How do you get your kids a decent lunch at school? You’re over the top with beautiful Bentos, containers, and boxes for all the best snacks and sandwiches you can think of, you’ve tried every healthy power bar, fruit, carrot sticks, rolled up turkey, hummus… You’ve resorted to the junk: Cheddar Bunnies or Goldfish, pretzels, chips, sugary granola bars… and it comes back barely touched at the end of the school day, right? Or you’re buying school lunch, but have no idea what it is, whether your child eats it, or why they come home and melt into tantrums day after day (hunger, maybe?) Here’s five tips to help this go a little better.
1 – Let yourself off the hook – and your kid too. You’re not the problem. Neither is your child. The school is. Lunch is too short, too chaotic, and too impersonal. Incredibly, some children literally don’t get to eat lunch at all, as they spend too much time lining up to get it and finding a table. Here is one example of a school where children actually dumped untouched trays of food in the trash because it was time for recess by the time they’d gotten their lunches – they never got to eat at all. No amount of curriculum is worth this. You can stuff curriculum into kids’ faces all day if you like, but guess what? It won’t work. Because when children are hungry, attention and learning drop. Hmm maybe this is why we hear that US kids are falling behind compared to other countries?
By contrast, check out this story and video about how school lunch is served in France. Imagine how differently children learn to value food, community, self worth, and social interaction, when they get to eat this way. Oh well. We are probably not going to get there anytime soon in the US. But I share this to illustrate how absurd it is to expect children to function well in our version of a school lunch system. It does not engender health, good digestion, or appreciation for food, self, or how to contribute to a positive group experience. Our system is downright competitive, and anxiety provoking, as kids must worry about what they’ll get, when they’ll get it, if they can eat it, how fast, where to sit… and must do it in a cacophony that could make your ears bleed. So give in to the fact that how your child eats at school is something you can’t likely change, at least not this week. Make up for it with family meals at home as often as you can, whether it’s breakfast or evening meals. Having family meals together on a regular basis has been shown to boost kids’ vocabularies, grades, and intakes of nutrient-dense foods.. and it lowers high risk behaviors in teens like drug use and drinking.
2 – Let your child eat what is easyduring the school day. Literally, anything is better than nothing. Pack high protein finger foods, starchy snacks (yes, you read that right), and comfy favorites. Don’t worry about the carrots and celery that come home. They’re not going to help much anyway during the busy school day. Your child needs high density food. Their brains use nearly half the total food energy they eat every day, just to be and learn (adult brains use about half that amount). Starchy snacks give fuel quickly and while we can argue all day about why they’re bad, they are better than nothing. Think of it this way: You’re flight was delayed and your stuck in an airport terminal at 4 AM with nothing open for food. You never had dinner the day before or breakfast this morning. But wait: You found some crackers in your purse. Eat them, for God’s sake! Yes, it’s junk, and, it will give you a little help til you get to your destination. It’s not what you’re going to eat every day, but you’re glad to have it in that moment. Likewise, don’t sweat it if your child is eating some low value starchy snacks during the school day sometimes. Avoid processed high sugar or corn syrup snacks – but a blondie brownie (gluten free if necessary), made with strong organic ingredients, coconut sugar or maple syrup instead of cane sugar, and some awesome ghee or coconut oil for a brain boosting fat isn’t at all that bad. If allowed at your kids’ school, throw in some crushed cashews or other safe nut. A dense homemade or store bought bar every day with clean ingredients isn’t all that bad.
Lunch at an Iowa school, 1939 (courtesy Library of Congress)
3 – Fast finger foods are an obvious help. Expand on the starchy goodies by including some protein and fat rich options, like olives, hard boiled eggs, jerky or meat sticks, or collagen bars like BulletProof, Dr Axe, BonkBreaker, Caveman, or Perfect Bars (some from this brand have peanut). Other bars may source the protein punch from dairy, using whey or casein; you’ll need to skip those for a dairy free child. You might also see soy, rice, hemp, or nuts as protein sources. Scrutinize ingredients to fit your child’s needs. Generally, grass fed collagen is a good protein source that is non-allergenic for most kids. Another great option: Fat bombs, bite size power packed snacks that are easy to make at home with a few ingredients, and are beginning to appear on store shelves in various forms. Here is just one site that offers a cache of 45 fat bomb recipes. Look around the web for more from sites like Paleo Hacks, Paleo Plan, or under names like Paleo Energy Balls. Those recipes use nut butters often; some schools have a zero nut policy while others only limit peanut or have a nut free table. Lastly – macadamia nuts, if allowed at your child’s school, have the highest fat and calorie content of any nut. Even a few nuts give high octane fuel that can make the day’s journey easier. Ten nuts yields about 200 calories. Throw in a few organic, stevia sweetened chocolate chips if you want to make it a treat that skips sugar.
4 – Make the liquids count. Instead of juice pouches or boxes, consider a midday meal replacement power shake that adds fat, protein or micronutrients. Options abound for ready to drink stuff you can pack in your child’s lunch. Orgain drinks are widely available (even at Costco) in both vegan and dairy protein source versions. The vegan version is gluten, dairy, and soy free. I also love Rebble Protein Elixirs. A little pricey, but they are dairy, gluten and soy free, with big protein boosts from pea, sunflower, pumpkin seed, or hemp. They are less sugary, more nutritious, and cleaner than stuff like Boost or Pediasure, which are high corn syrup and low nutrition value with only GMO fed cow casein and GMO soy as the protein sources.
