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!
Need more kid health blogs like this? Join my newsletter list below. I regularly share recipes, tips, and hot kid health topics.
Yup, GAPS can fail. And it’s probably not your fault.
Gut and Psychology Syndrome Diet has a lot success stories… But what about the kids who fail on GAPS?
I have met a lot of those kids. After GAPS has just plain not worked (or worse – traumatized the family and injured the child, which can unfortunately happen) – I’m often the next stop.
These are smart people who followed the GAPS protocol carefully, and engaged lots of on line support; some worked with GAPS certified practitioners. But still: Fail. Their kids withered on bone broth; vomited or bled in stool on probiotic foods; and had bloating, rashes, and irritable stools with egg yolks, avocados, and nut butters. Their parents pressed on, for months or even longer; some moms have described to me the intense pressure they felt to stay with this protocol, and the deep sense of failure they internalized about it not working.
Okay, here’s the thing: There is no one diet for everyone. There never is. All children with autism, FPIES, or gut issues do not benefit from or need GAPS. I have met many who failed on it. GAPS works well for some. It fails for others. If it isn’t going well, odds are it’s not your fault. Your child just needs something different.
So, what can go wrong? Why not just try it?
Besides the possibility of wasting a lot of money and effort preparing scratch foods that may be wrong for your child, you’re going to waste time too – which some children simply can’t afford. The younger they are, and the more undernourished they are to start, the harder this can be on a child, if it isn’t the right measure.
And a mom’ s worry is no small thing. Chronic, strong apprehension and anxiety about anything is hard on parents. It changes your chemistry, and ups your cortisol. Sensitive children will sense your strain, and this will strain them. If you’re breastfeeding, altered cortisol levels are in your milk too. Cortisol changes blood sugar metabolism and endocrine function; it can disrupt sleep, appetite, feeding, and immune response. If implementing GAPS (or any special diet measure) is exceedingly stressful, pause; relax and enjoy your children; and secure professional guidance so you don’t have to carry the nutrition-flip project on your own shoulders.
Meanwhile, here’s what can go wrong, when GAPS is the wrong tool for the job:
Fungal Failure – Recently an old study jumped out at me. It examined how children in weaker nutrition status can’t control Candida (fungal) species very well. They have more Candida, and different, more irritating strains of Candida in their intestines, compared to children in good nutrition status. The study found that for children, simply being in better total nutrition status meant better control of Candida colonization.
What exactly does this mean?
For kids, nutrition status = growth status. It is the single most potent predictor of how well a child will manage any illness or infection.
Nutrition status in kids is not a measure of how many vegetables or probiotic foods they eat. Not whether they’re gluten free, GAPS, or Paleo. Not what supplements they’re on, not whether they drink raw camel milk. No matter what a child eats, if growth pattern has wandered below that child’s innate trend, all body systems struggle more.
Even when children eat lousy processed food, if they are in robust growth status, they still have more reserve to tackle a disruptive biome. Whether it’s a fungal load in gut, mycoplasma in lungs, MARCoNs in nasal passages, or a viral story in brain tissue, there is simply more energy and building material around to throw at it, in a kid with a strong growth pattern. This is such old news in nutrition science! Learn more about the cycle of malnutrition and infection in children here.
This does not mean that the quality of your child’s diet doesn’t matter. But it does mean that even if your child eats beautiful food, if they’re in a weak growth pattern, they are going to struggle more in every way – sleep, mood, infection fighting, learning, behavior – and, detoxifying a bum biome and healing the gut.
In the study mentioned above (from 1974, back when there were no GMOs, and less processed food available than is now fed to children worldwide), the groups compared were well fed white Australian children, poor aboriginal Australian children, and poor Indonesian children. The underfed children had weak total diets, meaning they had too little protein, too few total calories, insufficient vitamins and minerals, and sparse nourishing fats. They also had more Candida.
What does this have to do with GAPS? Read on.
A small child’s immune system will sputter when s/he’s underfed – like when eating just broth for more than a week. (Or when exclusively breastfed or formula-fed, with no solid foods, past the first year. Or when on deep dietary restrictions for healthy carbohydrates – which are fundamental to steady growth in children). There simply is not enough protein, energy (calories), and nutrients around to manage, balance, and fight. If an already weak, underweight child attempts GAPS, it may fail, because s/he was too depleted for multiple immune-essential nutrients and energy (calories) in the first place. A more recent study illustrates this well known tenet in infant and child nutrition: Just by not having enough food around, the gut barrier is disturbed, and tissue damage occurs. It doesn’t take long for this to happen in young children. Adding probiotic can hasten recovery, but only when an adequate total diet is also in place.
