I’m now serving my second generation of clients, working with moms who where were not even born when I finalized my credentials as a dietitian/nutritionist. Recently I did a double take noticing that a young mom I was working with was born on my wedding day – Wow!
It has been quite a journey. I’ve watched earlier clients’ kids, and my own son, grow up to be more functional and able, after rocky and uncertain beginnings. But I have some bad news for you young moms: It is a lot worse out there than it used to be. It’s very different for you than it was for my generation. There’s a whole new normal, and it ain’t pretty.
During my graduate years in public health nutrition, this was unthinkable. CDC goals we worked with then have not come close to being met. We’ve not only fallen short, we’ve actually violated the very first goal to “prevent morbidity and disability “- ! Both have increased dramatically for US children in the 21st century.
Type 1 diabetes has quadrupled. Children under age 10 are now getting diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes – actually unheard of when I was trained in the late 1980s; this was only diagnosed in overweight, middle-aged people at that time. At least 80,000 kids in the US are diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, a severe and chronic inflammatory bowel disease, and its incidence in children is increasing. I meet kids each month who have similar symptoms but have never been diagnosed, and I just worked with my first toddler diagnosed with Crohn’s disease this spring. During my training, this wasn’t even mentioned as a condition that a young child could have. Even the phrase “toddler diarrhea” didn’t exist (diarrhea is not a developmental phase!). Babies and toddlers were not diagnosed with, or given medications for, GERD (reflux drugs like Nexium came to be so overprescribed, they were called “purple crack“). Asthma, cancer, allergies, and of course – autism – are all increased far past their 1985 levels, with no signs of slowing down. And are you tired of hearing yet that autism has shot up nearly 150-fold since 1975, and that some estimate that half of US children will have it by 2025? How will this country function, populated by sick and disabled adults? How will we pay for their care?
Those are big questions. But here is the question that has had me scratching my head for the last twenty years: What are our pediatricians doing about it?
Are they even thinking about reversing these trends, in any meaningful way?
If they are as young as you are, it’s doubtful they know how miserably we failed at reaching the CDC’s goals from the late 20th century, for population health. Or that they’ve had much of a deep dive into child nutrition and its role in development, learning, behavior, and immune strength. I also do wonder if they know what it’s like to see kids who never need any prescription drugs, because they’re just …healthy.
Being sick repeatedly throughout the year, needing multiple rounds of antibiotics, being developmentally delayed, having an impacted, inflamed, or ulcerated colon, being unable to eat anything but milk, yogurt, or Pediasure, or having only loose, burning, foul stool or impacted hard stool may be common nowadays, but it isn’t normal.
Your kids should be healthy, comfortable, vibrant, eating, eliminating daily, sleeping well, growing, playing, and thriving! If they can’t because of a chronic condition, then they still deserve to reach their fullest potential, enjoy their highest well being, and feel good as often as possible.
From my perch as a pediatric nutritionist/dietitian, I have watched it get harder and harder to restore kids’ health, away from the chronic gastrointestinal, feeding, growth, developmental, and allergy/immune problems they have. Kids bodies seem more compromised, their immune systems more confused, their intestines less functional. The work is more complex than it was in 1998 or 2000. Diagnoses like FPIES (which my own son had in 1996, before there was a name for it), milk protein intolerance, food allergies, intolerance to breast milk, and EoE are not unusual now, but they earned no mention during my training in infant and child nutrition in the late 1980s.
I often wonder how pediatricians of my generation reconcile this. Do they notice, like me, that children are sicker, as government data show?
Moms under 35 have it rough. You are..
The first generation to grow up with more antibiotics, vaccine doses, psychiatric medicines, and just plain more prescription drugs than any other.
The first generation to grow up eating GMO foods.
In the years you were conceived, patent and marketing laws for drugs changed – and dozens of new drugs flooded the market, whether we needed them or not, and regardless of non-drug options that may have worked as well or better.
Environmental protection laws are either being stripped or unenforced, allowing more toxins into air, water, and food.
You are now bearing children with more toxic burden than any parents before you in America’s history.
In short: It’s a lot harder to have healthy kids these days. Your bodies were exposed to more toxins, sooner, than people of my age. And now your children are exposed to all of this even before they’re born, in utero.
So now what? It’s simple: Remember that your kids get to be healthy.
That is their birthright, and their normal. Expect them to be healthy, not chronically sick. But you have to do some serious footwork, even before pregnancy, to help them get there. If your kids are already here on the planet, there is a lot you can do to diminish their odds for chronic disease, developmental injury, and psychiatric conditions. If your kids are already affected by these problems, there is still plenty to do with food, nutrition, and good support for immune function and detoxification – you might be surprised to see how well your kids can be.