Many kids with severe allergies need an even more specialized product. One example is Splash ready to drink elemental formula for children. Though many in the integrative nutrition communities love to hate this stuff, in certain cases, I have seen it be quite successful for children with feeding difficulties and multiple food allergy. Downside: High cost, but may be covered on insurance for kids with documented multiple food allergy.
You can of course also always make your own smoothie and send it to school in a single serving container, but keep in mind that this makes more work for you, and it may take more steps for your child to eat it than products that come with a straw or easy open cap.
5 – If all else fails and your child is simply not eating lunch, meet with your school principal and teacher to troubleshoot. Ask if you can observe a lunch period, volunteer during lunch, or work with an advocate to observe for you, so your child isn’t seeing you at school to watch lunch (they will most likely behave differently in your presence). Is your child last to get to the table, struggling to know where to sit, klutzy with the tray tasks, overwhelmed by noise, too excited to socialize to eat? Identify what is not working. Solutions might be quieter seating with a lunch bunch rather than in the cafeteria en masse, leaving two minutes sooner to get to cafeteria with a peer, or reliable seating at a regular spot. Further ideas are talking to your principal about aligning recess before instead of after lunch, expanding the lunch period by a few more minutes, or creating conduct rules at lunch for noise or behavior for the whole school. In my son’s elementary school, lunch included clear conduct rules that meant no one left the table until everyone had finished eating and had cleared their trays/lunch sacks and trash. This meant that at the end of the half hour (yes, they had 30 minutes), twelve little angels were usually seated quietly waiting for the signal for the whole table to go out and play. Rather than bench seating or loose chairs, the cafeteria had tables with single circles integral for each little behind, like this. These omitted crowding or jostling for space. Find power in numbers with other parents for these larger changes.
When I was a kid, we actually got bussed home in the middle of the day for lunch. My school did not have a cafeteria. We were picked up, brought home, I had lunch with my mom and siblings, and got back on the bus to go back to school. I had a full half hour to eat once home. I never felt rushed or worried about lunch. It’s hard to believe this is how it used to be in an American public school. Times have changed, budgets are squeezed, moms aren’t home to serve lunch. Maybe someday our school system will reboot how it does lunch time to something more conducive to learning, but until then, give your child these options to at least get through the day on more than fumes – they deserve it!
Functional medicine is all about resolving the root cause for chronic conditions, by giving the body tools to repair and heal itself beyond just prescription drugs to mask symptoms. The idea is to be well to potential, not just un-sick. But there’s a problem, when it comes to babies, toddlers, kids and teens: Those people are not little adults. The functional medicine model that works for grown ups sometimes leaves out critical pieces for kids – and I see these mistakes in my pediatric nutrition practice, regularly!
If you know me, you know I work in an office with a fabulous functional medicine doc, author, and speaker Jill Carnahan MD. Before moving into our new office digs in 2015, we shared space with Robert Rountree MD, another renown educator, author, speaker and founding IFM member (here’s just one of his fabulous pearls of wisdom). Just being in the same room with those two is a joy, as both are fonts of knowledge and experience!
I meet many kids who have come into my practice having already worked with a functional medicine practitioner elsewhere in the US – but often, these kids are still sick, not getting better, or even getting worse. Does this mean functional medicine doesn’t work for kids?
Nope. It means a few key pieces got left out. I see this a lot. Work these bits into your child’s care with your provider, and things might go a lot better. Here’s the top 3 goofs that I encounter, when working with families who tried functional medicine care for a child, but didn’t see great results.
1 – Your Doctor Forgot About The Food Sounds crazy, but it’s true: The most important piece for children of any age to feel better with a chronic condition (or even leave it behind) is food. How much? What protein sources are safe? How much fat? What carbs are okay? What do you make for dinner? What goes in the lunch box? How many ounces of formula, and what formula is best for the baby? How much breast milk? Should mom be on an elimination diet too? Which foods should she remove, which foods can she replace those with? Should your child eat fermented food, GAPS, ketogenic diet, Autoimmune Paleo (AIP), gluten, low oxalate foods, avoid nightshades, low FODMAPs foods?
All those questions need specific answers and specific instructions.
But… What I often see is that parents are just told what not to feed their kids, without details about what to feed them instead. This often leaves kids over-restricted, not eating enough. I also find that foods are eliminated without a good reason (“aren’t carbs bad for you?” … “I was told potatoes are inflammatory, so we cut those too.” … “I don’t want to feed yeast – the doctor said to go ketogenic just to be safe.”) Or, sometimes, a food that is not a fit gets over-used, like daily high oxalate juices with spinach, kale, and beet juice; or coconut everything, when we find coconut to be a high IgG trigger food or too high FODMAPs for that child. Long short, you really gotta know what food is right for your child, and how much. That is based on lab studies, signs, symptoms, and history – not on any dogma about the “best” diet.
The flip side of looking in detail at what and how much your child is eating daily is growth pattern. Growth is the single most important measure of a child’s nutrition status, especially in children under age five. It can be assessed in great detail, to include stuff like Z scores for body mass index for age, velocity, regression, or level of malnutrition. This is a big blind spot in the functional medicine model, which was borne out of how to manage chronic conditions for adults – who aren’t growing!
Growing dramatically changes how we use energy (calories), protein, fats, carbs, and even some micronutrients like folic acid, zinc, or iron. Just your kid’s brain uses more energy per ounce daily than yours does! Not to mention all the other stuff going on in a growing person.