Hence the susceptibility to Candida – and quite likely, other bad actors in a gut biome, tissues, or organs. So although this first phase of GAPS may clear out some disruptive species from the gut, it can also drop your child’s total body immune response further, and permit other bum bugs to flourish. For kids who are underweight or have marginal iron stores to start, or who have deep total body dysbiosis, this can set up for failure. The detox is too fast, and the re-build fails, because the foundation was too weak to begin with.
Even mild nutrition deficits impact immune response in children. This is one of the reasons why GAPS fails. GAPS can be too restrictive for too long to help these kids recover. Just the introduction phase of this diet can take three weeks; this is an eternity for an already underweight toddler struggling at the bottom of the growth chart. Though broths, probiotic foods and egg yolks are fabulous, this may not be enough sustenance for a growth-impaired small child whose immune system is already straining. Yes, probiotics are critical to immune maturation – but, so is food itself, to nourish the gut tissue –> that harbors the biome –> that helps the immune system “learn”.
Carbs are especially essential for children. In infancy and toddlerhood, they are the fermentable food that normal gut flora require to thrive. Healthy gut flora make fatty acids like butyrate, which in turn fuel cells building your child’s gut tissue. I’ve met many parents who fear carbs, and over restrict them in their kids. This can fail too. Non-sugary, unprocessed carbs are a cornerstone to fuel the tutorials going on in a young child’s gut, between gut flora and the developing immune system. They also fuel growth and gain, and protect the lovely fats and proteins needed for other functions. The trick is finding which ones work best for your child’s circumstance. This is something I work with closely in my practice, for each individual child.
So even though GAPS aims to eradicate fungal load by restricting all carbs for a while and by adding extremely high potencies of probiotics with fermented foods, it can backfire. I often see disrupted stool cultures in kids coming off GAPS attempts, showing weak beneficial flora and ample dysbiotic bacteria, and even yeast in some cases.
When Leaky Gut Begets Leaky Gut – Some GAPS mainstay foods are renown suspects when it comes to intolerance or allergy. Eating broth with probiotic foods for three weeks is not long enough to clear pre-existing food antibodies, which circulate for months; in some kids, for years. If a child starts GAPS with hidden food allergy or sensitivity to egg or nuts, using these daily can exacerbate leaky gut, even when using that beautiful kraut or other probiotic food. I often find strong egg and nut reactions on IgE and/or IgG panels children who have used GAPS for several months. Even yolks can trigger immunoglobulin reactions that may not show on the “drop on wrist” test suggested in the GAPS protocol.
Better move: The “dot on wrist” test may not be enough. Do some food antibody testing before you start any special diet. Identify what foods are safest to work with before you begin. Check for both allergy (IgE) and sensitivity (IgG) to several foods, and work from there. If eggs and nuts light up your child’s panel, GAPS is not for you – or, it will be a bumpier road – consider easier paths than GAPS to gut healing in this case – there are many options.
In my practice, I find that ALCAT testing is less useful. It tends to show too many reactive foods, which makes menu planning really difficult. Even when IgG and IgE panels are alight with multiple foods, in young children, it is not practical or healthful to remove them all. I will remove the top four or five offenders, rotate others, and dial in gut restoration tools suited to that child. This can include anything from simple organic aloe to direct herbal antimicrobial measures to products like Apex RepairVite to arabinogalactan, butyrate, glutathione, or a low FODMAPS + SCD compliant meal plan for a few weeks to start.
FODMAPS Meltdown – Many kids have difficulty with foods that are high in FODMAPs. Another GAPS mainstay, avocado (which is indeed a great food) is a moderate FODMAPs food that is poorly tolerated by many in my practice, especially babies and toddlers with FPIES. I am encountering many FPIES families who turn to GAPS, with poor results (vomiting to shock, blood in stool, lagging growth). Learn why FPIES may be as much about carbohydrate fermentation in the gut than it is about food protein reactions here. Meanwhile, if your child has FPIES, I would hesitate to recommend GAPS, because FPIES reactions can be severe and dangerous. I am seeing success with FPIES in my practice with other strategies, so if you need help, contact me for an appointment.
Dairy Dilemma – Dairy yogurts are another wonderful food that are simply wrong for some of us. If these have worked for your family, that is good. In my house, I can eat dairy while my husband and son cannot. I love raw goat milk. I have occasional organic yogurt binges. I eat ice cream, goat cheddar, sheeps yogurt, and whatever I want. My family can’t. I have countless children in my practice who show clean lab findings for any sort of dairy reaction from opiate formation to IgG, IgE, and ALCAT – but who still disintegrate terribly on dairy. Usually this is a “behavioral” reaction – anxiety, impulsivity, rage reactions, stilted social processing, or poor sleep. For those moms who took my advice and tried the three month, uber strict, zero tolerance dairy free diet, and your kids got inexplicably way better, got off psych meds, and started to eat better, don’t thank me – I thank you. It’s hard to go out on a limb and try something that seems to make no sense. But, sometimes, a meticulous elimination trial is the only way to know if your child really can manage a food.
