Don’t eat GMO food, period. Minimize it as much as possible. Here’s why.
- Find out if your kids have food sensitivities or allergies; feed them foods that nourish deeply, not foods that chronically inflame.
- If your kids need antibiotics, restore healthy flora – you will know it worked by appearance of a daily, comfortable elimination (no bloat, hiccups, burps, picky eating, straining, watery stuff, mucus, dry pebbles, or foul odor – just formed easy to pass stool and healthy appetite).
- Drink filtered water, not tap water. Put filters on shower heads. Or, consider a whole house reverse osmosis water filter.
- Don’t use plastic containers for food. Avoid plastics, xenoestrogens, and xenobiotics in lotions, shampoos, soaps, or foods.
- Eat more vegetables, more plant foods, and less meat and sugar than you want.
- Eat loads of ancestral, organic fats and oils.
- Don’t have a C section if you can help it. If you can’t, seed your baby’s gut biome with probiotics or your own flora.
- Don’t get vaccinated while pregnant. It can increase your risk of miscarriage, and it delivers toxins like aluminum, mercury, and rogue viral or human DNA into your body. Effects of vaccinating pregnant women on their unborn children for asthma, allergies, or other immune mediated conditions are unstudied.
- If you need antibiotics during pregnancy, delivery, or breastfeeding, take all precautions to restore your baby’s gut flora with probiotics and a healthy diet.
- Read this 2017 study on the health of vaccinated versus unvaccinated kids. Choose soberly what you want to do.
Those are good starts – a big effort, yes; harder perhaps, but the upstream work is well worth it if there is a chance it can prevent burdensome chronic conditions in your kids. If you need more specific guidance for your own child’s situation, contact me for an appointment and we can get started.
Pescribing psychiatric medications to toddlers, children and teens is a booming industry in the US. Even toddlers age three or younger have received thousands of prescriptions for drugs like ritalin in recent years. The numbers of children ages five to eighteen given drugs for anxiety, depression, ADHD or other behavior problems have spiked in leaps and bounds. That should give any parent or pediatrician a shudder. Especially when it’s possible that these drugs activate and exacerbate suicidal ideation in children or teens, as was true for a patient of mine whose parents had had enough after their child went on SSRIs, swiftly activated to suicidal ideation, was hospitalized, then began a year long quest rotating several medications, only to make weak progress with side effects. SSRI drugs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) – Prozac and Paxil in particular – are associated with a 50% jump in likelihood of convictions for violent behavior (including arson, assault, robbery or homicide) in children as young as fifteen years old, compared to kids not using these drugs, and compared to adults using these drugs. Got that? It’s sobering: SSRIs make kids act out violently, but not adults over age twenty five.
Our children need safe, healthy options. And our psychiatrists and pediatricians are not trained in how to use them.
Even when drugs like these have a benefit, there is room for enhanced outcomes with targeted nutrition support. When these drugs fail, it’s quite possible these children could fare better with functional nutrition assessment and care. I have witnessed this hundreds of times in my practice, in young children and in teens, in kids with severe, crippling anxiety, and in suicidial teens who have failed in-patient therapy and polypharmacy. It’s not that these tools are pie in the sky or unscientific – on the contrary, they are grounded in clinical practice, peer review, and pedigreed nutrition science. The problem is that physicians are not trained to use functional nutrition – least of all psychiatrists. They know about prescription drugs; they don’t know what functional nutrition intervention and support is. Routinely, parents working with me report that they have been told by their psychiatric doctors that nutrition does not relate to mental health at all. Or, they have been offered haphazard, ineffective nutrition advice from providers who have no degree training in it and no knowledge of pediatric nutrition.
When we remember that the only reason our bodies and brains exist in the first place is because of food we eat, digest, and rearrange into the structure and function that is ourselves – it’s not only a miraculous thing in itself, but it’s ridiculous to believe that these things could possibly be dis-connected.
Our bodies are constantly renewing, rebuilding, repairing, detoxifying – and, if you’re under twenty or twenty five years old, growing.