I request a food diary with each new patient intake, and often at follow up appointments too. This isn’t about watching what parents are doing right or wrong (it’s not about you!). Food diaries reveal a lot about a child’s body, what they feel like eating, what they are absorbing well, what nutrients they may be losing, why they are fatigued or hyper, or what sort of dysbiosis may be active.
Matching this info up with a growth analysis is a gold mine of information about why a child isn’t feeling well. Growth impairments can be subtle or even invisible, without a skilled assessment (which pediatricians generally don’t do either – they don’t have time). Even mild growth impairments matter – they are costly for children. They affect sleep, behavior, mood, self regulation, timing of puberty, and stamina.
And.. Guess what: That Holy Grail of healing leaky gut? It can’t and doesn’t happen when a child has a growth impairment. Just being even a little underweight can, in itself, make a child’s gut leaky. The functional medicine community often overlooks this. You can eat all the kombucha and bone broth you like, but if you’re five years old and off your expected growth pattern, it won’t work so well. There won’t be enough energy and construction material to manage the demands for growth, and the demands of tissue repair and restoration. These heighten a child’s macronutrient needs (protein, calories, fats, and carbs) dramatically – and they have to be the right macronutrients for your child… Or, you guessed it, all your efforts can flop.
I often find that a child will be sprinkled with supplements for toxicity and neurotransmitter support, when all they needed to function better was the right food in the right amounts, consistently, day to day. The only way to find this out is by looking at detailed food diaries and making a deep dive into growth data – including life long growth pattern from birth. This helps identify what the expected growth pattern is in the present day.
2 – Your Doctor Ran Too Many Fancy Lab Tests …that didn’t really add up to an action plan for the family.
There’s no shortage of super interesting lab tests available now, that broaden our understanding of how the immune system is managing food, how we manage toxic exposures, or what our microbiome is up to. But what do you do with it all?
Sometimes this information isn’t actionable. That is, there isn’t going to be anything you can do with it.
For example: A Cyrex Panel 3 for Wheat Proteome Reactivity and Autoimmunity is as detailed as you can get, to see what an immune system “thinks” about gluten. It costs about $300, out of pocket. But if you’re just trying to figure out if a gluten free diet would help, all you need to establish that is deamidated gliadin antibody test. Your pediatrician or PCP can do that, and bill your insurance. (Your pediatrician will tell you it’s “normal” if the result is less than 20. But I will tell you to withdraw gluten if your child has any suspect symptoms for gluten intolerance, with a value above 10). Even if you pay cash for this simple test, it isn’t likely to cost more than about $50.
Or you might see a test for red blood cell toxic and essential metals, like this one. I like this test because it captures a lot of information in one sample. But, in children especially, iron needs more detailed digging than this test can show. If iron is marginal, it’s easier to absorb toxic metals like lead. The only way to know if iron is truly marginal is to do some standard stuff that, once again, your pediatrician can do very inexpensively or on your insurance. Include ferritin, CBC, transferrin, saturation, and serum iron to get this picture. Plus, kids show signs of mineral deficits clearly in behavior, sleep pattern, mood, hair, or skin. For children, a nutrition focused physical exam should be included in assessment too, not just lab tests. And by the way, here in my practice and in the practice of Jill Carnahan, we don’t use hair testing for mineral analysis, because we don’t find it to be terribly accurate or useful.
Another popular (and costly) test is the NutrEval by Genova Diagnostics, which runs close to $400 out of pocket. Some insurances may cover this test; in my own practice, this is rare. Many functional medicine docs rely on this for nutrition assessment. While it does do several tests for one fairly decent price, it does not assess children as well as it does adults. Nutrition assessment in children must include growth and food intake data, as well as clinical signs and symptoms. No one lab test can do this, even a comprehensive panel like the NutrEval. Because it is sold as a comprehensive, complete tool, it tends to mislead into thinking that all solutions lie in the supplement protocols that come with your test results. How often I have seen this fail!
The NutrEval also includes an analysis of essential fatty acids. I think you can skip that: It’s easy to see things like essential fatty acid deficits in kids, based on their food records (are they eating any?), behavior, and clinical signs that relate to essential fats. You don’t really need a blood test for this in my opinion, unless you are revisiting how to dose a fatty acid supplement protocol that doesn’t seem to be working. Even then, you can check other parameters in signs, symptoms, or other less costly labs to find out.
Another common misunderstanding I encounter with parents who have done a NutrEval is they believe that their kids’ protein status has been assessed, because there is an amino acid profile in it. Amino acid profiles don’t assess protein status or intake, which is crucial for kids. The amino acid profile rules out inherited metabolic disorders, another common and often insurance-covered test that you don’t need a functional medicine doctor to order for you. Protein status in kids is assessed with a metabolic panel (a common and cheap LabCorp or QuestLab test that your pediatrician can do), and by looking at clinical signs, growth, feeding, and elimination patterns.
For more cost saving tips on what lab tests to start with, without spending thousands out of pocket with a functional medicine doc, see my e book on 5 Essential Lab Tests For Kids With Autism. Goes for any kid, with a chronic condition! Any practitioner skilled in Nutrition Focused Physical Exam for children can save you a lot of time, trouble, and money – and help you avoid a care plan that backfires.
3 – Your Child Has Been Over-Treated, or Treated Too Aggressively There are so many cool tricks and tools for wellness potential that insurance doesn’t pay for. These are the things that your functional medicine doctor is trained to use – cutting edge stuff that includes everything from far infrared saunas and nutritional or immunoglobulin IVs, to highly specialized supplement protocols and ozone suppositories, or novel ways of using prescription drugs off label, for special circumstances. It’s hard to hold back, when we want to help people heal!