Are dairy yogurts okay for your child? If you really want to know what is going on, consider doing a Cyrex Array 4 for cross reactivity testing. Your child may react to dairy foods when eaten with other foods, and this panel will find if this is true for you child. This test plus sensitivity and allergy tests (IgG and IgE) can guide you before you begin.
Did GAPS Work For Your Kids? Great! Share your success stories here, I’d love to hear them. If it failed, don’t despair. Get individualized expertise for your child’s gut healing (and thus total body healing) journey. Your child deserves to visibly trend toward thriving. If you’re still struggling, get help, give me a call, set up an appointment. There are many ways to replenish, restore, and heal the gut; it’s okay if every kid is different. Honor your instincts as mom, because they are good as gold.
FPIES – food protein induced enterocolities syndrome – is becoming a frequent presence in my pediatric nutrition practice. There are no prevalence studies for it yet, and it has only recently been recognized with a diagnosis code. FPIES is a debilitating and frightening condition that affects young infants. When the baby eats, there is sudden vomiting and even loss of consciousness, along with watery or mucousy stools, more than the usual crying and discomfort, and poor weight gain. Blood may be seen in stool. The sudden movement of water into the gut, along with complex immune reactions, may cause a hypovolemia (low blood volume) to trigger shock symptoms. Toddlers can be affected too.
My breast-fed son exhibited these very symptoms as a newborn, just days old, in 1996. We were terrified and scrambled for answers. He would take a feeding, then just explode – with all of it coming out of his mouth and nostrils forcefully – and then he would collapse into fleeting unconsciousness. This happened three or four times in his first two weeks. We were offered zero treatment, and zero advice. We were told it was colic and that we were just nervous new parents who were probably exaggerating.
Finally my son ended up in the ER where the only offering was a work up (that failed miserably) for spinal meningitis. No one had a clue, and we were not treated well by the doctors. In fact, this was such a wreckage of a moment for us as new, trusting, and hopeful young parents that it is what galvanized me to redirect my focus as a nutritionist and help others in this frightful dilemma. I knew then this was not ordinary colic; I knew there had to be an inflammatory component, based on my training in infant nutrition (which I later learned few doctors ever get). It horrified me that any other parents or babies would be left to struggle this way. It was isolating for us, as we knew no one experiencing this (no internet!), not to mention painful to navigate the indifference of the medical community.
I breast fed on an extensive elimination diet, and my baby improved – but I was depleted, and didn’t have the skill set I have now to really do this right. Once he was transitioned to a homemade goat milk formula, he did even better, and chubbed up nicely. He began to do more of what babies do: He smiled, gurgled, cooed, chattered, giggled, slept, pooped (more normally), and generally was happier to be here.
Now I hear from parents almost every week who have little ones struggling with this same scenario. They have been given the FPIES diagnosis, but that’s about it. There may have been a few tests done, but little else to help the baby be able to eat normally and grow well. Hypoallergenic formulas, then elemental formulas, are tried. If breast fed, the babies do better when mom is on an elimination diet. But like I was, many of these families have become emotionally and physically depleted. Breastfeeding on a deeply restricted diet is hard, and introducing “safe” foods for the baby is a roller coaster. No one wants to see the baby struggle with FPIES symptoms. If all else fails, it’s on to tube feeding.
There is a huge missing piece here. What the GI community is overlooking so far, when it comes to FPIES, is the baby’s gut biome. Some screening is usually done to make sure there is no outright deadly gut pathogen in there, but that’s all. There is so much to learn about how our gut bacteria support us from birth, but we already know enough to start working with it – there is no need to wait. We know that the immune system is “tutored” by the bacteria that populate the baby’s gut. Babies who lose normal, healthy gut flora (bacteria), for whatever reason, go on to have more inflammatory conditions later in life. And in FPIES, there are clear shifts in the body’s immune cells that show a lot of inflammation is going on in the gut. Tests for kids with FPIES tend to show more eosinophils (white blood cells that are common with allergy or inflammation), more immature white blood cells (this is the body’s attempt to fight fight fight), as well as obvious changes in gut tissue that show inflammation.