Of course mental health, mood, and behavior are intricately and deeply linked to our own nutritional biochemistry, and hence, what we eat!
And, what we digest – which brings the microbes that reside in our intestines into this story too. Gut microbes are part and parcel of our digestion. Our microbial partners excrete cooperative molecules or subversive toxins, depending on “who” they are. Guess where many of these helpful molecules (like B vitamins from Lactobacillus species) or toxins (like organic acids from Clostridia) can land? Yup, in the brain.
Functional nutrition support means that your child feels well, most the time; that they feel happy, and engage and enjoy peers, school work, and activities to their potential, most the time. If your child is struggling deeply with anxiety or depression, assess and correct the nutrition components of this puzzle. Do this with an experienced clinician. This is something I do day in and day out in my practice. Nutrition factors are easy to identify and often easily corrected. Medication or therapy strategies go more smoothly when nutrition factors are supported; you may even find these are no longer needed, as I have also witnessed in my practice.
You may be quite surprised by the degree to which your child’s brain or body is struggling, unbeknownst to you or your psychiatrist, neurologist, or pediatrician. Until the proper lab tests are done, you may never know, and your child may simply continue to struggle, even with medication.
Factors impeding normal neurotransmitter chemistry include…
- Weak iron status. Iron is needed to make and break down serotonin. Marginal iron status will impair this chemistry before a child is actually anemic. This can be assessed by running a routine lab test called a CBC (complete blood count) with ferritin, serum iron, transferrin, and iron binding capacity.
- Disrupted gut microbe profile. Functional stool tests can capture profiles of helpful bacteria, fungal (yeast) microbes, microscopic parasites, or disruptive bacteria. Many of these microbes are linked to psychiatric features, including anxiety, hyperactivity, impulsivity, inattention, brain fog, and depression. The solution is to balance the gut biome environment. This may mean changing diet, using certain probiotics, or using antimicrobial or anti fungal herbs or medications.
- Picky eater diets. It’s so incredibly common for kids to eat white diets – dairy, milk, yogurt, cheese, bread, pasta, pizza, cereal, pancakes, sugar in juice, cereal, or processed food. These diets don’t fuel a brain well. They lack vitamin and mineral cofactors as well as a good array of the essential amino acids (protein components) that the brain uses to make neurotransmitters. If these kids are constipated, that’s even worse – because that means their intestines are not doing an adequate job of breaking down what protein they do eat, leaving their brains even more bereft. Giving them Miralax may help them poop, but it won’t help their brains get the nourishment needed. And yes, I do work with picky eaters. There are strategies to break these patterns that have nothing to do with behavior or feeding therapy, and everything to do with nutrition restoration to trigger a normal appetite naturally.
- Undiagnosed food reactions. Undiagnosed sensitivity to gluten is a well documented trigger for anxiety, ataxia, and even seizures. Get your child properly screened. Other food reactions may be involved as well. If you have had celiac screening that was negative, make sure your team checked for anti-gliadin IgA and IgG, which is often left out of celiac screening. A value above five or six is enough to exacerbate psychiatric features, in my observation clinically; but, some lab ranges report a value for this lab test as “normal” if it’s under twenty. I disagree. If a child is symptomatic, the only way to know true impact of a gluten free diet is to try a gluten free diet, and to make sure that all nutrition factors are well supported during that trial. Test multiple foods to identify other sensitivity reactions; if these are active when only gluten is avoided, a gluten free diet trial can fail.
- Undiagnosed B vitamin deficiencies. I often review blood count lab results and find that no action has been taken by the care team who ordered the blood work, even though a panel shows changes in red blood cell status. I’m not sure why that is, other than to guess that again physicians perhaps don’t have adequate nutrition training to pick up on this, but this is another no brainer. Literally. Your kid’s brain won’t work as well without red blood cells doing what they’re built to do, which is carry oxygen to the brain. Scrutinizing this routine test can direct choices for supplementing B group vitamins, including whether or not your child needs methylated versions of those nutrients. This will also tell if your child needs more iron.