But here’s the thing: Children are delicate little creatures. Especially really young ones, like, babies. Or kids of any age who have been overwhelmed with mold toxicity or Lyme disease, or who didn’t tolerate the vaccine schedule. Their bodies are overwhelmed. Don’t overwhelm them all over again, with a barrage of treatments, all at once.
I have seen children go from bed-ridden to literally jumping, enjoying school, and playing normally again simply by suggesting a family stop treating their child for all these found problems, and by helping to re-boot with nourishing, gentle foods that fit that child’s needs. Then we pick and choose which “layer” the child might successfully address first. Are they anemic, or are there other mineral imbalances? Can they absorb foods and nutrients in the first place, or is there achlohydra, SIBO, SIFO? Are they pooping comfortably? Can they detoxify ….anything? Where can we gently support some detox?
When children are over-treated, they get sick, tired, weak, anxious, fatigued, depressed; they don’t eat right; they can’t play, they’re weepy or more angry, with volatility; they have rashes, fevers, or get every cold and bug more easily. It’s not necessary to go through this. It can be easier, gentler, and work better.
Functional medicine is the way health care is trending. We all want to feel really good, not just live “meh”, without sickness. Kids deserve it too. If your child is not playing, sleeping well, eating well, and enjoying activities they love, take a look at whether these mistakes are in the mix with your functional medicine provider. Re-boot the plan, and your child can feel better.
Can you make an infant formula out of camel milk? I’m often asked to find substitutes when commercial formula fails or when even breast milk is triggering a baby’s FPIES, allergy, or eczema. There are many good formula options from cow or goat milks on the market – but some babies still struggle, and need yet another option.
And yes, you can make an infant formula using it – as long as you know a few caveats up front. Most of all, you can’t use camel milk in its original form for infant formula. It must be modified first.
Camel milk is not the same as human milk, or milk from any other mammal like sheep, cows, or goats. It has to be modified to be safe as an infant formula, but it can be used to build a new formula (here are several links to research describing camel milk nutrition). Babies have very specific and very different needs than toddlers, children or adults when it comes to food and nutrition. If you miss the mark, your baby can pay the price with irreversible deficits in development or growth.
Camel milk has about half the fat of milks from cows or goats, and less than half the fat of your breast milk, especially early milk or colostrum. Babies need a lot of fat. It’s essential for all sorts of things, including brain growth, and for carrying critical path nutrients like vitamins A, D, E and K into tissues.
Camel milk also has more than twice as much protein than human breast milk – which might sound great at first. But human babies don’t need all this concentrated protein, and it can actually be harsh for their kidney tissue to eat too much of it too soon.
Lastly, camel milk has less carbohydrate in it that our own milk does. And babies need a lot of carbs too, because carbs become a primary fuel soon after birth – so protein and fats can do their own crucial jobs of building tissue, hormones, and carrying nutrients for us.
Less fat and less carb means camel milk has a lot fewer calories in it than human milk.
These macronutrient ratios – that is, the amounts of protein, carbs, fats, and calories in camel milk versus human milk – make it unsuitable as an infant formula on its own. Giving just camel milk in its original state will cause malnutrition in your baby (as will giving just milk from coconut, any nut milks, or any plant based milk substitutes).
So what to do? One popular recipe suggests adding cream (from cow’s milk), whey, lactose (that’s the carbohydrate), plus some oils and nutritional yeast to round it up to par for your baby. That’s a great recipe – for kids I’ve never met! If your baby can tolerate all the ingredients in that recipe, most likely, he or she can likely handle breast milk well too, or any of the European or American commercially available organic infant formulas that are made from goat milk.
You can use that camel milk recipe if you don’t mind mixing up your own and don’t like the organic commercial choices, or if your own milk has petered out and no donor milk is available. In that scenario, camel milk as mixed in the recipe above is a great option, and you can expect your baby to thrive with it. If you see funky stools, rashes, or crying, screaming, gas, bloating, or vomiting, then it isn’t a great option.
I work in that plan B zone. The babies I meet in my pediatric nutrition practice usually have severe feeding concerns, and/or are already in a growth regression or even growth failure. They can’t tolerate nutritional yeast because they already have fungal overgrowth in GI tract or an antibody reaction to it. For many of them, even this “healthy” yeast supplement triggers discomfort and pain. They can’t use cream because cream has some casein and whey in it from the cow’s milk it is made from, and they may be allergic or intolerant to those. They can’t use some of the oils in the recipe either because these may trigger their FPIES symptoms, which are terrifying – especially when a baby is vomiting violently until they pass out.
To use camel milk infant formula in these cases, you need to add about 6 grams of carbohydrate and 7 grams of fat for every 8 ounces of formula, while reducing the protein and mineral load. You also may need to remove the whole food sources of B vitamins and iron in the Healthy Home Econonmist’s recipe above, since kids with FPIES don’t do well with many whole foods until their gut/immune interface is improved.
That’s why in the recipe below, for B vitamins, I suggest using a commercially available multi vitamin supplement with iron. The brand chosen below has the least amount of flavors, whole food extracts (which can be poorly tolerated for sensitive babies), or other additives common in children’s liquid supplements. Sometimes, you have to pick your battles. For FPIES or highly allergic babies, it’s not worth the risk of using a whole food option like liver or nutritional yeast. These may be well tolerated later on. Either way, don’t omit the B vitamins, folate, and iron. Your baby needs these and camel milk doesn’t have enough of them.