What is causing it? Is it food protein? The answer is not clear. Kids with FPIES often have negative food allergy (IgE) test findings. I have found this to be true in my caseload too. When I have looked further for food sensitivity reactions (IgG) in toddlers with FPIES (babies are too young to reliably test for IgG reactions), those are often negative too. While some kids with FPIES show reactivity to dairy or soy protein, they don’t appear to do so more than the general population. And curiously, two of the most common trigger foods in FPIES are not high protein foods at all. They’re starchy foods – rice and oat – foods that are often among the first introduced to babies. So perhaps FPIES isn’t about food proteins after all.
It’s The Biome, Baby! FPIES babies in my practice have shown improvement with efforts to restore expected, healthy gut flora. While GI doctors will conventionally only rule out life threatening gut infections, I use stool microbiology tests to see if the baby has the healthy bacteria needed to develop normal digestion and immune responses in the gut. This testing also screens for fungal species (yeast), because too much yeast in the gut (aka Candida) will disrupt digestion also. And it looks for “commensal” microbes that are not necessarily pathogenic or life threatening, but potentially inflammatory, if there are much more of them than the healthy bacteria babies need.
So far, just as the literature is reporting, I also notice negative food protein reactions in lab testing for FPIES kids. But -and this is where the literature is pretty mum – in my own practice, stool testing for FPIES babies often reveals inadequate helpful flora. Candida species are not a consistent player here so far, but off beat fungal microbes pop up: Saccharomyces cerevisaie (a component of newborn hepatitis B vaccines) or Rhodotorula muculaginosa for example. But the bigger story is that these stool tests do show more of the “commensal” bacteria than expected, at least in FPIES kids I have worked with. Species like Citrobacter, Klebsiella, Hemolytic E. coli, non-difficile Clostridia, or Alpha hemolytic Strep show up, in spades. It appears that there may be more of these commensal strains populating the gut, than the healthy strains.
Is this the problem? Research needs to be done here for sure. When I work with parents to correct these findings, these kids start to improve. I help parents use probiotics, caprylic acid (from coconut oil) and gentle antimicrobial herb tinctures to balance the baby’s gut biome out. Healthy gut bacteria help digest food, and mitigate inflammation. Your doctor may think a prescription medicine could be useful here too, to aggressively clear the commensal bacteria.
Of course, the other major tool at your disposal is food. Gut bacteria eat what we eat, and they eat first. This is where FODMAPs come in. FODMAPs stands for “fermentable oligo-, di- and monosaccarides and polyols”. A mouthful! FODMAPs are carbohydrates that we don’t completely digest. They are fermented (digested) by bacteria in our intestines. Bacteria aren’t supposed to dominate the stomach and upper small intestine (they help finish the job further along in the GI tract, after our own enzymes and digestive juices have worked on our food), but infections may situate there in the small intestine, up high so to speak, when our own digestion is weak, if immunosuppressive effects are in play, or if a recent infection or vaccination was not tolerated well.
Infections that situate in the small intestine are called are called SIBO (small intestine bacterial overgrowth). These are tricky to culture with a stool test because by the time a meal is digested and passed all the way down to the colon, the microbes that may have been busy with that meal at the start of your GI tract may not be detectable anymore – but they can wreak havoc anyway, especially when we eat foods high in those FODMAPs. Breath tests can detect these, but getting that sample from an infant can be tricky. Invasive procedures to dip-stick a baby’s stomach juices have been done, but it’s far easier to just trial some nutrition and food strategies.
Low FODMAPs foods seem to be helping babies and toddlers in my practice with FPIES. They are turning the corner with some weight gain, improving stools, and no more terrifying FPIES reactions. I shorten this list even further, by removing any foods that don’t meet criteria for Elaine Gottshall’s Specific Carbohydrate Diet (SCD). Many foods allowed on SCD are high in FODMAPs. But by limiting foods to those that meet both low FODMAPs and SCD-legal criteria, I have a short list of foods that are most likely to be easily digestible and least likely to be interesting to the commensal microbial overgrowth in a baby’s gut.
Elaine Gottschall, SCD founder
Some components of GAPS diet can work as well, but I have not seen GAPS alone to work as well as creating individual care plans that draw from low FODMAPs, SCD-legal, and direct interventions to help the baby’s gut biome with probiotics or herbs. It’s trial and error, but the parents working with me on this are the true champions who make it all possible.
Interestingly, grains like rice and oat – two of the most common triggers for FPIES reactions – are first to go when following low FODMAPs and SCD-legal food lists. Soy and dairy products are not allowed either, with an exception in some circumstances for yogurt made from raw goat milk with certain bacterial cultures.