- Undiagnosed imbalances in thyroid, reproductive, or adrenal hormones can wreak havoc on mood, anxiety, sleep, and reactions to stress. Work with a functional medicine expert who understands optimal and age appropriate reference ranges for these hormones, how to accurately assess them, and how to discern whether your child needs prescription or non-drug hormonal support. A single blood draw for morning cortisol or thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH) is not descriptive enough to tell if these are imbalanced. Twenty-four hour urine or saliva tests are available to chart patterns of these throughout the day and night, and detailed panels on thyroid function are widely available too. Many drug-free, herbal and nutritional options exist to modulate cortisol, thyroid function, and reproductive hormones. A number of children in my practice have benefitted from the simple addition of a cortisol lowering herb called Holy Basil, which reduced anxiety and OCD in these cases and permitted these kids to fall asleep easily at bedtime.
- Dietary exoprhins or opiates. Yes, I did say opiates. Exorphins are opiate-like compounds that can form with weak digestion – causing some food proteins to be absorbed in small, opiate-like peptide chains called exorphins. Prime offenders are gluten, dairy, and soy protein foods. This is the reason why so many children have fiercely picky, “white” diets – they are literally addicted to these foods. There are many strategies to break this addiction with nutrition support and gut cleanse tools. Dietary exorphins from casein (milk) or gluten (wheat) are bioactive compounds that affect behavior, learning, anxiety, impulsivity, memory, socialization, and pain perception. The impact of these dietary opiates is so powerful, it has been implicated as a trigger for psychiatric features seen in autism and schizophrenia. Strict avoidance of gluten, casein, and soy while replenishing with other proteins and minerals can make for astounding turn arounds in these children and teens.
These are just the basics. Any child with anxiety or depression deserves screening for all of these factors, which have potential to greatly improve quality of life, drug free. Beyond this, there are dozens of supplements children can safely use instead of drugs to enhance chemistry for more calm, more joy, more ease. These are most effective after these basic nutrition factors are secured in good stead, and under the care of an experienced clinician.
The body is always endeavoring to balance, heal, renew; on top of this, children are growing, a demanding physiological task that will be prioritized in the body’s hierarchy. Instead of making this an “either – or” question – as in, drugs or no drugs – ask your care team to give your child’s body and brain a chance to balance. Get some screening done to look for the gaps in the puzzle that is your child’s well being, and if your care team doesn’t have the expertise to do that, contact me for an appointment and I will do it. It may not be solved by drugs alone.
Has anyone on your child’s care team done lab tests, only to tell you they’re all “normal” and there is nothing more to do? Or worse, you’re sent to a specialist for more tests and invasive procedures, when you still don’t understand what is going on?
This is such a common story in my pediatric nutrition practice that I had to address it. The truth is that any lab test result has two interpretations: Lab range, and functional range. Anyone, including babies and kids, can have test results that fall within the lab reference range (considered “normal”), when they are in fact teetering on health disasters. Functional range means your lab test results fall into a more narrow range, and this is where you actually feel good. You’re not just not sick, you’re well!
If your pediatrician is using only lab range to interpret your child’s results, then a lot of opportunity for well-being is missed. And, you may end up doing more invasive and useless diagnostics, when improving these initial findings is all that your child might need.
Establishing what is considered “normal” ranges for lab test results is difficult to do. Groups of individuals who have no known health problems are tested, and a range is created from their findings, for each lab test that exists. These ranges can be wide. But functional lab test results fall smack in the middle of the lab reference range. The lab range is wider than this, and may include findings for people who are not so healthy. This is why it’s good to look closely at your child’s findings and ask questions.
Here’s what to do:
- Always get a copy of your child’s labs, after any visit where your doctor presents them, including emergency room visits. Keep these in an organized file.