For 12 (twelve) ounces of a camel milk infant formula that can be tried for sensitive babies or babies with FPIES:
8 ounces whole camel milk (available shipped frozen from Desert Farms – request raw if available, flash pasteurized if not)
~5 drops multivitamin for babies with iron (here’s an example) – don’t exceed 40 drops per day total
Warm camel milk and water gently in a stainless steel pot on low heat. Stir in lactose powder til dissolved. Add ghee, vegetable oils, and MCT oil but not DHA fish oil (heat quickly denatures this oil and makes it taste bad). Stir to melt/blend then transfer to a glass blender and blend on low speed for about 20 seconds. Add vitamin drops and DHA fish oil, and pulse to blend on low speed. If you’d like to add a probiotic, it can be added with vitamin and DHA, but not on stove top (heat kills the bacteria in the probiotic). Transfer to bottles to feed at wrist (warm) temperature.
A formula is a go when your baby can settle comfortably after feeding. Reflux can also often be resolved with the right formula, instead of depending on medicines like Prilosec or Nexium, which reduce your baby’s digestion and ability to absorb things like iron, zinc and B vitamins. If camel milk, goat milk, or products like Alimentum RTF or Nutramigen fail, your baby may feel better with an elemental (amino acid based) formula. I’m happy to work with you to help you do that – make an appointment to get started any time.
If you’d like to try camel milk, you can purchase it here. I’ve personally used Desert Farms Camel Milk and was happy with this product!
Healing leaky gut is one of the most requested tasks in my pediatric nutrition practice. Many parents are surprised to hear me say that it is possible to repair leaky gut in children of all ages.
But what really works? There is a lot of buzz about dietary approaches, probiotics, and supplements, and less good research on leaky gut than we’d like, especially when it comes to infants, toddlers, kids, or teens. However, after twenty years in my clinical pediatric nutrition practice, I can tell you what nutrition supports I’ve seen consistently work, and what strategies often fail.
First, let’s get on the same page about what leaky gut is, and isn’t. It doesn’t mean there are actual ulcers or holes in your child’s intestine that are “leaking”. But it can mean that the intestinal wall has lost some integrity – and has become too permissive about the size of molecules that it lets pass into your bloodstream.
Another way you might hear leaky gut described is “intestinal permeability” or “hyper-permeability” – again, expressing a condition in which the intestine’s normally very selective, tight process for digesting and absorbing food has become, well, loose and sketchy!
Practitioners – myself included – might scrutinize zonulin, stool microbe studies (microbiology culture or PCR DNA methods), inflammatory markers like calprotectin, or immune markers like immunoglobulin A in a stool sample to gauge gut environment. Some doctors may order a lactulose-mannose test in which patients drink a concentrated solution made of those sugars. How these two sugars, which are different sizes, are excreted in urine can give a measure of how permeable the gut is. For more on intestinal permeability tests and their pros and cons, click here. Food allergy and non-IgE food reactions may also be measured, which requires a blood test.
Key To Restoring Leaky Gut Is….
Key to restoring a healthy gut is repairing “tight junctions” – these are the microscopic, traffic-cop structures of your gut. They form a tight seal between cells in the intestinal wall. When these junctions are injured, they break down – and larger-than-ideal molecules cross from the intestine into the bloodstream, triggering all sorts of reactions to stuff that your bloodstream and distant tissues were never meant to see in the first place. These might be anything from polypeptides (over-size fragments of food protein molecules that can masquerade as false hormones, false neurotransmitters, or invading antigens) to toxins, getting access your body from your gut, when they’re not supposed to. This permeability scenario is a catch-22, in that it can easily perpetuate itself, as more injury persists in the gut.
The intestine is our largest immune system interface with the world outside the body – so leaky gut can also wreak immune havoc, from autoimmune problems to frequent infections and illnesses.
What injures the gut? Lotsa stuff – and, making this harder is that leaky gut symptoms are often diffuse and insidious. They can evolve gradually, or with an abrupt onset that never quite resolves. Leaky gut can trigger symptoms in the GI tract of course, but also far from the gut, like headaches or joint aches, stiffness, pain, fatigue, or frequent colds and infections.
image courtesy Jill Carnahan MD
Here Are Usual Suspects for Triggering Leaky Gut
intestinal Candida or other fungal species infections
undiagnosed food allergy or food sensitivity
intestinal flu or virus
non celiac gluten sensitivity
poorly tolerated routine vaccinations
traumatic brain injury or concussion
C section birth (baby misses exposure to helpful vaginal flora)
mom treated with antibiotics in pregnancy or at delivery for any reason
mastitis (mom needs antibiotics while breastfeeding)
being underweight especially if you’re a baby, child, or teen
Most kids have had at least one of the items on this list. But that last one is key. In itself, underweight can cause intestinal permeability especially in children. You can address all the other triggers, but if your child is underweight – that is, more than fifteen percentile points off his or her expectedpattern – your child’s gut can remain “leaky”. There simply isn’t enough raw material and energy on board for that tissue to repair itself, while your child is also trying to grow.
Here’s the rub: Generally, nobody scrutinizes your child’s growth pattern that closely (I will be honest and tell you that I even see gastroenterology work ups overlook this level of detail – and I routinely read my patients’ reports from their GI specialists nationwide). Without defining your child’s actual expected growth pattern – that is, where your child should be today given parental stature, pregnancy history, birth/delivery history, and growth history since birth – then you don’t know if your child is underweight or undernourished. You can learn more about that here.