I see rays of hope for FPIES kids, with room to leverage what we already know about irritable bowel disease, inflammatory bowel disease, the role of gut bacteria for good health, and how to use anti-inflammatory foods or anti-microbial herbs or food components. When parents are ready to roll up their sleeves and work with me, it’s a delight when things turn around. For more on FODMAPs, check out Chris Kresser’s post too. And thanks for reading this far!
Miralax is one of the most commonly prescribed drugs for infants, toddlers and kids. It isn’t FDA approved for them. It contains ingredients found in anti-freeze. Concerns for its toxicity have mounted (as they should – one child in my practice slipped into a coma during an in-patient, closely monitored procedure to give high doses of the laxative ingredient in Miralax to clear a fecal impaction). The label states it is only to be used by adults for up to seven days – but children have entered my practice who have been on it, with their gastroenterologists’ blessing, for years – which is not unusual. And when I meet these kids, they are still constipated, still unable to move bowels without drugs or suppositories, still picky eaters, and they don’t feel good. Their parents want them off Miralax, and so do I. Having messy, uncomfortable “applesauce” stools every day – or none – is not healthy.
The Truth About Miralax Use
The truth is, besides having potent toxicity for at least some children, this drug does nothing to treat causes of constipation. Like many drugs, it is a bandaid approach. What it does do is turn stool into mush, by pulling more water into the intestine. Children can go from being impacted with hard dry feces (very uncomfortable, and encourages toxins from stool or disruptive microbes to leach back into circulation), to expelling some mushy stool regularly. But, they can still be left with impacted, sticky fecal matter, despite using more, more, and more Miralax.
A common picture that I’ve encountered in my practice for kids on this drug is “overflow diarrhea” – that is, blow outs of loose stool every few days, with or without firm, hard, or dry plugs of stool. This overflow, which seeps around the impacted matter, causes staining in pants that kids (or teens) can’t control. For toddlers, it can explode up the child’s back and and down to ankles. Many moms have described to me the daily chore of stripping kids down, bathing them, and getting fresh clothing because this pattern covers their toddlers or babies in stool. Older kids experience embarrassing stool accidents with this pattern. Needless to day, this is exasperating and concerning for parents – and miserable for kids. Regardless, it’s common for pediatricians to use Miralax indefinitely anyway: In 2013, Miralax was the fourth most popular drug in the “digestive” category, with nearly $180 million of it sold!
There are many other solutions. They are non-toxic, safe, and more effective. My top three interventions for constipation are…
1 – Assess and clear fungal infections in the gut.
Prevailing thought in gastroenterology today dictates that nobody gets fungal infections, unless they are immune suppressed. It’s rare for GI docs to regard fungal infections in the gut as a problem. Your pediatrician usually won’t either. Their belief is that fungal microbes (aka yeast, Candida, mold) are normal residents in human intestinal micro-biomes. True enough – if there is little to no fungal growth there. A lot of fungal microbial growth is not normal. Without testing stool specifically for fungal culture, there is no way to know what is growing in there, or how much of it. Healthy kids can have fungal infections in the gut. Antibiotics, C-section delivery, prior thrush, using reflux medicine or use of some infant formulas can trigger fungal overgrowth in a baby or child’s gut.
Most GI doctors do not screen for this, but many functional medicine labs offer this test. I use it often in my practice. Why? Because fungal overgrowth in the gut can be quite constipating. A simple treatment with anti-fungal medicine can fix it. Drugs like Diflucan, Nystatin, or Sporanox do this. There are not many anti-fungal drugs out there, which is one reason why doctors are hesitant to use them unless they really have to – they don’t want resistance to develop to these drugs. But if a child is so constipated that they’ve spent years unable to eliminate normally or painlessly, or they can’t eat well, grow, or thrive, then it’s time to pull out those big guns (IMO!).
If your baby has had thrush – that is, a white coated tongue, or a diaper rash with white patches in stool – an anti-fungal medication may be offered, because thrush is a kind of fungal infection. But fungal load can persist deep in the GI tract, which, don’t forget, is several feet long. There is plenty of space between mouth and anus for fungal microbes to thrive. Just because the white coating on the tongue is gone, and the diaper rash too, does not mean the fungal infection is all gone. A lengthier course of medication can clear the problem, if it is lingering in colon or intestine.
Herbs can help keep fungal infections cleared out too. Common tools include tinctures or capsules of oregano, thyme, grapefruit seed extract, goldenseal, berberine, uva ursi, caprylic acid, black walnut, garlic, undecylenic acid, and many others. I often support my patients’ gut micro-biomes with herbal tools, so contact me if you need this help.