- Use your doctor’s secure on line portal (if they have one) to view your child’s labs. Download these and save them as pdfs if you like, so you can carry these into other provider visits with you, and get second opinions.
- Scrutinize your child’s lab test results yourself. If you notice results that are close to being out of range, ask your doctor about this.
- Don’t assume your primary care doctor or pediatrician always or immediately sees lab test findings done in an emergency room visit, or at a specialist visit. Always maintain your own files of these and share other providers’ test results with your pediatrician or primary care provider.
Some typical examples of “lab range” problems from my practice…
- Gluten sensitivity may bet the most frequently missed diagnosis I see. Many doctors run celiac panels, which can be normal, even when a child has a gluten reaction. The problem here is that many celiac panels do not check for gluten reactions – they only check for celiac serology. It’s possible to have debilitating reactions to gluten, without having celiac disease. This is called non-celiac gluten sensitivity and it can really wreck your kid! Definitely get a second opinion if your child continues to grow poorly, have stomachaches or headaches, or experiences ongoing gut or even psychiatric symptoms.
- Iron and Anemia Screening: You may have seen a normal hemoglobin and hematocrit at your child’s annual physical, but this can miss other problems concerning iron. The hemoglobin and hematocrit test is done with a finger prick drop of blood. This will only fall out of lab range if your child has entrenched anemia. Read this blog on iron screening to learn what to do next – prevent complications from marginal iron status that don’t show up with the fingerstick test.
- Ferritin (the storage protein for iron) has a very wide lab range, and labs vary on how they report it. Some labs report a ferritin level as low as 10 as normal; others say it’s okay for it to be as high as 400. Either way, ferritin is so important for your child’s immune function, learning, behavior, sleep and more that more investigating is worthwhile if this lab finding is not somewhere between 40-85.
- White blood cells (WBC) fight infection, and the lab range may sound small: Anywhere from 4.0 to 14.0 for kids is considered “normal”. But if your child’s WBC count jumps from its usual level of 5 or 6, to say 11 or 12, then it’s possible your child is fighting a new infection – even though it’s still “in range”. Or if it always hovers at the low end, say 3.8 to 4.0, then your child may have an undetected chronic infection that keeps him tired, cranky, or inattentive. Is your child having any fevers, intermittent malaise, frequent colds and bugs, tired all the time, unable to shake off a cold or virus? Go back to your doc and ask about it. By scrutinizing the blood count further, your doctor can discern if your child is fighting a bacterial infection, a virus, or struggling with a moldy environment, and may be able to help you more.
- Vitamin B12 can be a red herring if it your child’s serum level is reported above range. This may mean B12 is hanging out in serum instead of getting into red blood cells, where it is needed, so those cells can function normally with normal size and shape. Further scrutiny of a complete blood count will show if B12 is needed, as will a test called methylmalonic acid. Serum B12 level alone can’t give the whole picture. Simple changes in nutrition protocols can fix this.
- Lyme disease antibody may report as a false negative if your child got exposed to this infection long ago and you didn’t know. If Lyme disease is at all suspected, ask your doctor to be as thorough as possible. Do both the Lyme antibody test, as well as all the “reflex bands” and a co-infection panel. Undiagnosed, old Lyme infections can impair immune response to other infections, so the co-infection screening is important.
- Blood tests for heavy metals are not terribly useful. Blood tests can “see” recent or active exposures to heavy metals, but won’t show you about past or old exposures. If your child’s mercury or arsenic screening came back ok, this doesn’t show whether or not those metals are hiding out in places they really like – like kidney, brain, or nerve tissue. Mercury, lead, arsenic and other heavy metals like to avoid watery spaces (like blood) and migrate to fatty tissues, where they tend to stay put. If you really want to know about heavy metals in your child, some other tools are necessary.
These are just a few examples of how your doctor might miss opportunities to really help your kids feel good. If you have questions, always ask. I maintain continuing education credits in functional blood chemistry, and enjoy helping families with using nutrition supports to help kids feel really well. Make an appointment with me today if you need extra help!
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