I meet many children who are underweight. Sometimes it’s caused by families placing kids on diets that are too restrictive. Or some families have become so traumatized by frightening reactions to foods that they just don’t know how or what to feed their children – so, they don’t. Sometimes it’s caused by a well meaning practitioner who didn’t monitor growth and food intake, because they’re focused on lab tests and supplements instead, gave no guidance on what to actually eat, and encouraged a restrictive diet without effective replacements for foods taken out. I have also seen underweight caused by reflux medicines, which can diminish appetite and digestion when used for more than a few weeks or months. When it comes to picky eating, this too will drive growth status down in kids, injuring the gut too via underweight and poor diet.
The flip side of this coin is assessing what your child eats – how much and what – and the only way to discover if your child eats enough non-triggering, nourishing food is to assess a food diary (part of every new patient intake I do), and then align it with the growth assessment. The food your child eats is the lumber that will be used to do the gut repair – so it has to be the right stuff, in the right amount. Supplements (including glutamine, which is a helpful amino acid but not an energy source), herbs, and probiotics don’t provide this raw building material. I meet a lot of kids who have been given a lot of supplements, lab tests, antifungals, special diets, and measures to repair leaky gut. But they’re still struggling – because this essential growth and feeding part gets lost in the shuffle. But put the right feeding plan with the right supplemental supports, and boom – now you’re talking!
Here’s What Works to Repair Leaky Gut In Kids
Balance gut microbe environment with herbal or prescription agents to directly address fungal burden, Clostridia burden (even commensal strains can be problematic if they far outnumber other helpful strains), Strep or Klebsiella, parasites, protozoans, and whatever comes up on testing. Combine this with probiotic supplementation that matches your child’s stool studies. My preferred tools for assessing this are GI MAP and Doctors Data Stool Microbiology.
Customize the special diet to your child. Skip dogmatic, one-size-fits-all approaches.
Give enough protein! Kids may need anywhere from 1 to 2 grams of protein per kilogram bodyweight per day depending on degree of growth impairment.
Give the right protein; assess first which proteins are triggering with lab studies. Replace trigger proteins with equal or better value non-trigger protein sources, and keep them varied.
Use free amino acids. Supplementing with amino acid mixes that give all 8 essential amino acids (and not just glutamine) has been a big bonus in my practice for kids who need deep gut repair. Formulas and powders are available. These give the gut direct access to building blocks for new tissue growth and repair. I use anywhere from 5 to 15 or even 30 grams daily of this protein source, depending on a child’s needs or status. Caveat: These won’t work well without an adequate total diet around them to support energy needs.
Give enough total food including “clean” (non sugary) carbohydrates, which are crucial for growth in children (carbs preserve protein for structure and function, and keep it from being burned for energy) and ample healthy fats and oils. Kids can need 4-6x more calories per pound than adults, depending on age and growth status. Don’t feed them like little adults – give energy-dense, nutrient-rich food.
Mastic gum, licorice root, zinc carnosine, glutathione, mineral-rich foods or products like Restore are just a tiny sliver of the thousands of products that can aid gut tissue repair. Work with a knowledgeable provider who has used these in children before. Using these tools is a routine part of my practice.
Correct sleep pattern so your child can sleep deeply and wake rested. Sleep is when our organs are busy with repair and clean up. Hint: Children who are underfed tend to sleep poorly and wake more often.
Minimize stress in your child’s world. Don’t discuss “leaky gut” with younger kids and don’t frame food or their bodies as problematic. Use positive language and emphasize the power to heal, which we all have.
Give it time (like, months), be chill, and remember that your child’s body is a miraculous thing with its own innate drive to grow, repair, and heal.
And Now For The Leaky Gut Fails…
Using rigid diet strategies for growing kids can be too restricting to support growth, gain, and gut repair. Yeast free diet, GAPS, ketogenic diet, AIP, SCD, Paleo, or Body Ecology all have merits (and devotees!), and I use components of all of them in my practice. But in themselves, none of these were created for use in children (except ketogenic diets for seizure control) and can fail when children are already struggling to gain or grow. If you’re not seeing good growth, gain, and progress in behavior or food reactions with one of these strategies within 2- 4 weeks, or if initial improvements lapse quickly, then it probably isn’t right for your child. Customize to your kid instead!
Needing your child to like any of this, including taking supplements, having blood draws, or accepting different foods. You’re the adult. They’re not going to make it easy for you – that’s a given. Hint: Picky appetites can improve with addressing these three steps – don’t assume your child “won’t eat that”.
Staying on reflux medicines for months at a time. These will work against your gut healing efforts by keeping pH in the stomach too weak to initiate good protein digestion. They will also cause your child to feel less hungry over time, to eat less, and to become more picky – thus leaving your child underfed and unreplenished for the task of gut repair. Learn more about the downside of reflux medicines here.
Using glutamine, vitamins, minerals, or lots of supplements before you situate the right feeding strategy for your child. Feeding strategy means knowing what foods to use, how much and which sources of protein, fats, and carbs, and for how long, to support your child’s expected weight and height.
Being aggressive with fermented foods, probiotics, or too much Saccharomyces boulardii. These can backfire if used for too long or at too high a dosage, and may even start to create their own dysbiosis or discomfort.
Leaving fungal, parasite, SIBO or SIFO, or other dysbiosis untreated or under-treated. This can interrupt appetite, digestion, and stooling and keep tight junctions from sealing up.