This product blends several herbs to help clear fungal infections in gut
For entrenched fungal infections, I have not found probiotics alone to be effective. In fact, a popular probiotic used for intestinal fungal infections called Saccharomyces boulardii (“Sac B” for short) is problematic if used incorrectly and may worsen constipation. A more aggressive, multi-pronged approach is more successful: Direct clearing of the fungal infection with an herbal or prescription agent; different food; and, lastly, the right probiotic.
Strangely, while Miralax is not FDA approved for youngsters, anti-fungal medicines like Diflucan and Nystatin are approved for use in infants. They are safer. They can do a good job of clearing constipation from fungal infections, so explore this with your doctor if your child has been constipated for a long time. Don’t be daunted if you are dismissed. Find an integrative health practitioner who will help, and talk to me about non-prescription supports.
2 – Lose the reflux medicine!
Fungal infections worsen reflux, and reflux medicines worsen fungal infections. Click here for more on why you don’t want to leave your child on reflux medicine for very long. Like Miralax, reflux medicines are widely prescribed for babies and kids – some say over prescribed – but are not approved for use in those age groups. There are no proton pump inhibitors (reflux medicines) approved for use in infants age one year or younger. There is only one approved for use in children under age eleven years. Still, I have encountered countless infants and toddlers given reflux medicines only approved for adults, and left on them, for over a year or even two. This will worsen constipation, since it worsens fungal infections, and lowers digestive function overall. Using reflux medicine long term also diminishes uptake of many nutrients, especially minerals. Two children in my practice who used reflux medicines for over a year suffered fractures later on, and others have experienced stunting and delayed bone age. They were not absorbing minerals normally, and could not mineralize or grow bone as expected.
Talk to your doctor about weaning off reflux medicine if your child has used it for more than two months. There are many ways to improve digestion and diminish reflux without drugs. This is also one of my specialties in practice, so contact me if you need help. Changes in foods and use of herbs can gently enhance your child’s digestion while you wean off a reflux medicine. Correcting the gut micro-biome will help as well. Do this with guidance for better, faster results.
3 – Use Magnesium.
This one is so simple. Magnesium is an easy way to pull water into the gut without toxic effects from peculiar ingredients in products like Miralax (dyes, gluten, polyethylene glycol). Magnesium oxide is a stronger laxative than magnesium citrate; magnesium citrate is stronger than magnesium glycinate. There are other forms of magnesium besides these three, and depending on your child’s presentation, there is probably a magnesium option that can get him or her off Miralax. A very effective product, widely available, called Mag O7 is an ozonated form of magnesium that has worked beautifully for some of the most constipated children in my practice. Use this with guidance; the label instructions are intended for adults, and this dosing is too high for most children.
How much? Magnesium is calming, which is great, but too much is sedating and may slow heart rate. So this must be used with guidance, especially for infants or young toddlers. I choose which product and what dose, based on each child’s case. There are liquids, powders, and capsules of various magnesium products. One of the most popular is Natural Calm, available on many supermarket store shelves. A teaspoon gives 350 milligrams of magnesium citrate. This is a large dose for an infant, but may be perfect for a school age child. More than two teaspoons daily is not likely to be necessary and may be too sedating for your child. If you have any questions about using these products, especially if your child takes other medications, ask your pharmacist or pediatrician.
These three ideas are only the beginning. From foods to herbs to drug-free options, there are many ways to clear constipation that are not only non-toxic, but more effective than Miralax – and they create better overall health by replenishing and balancing the cause of constipation, rather than giving it a toxic bandaid.
Click on the graph below, to see the absolutely mind boggling amounts of money spent on “digestive” drugs. These data are only for the year 2103! Which of these has your child used, and which would you like to replace with non-toxic, healthy options? It’s possible. Need help getting your child off of Miralax for constipation? Contact me and let’s get started!
Eczema even as painful as this child has can be healed naturally. Finding the right foods to emphasize, foods to withdraw or only use sometimes, and restoring gut health are key to naturally healing eczema. While you use soothing with skin treatments (which can help a lot by easing pain and itching), heal the underlying causes.
Eczema can hurt more than your child’s skin. Eczema can mean that inflammation is active systemically – that is, all over the body, inside and out. These widespread reactions can mean your child has more anxiety, more behavior problems, a pickier appetite, or more frequent infections. Where to start?
1) Plan on 3-4 months to see full improvement. Repair takes time. Painful eczema may mean the immune system is reacting to something deeper than skin, from the inside out. Identify the suspects, and you can repair and heal the skin. This takes good, non-inflammatory, nutritious food. Antibodies to trigger foods stay in the blood for at least three to six months after you stop eating that food. Every time your child eats even “a little” trigger food, the immune reaction is amplified. For best results, avoid the worst offender trigger foods completely. Remember, kids need food to replace what is withdrawn, and it must be of equal or greater nutritional value. Just withdrawing foods only to eat lesser ones will weaken your child and delay repair of healthy skin.