Giving up after 2-4 weeks. This is a restore and repair effort that may take months, depending on how long your child’s gut has been in the weeds.
There has been buzz for years now about camel milk, and its purported benefits for autism, Crohn’s disease, allergies, feeding problems and more.
I’ve been slow to embrace this possibility, because all mammalian milk (including human breast milk) contains milk protein – that is, casein – and casein can become problematic for many reasons. Casein structure varies a bit from species to species or even across breeds of animals in the same species (as described in the A1 versus A2 milk conversation). This is what can make goat milk or sheep’s cheese more tolerable than cow’s milk for some kids. But all these milks – including human breast milk – can make a neuroactive protein fragment called casomorphin.
I’ve needed a good explanation for why this is not a problem with camel milk, and I found it.I’ve changed my mind, and now recommend it in certain circumstances. If you’d like to try it, you can purchase it here.
Here’s what I found out when I investigated camel milk:
Camel milk truly is different from milks that we make, or cow, goat, or sheep milk too. Here is a detailed comparison of what’s in camel milk versus human breast milk. But one thing all mammalian milks have in them is a protein called casein, which is often allergenic. Even as casein varies across species and can be easier to tolerate depending on the animal it comes from, generally, all casein can turn into a littler protein chunk called casomorphin. This can be a big trouble maker.
Casomorphin is great for babies in their first year. It is correlated with optimal psychomotor skills and muscle tone. But it can wear out its welcome, when a child’s intestine doesn’t acquire the skill to digest it thoroughly, past the age of 12-14 months. I routinely see this in my practice, in milk-addicted kids: Constipation, delayed language or aphasia (non-verbal), extreme picky eating, tantrums, ADD/ADHD, disrupted sleep, and behavior problems can come from a diet that uses mostly casein as a protein source. When those signs are active, kids are usually turning that casein into casomorphin, which is potently addicting, making for an extremely picky appetite, causing constipation and terrible behavior. If this is your kid, buy this e book. You’re welcome. It will save you a lot of time, pain and agony in feeding clinics, GI doctor’s offices, or in surgery avoided for a G-tube.
Casomorphin is easy to measure in urine. I have found it in the urine of older toddlers still breastfeeding, who strictly avoid dairy foods in their diets otherwise, and whose mothers strictly avoid dairy too – proving that the casomorphin indeed can come from weak digestion of the protein in breast milk. In these cases, weaning to non-dairy proteins in food did the trick.
Casomorphin is a “powerful opioid, more powerful than morphine itself“. It blunts sensation, and can delay potty training; it also prevents a process called synaptic or neural pruning, in which the brain adjusts its growth to accommodate new developmental phases. Without pruning, kids’ heads grow disproportionately large, and development – especially for language and social reciprocity – can stall. It’s common for me to see this phenomenon in children with autism who have had diets liberally inclusive of dairy protein, whether it’s from milk, cheese, yogurt, ice cream or whatever – all these dairy products contain casein. Gluten and soy proteins can form morphine-like neuroactive peptides too, in the context of weak digestion. These have been linked to autism features, for many years now. This is why kids with autism may begin to speak, function, behave and sleep better by removing wheat, dairy and soy foods entirely – stop eating opiate like neuropeptides, and their brains begin to work again.
What about camel milk? It turns out that the casein in camel milk is different enough in its structure to not create casomorphin, the opiate-like neuropeptide I’m talking about – while at the same time, its other components are also unusual – making for some extra healing benefits. It doesn’t have the same casein structure that cow’s milk has, and thus can’t create casomorphins that have brain-damaging potential, as is seen in autism. Camel milk lacks the beta-lactoglobulin found in cow milk; that, plus its different casein structure, means that the two most allergenic proteins in cow milk are absent from camel milk. The whey proteins of camel milk are different too, making them less allergenic. And camel milk has higher amounts of the immune protecting proteins lactoferrin and immunoglobulin than cow milk – though some dispute that the difference is enough to explain the medicinal benefits. But because camel immunoglobulin molecules are tinier than those in cow or human milk, and because they appear to be more potent in completely neutralizing an infectious agent, they can more easily target and disable viruses or bacteria in the gut. Traditionally, one of its many uses was for clearing rotavirus – something your child was probably vaccinated for, as rotavirus vaccines have been included in the CDC schedule since 2008 (look for RotaTeq on your child’s vaccine record). Who knew all they may have needed was camel milk?
Little data exist for its healing properties, but the little that is out there is compelling. A controlled clinical trial in fourteen children with autism who drank pasteurized camel milk instead of cow’s milk for eight weeks “revealed a decreased hyperactivity, increased alertness, grasping power and curiosity, better social interaction and many parents commented on the newly expressed effort of their children to listen and obey instructions.” The children also had daily bowel movements instead of being constipated, and got sick less often. Urine samples showed no elevation of beta casomorphin-7, the trouble-maker molecule in question for milk drinkers. In a larger, double blind, randomized trial of 65 kids with autism, profound improvements were once again noted, from just two weeks of camel milk consumption. And yet another blinded and randomized trial in 60 children with autism found that camel milk significantly reduced oxidative stress (a well documented feature of autism that underlies behavior problems, GI symptoms and more) while it gave a boost to the kids’ glutathione levels, which is a healthy body’s top protector against toxins. Glutathione is legendary for being depleted in kids with autism, and has been the target of much investigation, since correcting it may diminish features of autism. Glutathione is also a key to reducing symptoms of Crohns disease; a healthy gut wall is rich in this antioxidant, while a sick one is depleted of it.
Another obscure report lauds camel milk as a wound healer in diabetes; other findings suggest that camel milk has enough insulin-like peptides in it to effectively lower blood sugar. Meanwhile, here’s that nasty casomophin from cow milk again, possibly triggeringdiabetes. I found no trials specific to food protein induced enterocolitis syndrome (FPIES), but did find one that plainly showed that most kids with milk protein intolerance handle camel milk just fine, and that skin prick testing worked to screen for this option.
This all sounded good enough for me to spring for $275 worth of frozen camel milk (it doesn’t come cheap). I’m going to try this out. My son has a long history of inflammatory bowel symptoms and struggles to gain weight; I have a long history of autoimmune problems and am dependent on infused human immunoglobulin therapy to, well, pretty much stay alive. If anyone had good reason to give camel milk a try, I do. And there are a few hundred kids in my case load who might benefit. I like to have first hand experience with whatever I recommend to my families.
The only dromedary dairy in my region was cryptic and unfriendly when I reached out; they wouldn’t let me visit or purchase in person, so I passed. Besides, knowing that the entire Front Range of Colorado is under siege from cancer causing fracking contaminants in air and water, I felt it would be better to buy a product from somewhere else. Camel milk isn’t sold in stores near me as far as I could find, so I went with the one outfit that seemed well equipped to produce, sell, and ship milk reliably: Desert Farms. I’ve ordered and tried this milk myself, and was so pleased that I have become an affiliate for this product. As a recipient of immunoglobulin therapy, I am monitored closely every few weeks for my immune status, and I’ve continued to steadily improve. Let me know how camel milk worked for you!
Has your pediatrician helped you tap nutrition solutions to these common problems? Take this check list with you to your appointment. There are straight forward, nutrition-focused solutions to all of the problems on this list. These have potential to help your kids avoid dependence on unnecessary medications, costly weekly therapies, or ongoing visits to behavior clinics. Simple measures may resolve these without spending weeks feeling frustrated and exhausted with measures that didn’t work. If your pediatrician is stumped about how to use real food and nutrition tools, peruse my blog,books, and join my mailing list here for my (roughly) quarterly newsletter. I also regularly share pearls (and recipes!) on my FB and IG pages too.
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, consider integrative nutrition. My practice is generally full, but if you’d like to check if there is an opening with me contact me here.
2 – Kids don’t have to get sick all the time, and nutrition determines this
The truth is, when kids have infections or serious illnesses, well nourished kids fare far better. Long ago, data showed us that well nourished kids are far more likely to have fewer complications, a shorter course of illness, and make a 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 a child’s tissue stores of vitamin A, to total protein intake, growth status, weight percentile, iron or zinc status, inflammatory chemistry, and more. The blind spot in pediatrics today is that nutrition status is not investigated or assessed at routine visits, or even in most specialist referrals. Kids can appear well enough, but be depleted on many counts (hello! Picky eaters especially!). This means a child will get sick more often, stay sick longer, and become more vulnerable to the next infection with every cold or cough that comes along.
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 – especially when these are tailored to your child – skip the 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 measurable things to assess how healthy a child really is. These are not typically included in a standard well check or school physical, but some may be added on if you ask your doctor. Strong nutrition status means…
There is a solid growth pattern in your child’s expected channels for weight, height, and body mass index. Look at your child’s growth charts. Whether it’s weight for age, stature (or length in children under 3 years old) for age, or body mass index (BMI), dropping more than fifteen percentile points away from the expected channel warrants investigation. Don’t wait until your child is hovering near the bottom of these charts to look for answers.
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. Your pediatrician can order these inexpensive and ordinary lab studies if need be.
Your child has few illnesses with short duration and full recovery. Few means 1-2 per year at most.
Your child has healthy shiny hair that isn’t brittle or easy to fall out, clear skin, healthy teeth, and clear strong nails. There are no or few cavities in the child’s lifetime. Nails aren’t flat, ridged, peeling, cracked or showing white spots. Acne can signal entrenched gut dysbiosis, zinc deficit, poor protein intake, or other nutrition problems.
Your child can to play, sleep, learn, and eliminate comfortably.
3 – Your child may need iron even if s/he is not anemic
It’s common at annual physicals to check hemoglobin for kids, which is done with a finger stick blood test. This tests checks for iron deficient anemia.
The problem with this is that this is a low sensitivity test. It doesn’t notice B12 deficient anemia, anemias secondary to poor protein intake, or anemias that involve copper. It also can’t pick up pre-anemia. Pre-anemia is a thing! In pre-anemia, iron stores are nearly depleted, but hemoglobin is still in the normal range. These kids need iron support, better protein intake, or both. Depending on diet, food intake and other factors, the fix may be the right food, including better protein sources and iron rich foods. Or, the right iron supplement (there are several) may do the trick. High dose prescription iron is not usually needed in pre-anemia, but functioning can change dramatically nevertheless. 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
difficult sleep pattern, insomnia, restless legs, 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. Watch my podcast with Jill Carnahan MD about nutrition, gut health 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 contracts tightly control what topics your doctor can cover 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, s/he essentially won’t get paid by the insurance contract. Add to this that doctors need high volume to make money, with 20-30 patients per day – 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 so profitable. Drug companies 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 to download your free Sensory Nutrition Checklist (scroll down) – begin today with some easy tricks to help your kids function better!