2) Get proper testing. Elimination diets won’t help after a certain point. If you’ve already tried months of withdrawing this or that, and your child still has eczema, it’s time to get properly tested. Allergy tests may not show the type of reaction that is active when a child has eczema. So if you’ve been to your allergist, and the tests looked normal, you may need a different test. I often start with these tests in my own practice, when the trigger foods remain a mystery:
Wheat/Gluten Reactivity and Autoimmunity Panel (click “Array 3” here) – Gluten (wheat protein) is so often a culprit, and so often incorrectly assessed – even by specialists in pediatric allergy and gastroenterology – that this is the panel I go to if I need an emphatic, clear, and detailed picture of exactly how a child’s body responds to eating gluten.
ELISA IgG Food Antibody Profile – Several specialty labs offer this test. I like using these labs best because they have developed a way to sample dozens (93 to be exact) of foods with a very small amount of blood, which is good for kids (who we all know hate to go for blood draws). There is even a method that uses just a few drops of blood from a fingerstick – so you can collect the sample at home and mail it in (nice option for teens or older kids).
There are many other tests out there. I review these options with my patients. Bottom line: Get tested if your child still struggles with eczema and you’ve done everything else you can.
3) Look at the gut. Emerging evidence supports the scenario that eczema starts inside, in the gut, and not outside, on the skin. Your allergist probably told you to get rid of carpet, launder sheets twice a week with hypoallergenic laundry soap, use natural fabrics only, or consider returning your dog or cat to the SPCA. Again, if the eczema is still there, or your child’s skin remains tender and highly reactive to even a puppy’s cuddle, it’s time to go deeper for answers. Humans evolved with microbes and the latest news is that these microbes are expert traffic directors for our immune systems. They may actually teach our immune systems what to react to and what to ignore, especially at the level of the gut wall. They exchange genes with us – potentially helping us write the software for our immune systems. The possibility is that this relationship with microbes gives kids an opportunity to reboot the software.
Here’s what to do: Clear any constipation, diarrhea, or bowel infections with high dose probiotics, a better diet without sugary and processed foods, and with herbs or even prescription medications to clear and balance microbes in the gut. Elimination diets can fail if this step is skipped, so don’t overlook that gut health piece. Need help? Work with me to do this safely and effectively.
4) Build with the right protein for the job. If you take out a protein source, put back a different one of equal or better value. Make sure it isn’t inflammatory – this is where testing is useful. For example, don’t replace cow’s milk with rice or almond milk. They both lack protein. Use those subs with a protein powder blended into a shake, or add a protein food, like egg, meat, nuts or nut butters if allowed, quinoa with legumes, and so on. Kids need this protein to build and repair! Another example: Don’t switch soy milk, tofu, and soy yogurt in for milk either. Both have protein, but soy is often as triggering as cow’s milk. You may even get better results with elemental (amino acid based) protein products; many are available, but knowing how and when to use them is the key.
5) Add natural anti-inflammatories. Herbs and supplements, topically and orally, can be great adjuncts or even good primary strategies. Skin salves can be great soothers, and herbs abound for this purpose. A favorite resource of mine for this is Rebecca’s Apothecary in Boulder. They can ship, and answer questions for you. For oral use, some of my favorites turmeric, curcumin, fish oils, nettles, quercetin, vitamin C in higher doses (to bowel tolerance), calendula, calcium lactate, and lots of healthy fats from coconut, organic eggs and grass fed meats, and tolerated nuts or seeds.
Long short, eczema can be healed naturally. Your child doesn’t have to suffer. Some kids have so many food reactions that they can’t possibly remove all of them from their diets and they need special supplementation until they get well enough to safely eat those foods again. I routinely navigate these options for my clients, so contact me if you need help!
So you flunked out of GAPS. Now what?
GAPS (Gut And Psychology Syndrome) is a diet strategy branded and popularized by a Natasha Campbell McBride, beginning in 2004 with the release of her first book. The strategy is what functional and integrative nutritionists, naturopaths, and MDs love: Repair the gut with real food. Skip grains and sugars. Eat beautiful fats from organic sources. Use potent probiotics especially from fermented foods. Simple, right?
It is simple, and I love how GAPS is aligned with most everything I do in my practice. But many families have trouble with GAPS, and tell me they just couldn’t keep up with the demands of this strategy. Their kids hate the food. Or it’s too hard to cook so much food from scratch. Or fermenting foods at home is too much trouble. Or it’s too much of a disappointment to have less than stellar results, after this diet purports to cure autism and other illnesses and so many rave about it.
Is there a happy medium? I think so. Here’s 7 Steps To GAPS Success.
1 – Don’t give up on gut health. GAPS didn’t put this idea on the map! It has been around for decades in many other circles, and there are other ways to get there. Gut health for brain health is part of what created the maelstrom of controversy around Andrew Wakefield back in 1998, the British gastroenterologist who wondered (in print) if autism could be linked to viral infection in the gut. It was then that he coined the phrase “gut-brain axis”. This questioning cost him his job and credentials. Now this phrase is a household word for integrative nutritionists like me. If GAPS failed your family, explore other angles for gut-brain health. It really is all about the gut, but GAPS may not be your path.
2 – Consider drugs. I know, I know – no one wants to use antibiotics. Or prescription antifungals. But I have encountered many infants and young children suffering needlessly with failure to thrive, dehydration, chronic malaise, muscle weakness, and seizures because of a refusal (either by parents or doctors) to allow a drug treatment for a found bowel infection. Yes, eventually, a good diet plus probiotics and enzymes in fermented foods may do the trick. But for infants and children, if underweight is a problem, it may take too long – and they may not have this time. If you are on your fourth visit to the ER with a distressed, failure-to-thrive infant or toddler, it’s time. When your four year old’s stool culture shows 4+ Candida parapsilosis, 4+ Staphylococcus aureus, and 3+ Klebsiella pneumoniae, they are refusing any food except fluid milk, and they are not growing or developing as expected… it’s time. Your child may experience immediate relief and improvement with a prescription drug strategy for quick destruction of these offenders. A child’s body can be too weak to fight these things on its own, especially when they are already underweight or at a body mass index below tenth percentile. Usually, drug treatment opens the floodgates for better appetite, better growth, better stools, and better gain and functioning. Your child just may start loving those luscious bone broths and fermented side dishes you toiled over, so you can begin immediately after a drug treatment to build that healthy gut terrain and flora.
3 – Consider strong antimicrobial herbs – for same reasons mentioned in (2) above. There is a cornucopia of beneficial herbal tools that have strong and broad antimicrobial activity. Most herbs also have some degree of immune modulating action too. This can be a double win – you can quickly eradicate a bug that is hanging around too long despite your best cooking efforts, and, you can directly reduce inflammatory immune components at the same time, depending on which herbs are used. You might even go this route before you go to a prescription medicine for bowel infections.
4 – Remember, a “leaky” gut wall often means a more leaky blood brain barrier as well. If your child is suffering from seizures or profound psychiatric symptoms (rage, anger, depression, OCD, anxiety, insomnia, mood swings), consider tools to directly support better functioning at those membranes. Restoring gut health will help the brain! Glutathione, glutamine, aloe juice, dglycerrhizinated licorice, ginger root, and turmeric root are excellent supplements for restoring these tissues and knocking down inflammation. Peel fresh raw turmeric or ginger root and put into a juicer with fresh cilantro, apples, celery, and half a whole lemon for a good soother. You can add a liquid liposomal glutathione (Like ReadiSorb) to this and enjoy.
5 – Review food reactions. Many foods included in GAPS are triggering for kids I meet, especially eggs, dairy, and nuts. I love those foods, but if your child’s body creates antibodies to them, then GAPS is going to be a fail for you. You will need other strategies to calm those reactions besides eating a lot of eggs and nuts! I love helping families sort this out so we can identify other strategies. Sometimes, organic and raw versions of these foods are less problematic.
6 – Slow down on fats. GAPS is big on lots of healthy animal fats, and usually, I am too. I rarely suggest cutting back, since kids need fats for health brains and many other tissues and functions too. And we have become a fat phobic culture to the point where many kids’ diets are low in beneficial fats and high in refined sugars. But if your child has any pancreatic dysfunction, this just may not work. We can find out by using a stool test that assesses fat digestion, something I do often in my practice.
7 – Don’t live GAPS forever. Once your child is doing well, ease up – not to go back onto lots of refined foods. But you may be able to let your child enjoy some wholesome home-made sweets (check NourishingMeals.com for recipes) and some grains (even without sprouting them first), potatoes, or a few other items that are generally verboten (forbidden) on GAPS. The idea is to feel well, grow well, and thrive. Don’t let the dogma become more than your child’s well being.
Still scratching your head? Especially if your child has autism and you have not made the progress you hoped for, some investigation may solve your child’s puzzle to how to use food and nutrition to its potential. Click here to buy my e book 5 Essential Lab Tests For Kids With Autism to learn what tests your doctor can do for you, to sort it out.