Here you go:
Eat organic whenever you can. It matters. I actually did some work on this during my graduate studies (eons ago) and found that yes, organic foods are more nutritious, and have fewer toxins (though not toxin free, thanks to widespread use of pesticides and GMO crops in the US).
Don’t eat GMO food, period. Minimize it as much as possible. Here’s why.
Find out if your kids have food sensitivities or allergies; feed them foods that nourish deeply, not foods that chronically inflame.
If your kids need antibiotics, restore healthy flora – you will know it worked by appearance of a daily, comfortable elimination (no bloat, hiccups, burps, picky eating, straining, watery stuff, mucus, dry pebbles, or foul odor – just formed easy to pass stool and healthy appetite).
Don’t get vaccinated while pregnant. It can increase your risk of miscarriage, and it delivers toxins like aluminum, mercury, and rogue viral or human DNA into your body. Effects of vaccinating pregnant women on their unborn children for asthma, allergies, or other immune mediated conditions are unstudied.
If you need antibiotics during pregnancy, delivery, or breastfeeding, take all precautions to restore your baby’s gut flora with probiotics and a healthy diet.
Read this 2017 study on the health of vaccinated versus unvaccinated kids. Choose soberly what you want to do.
Those are good starts – a big effort, yes; harder perhaps, but the upstream work is well worth it if there is a chance it can prevent burdensome chronic conditions in your kids. If you need more specific guidance for your own child’s situation, contact me for an appointment and we can get started.
Did you catch these recent news items on toxins in our food and water? Both have major impacts for the health of kids nationwide.
In the first clip below, a concerned Nebraska farmer challenges stone-faced fracking lobbyists to drink the water that they tell residents is safe. (Don’t know what fracking is? Learn more here from a not-industry-sponsored source). Here in Colorado, where I live, we’ve heard the same mantra – most famously, from our goofily named governor Hickenlooper, who claims to have sipped fracking fluid in a closed meeting with Halliburton officials. The Washington Post went so far as to print the absurd notion (from industry-funded University of Colorado researchers) that because fracking fluid and ice cream, toothpaste, and laxatives have some of the same ingredients, it must be okay to ingest fracking fluid.
Would this be the moment to tell you about one of my patients who, at age eight, fell into a coma during a procedure for fecal impaction? He was given so much laxative (a product called Go Lytely, which contains polyethylene glycol) he nearly died.
Whether you’re drinking a lot of polyethylene glycol at once for a bowel impaction, or a little of it daily for years (along with benzene, toluene, and other known and potent carcinogens) from your fracking-contaminated tap, it’s not a good thing – especially if you’re a toddler weighing 24 pounds. Or, a fetus.
So far, besides Governor Hickenlooper’s one shot glass of fracking fluid, there aren’t any takers on drinking the stuff – except for unwitting residents who don’t have a choice but to sip, shower, and drink it every day, because that’s all that comes out of their tap. Those whose water has been poisoned by fracking can get a lawyer – but don’t have much recourse otherwise. Here in Colorado, because of arcane and dated mining laws written in the 1800s, it is legal for an oil and gas company to frack right underneath homes, schools, or any other place they please, with total impunity for toxic effects on people, animals, crops, or water. Setbacks of a few hundred feet may mean nothing, as suggested by a recent study that found more birth defects, still births, and low birth weight babies born to women who lived in the vicinity of fracking activity. And because of the infamous Halliburton Loophole, oil and gas companies don’t have to disclose what is in fracking fluid because it’s “proprietary”, nor do they have to meet federal clean water standards when they dirty up your region’s drinking water.
Watch the silence as these pro-frackers are offered a glass of their own elixir:
Another item that quietly happened recently was an interview with a French television journalist and a Monsanto spokesperson, Patrick Moore. Mr. Moore makes the off-hand comment that it’s safe to drink “a whole quart” of RoundUp, the glyphosate pesticide that GMO crops need by the ton (they actually need more RoundUp than non-GMO crops, despite promises years ago that one of the many “miracles” of GMO foods was going to be that they would reduce pesticide use. Didn’t happen). Monsanto owns both RoundUp and patents on several GMO seed crops, and obviously wants to continue selling both. But when challenged to make good on his claim that RoundUp is safe to consume by the quart, Mr. Moore loses his cool, insults the journalist, and ends the interview. Once again, no takers:
So. Here in the US we have 21 states actively fracking with no meaningful safety oversight. We have twenty years of GMO crops freely grown and consumed in the US (but not in other developed nations) without so much as a labeling law, never mind safety studies (click here to learn why I tell my patient families to avoid GMO foods). There’s no doubt that this has already put a generation of children at risk. It’s also no wonder that our children are more sick and disabled than ever in our history as a nation. What kind of future can our country have, when corporate rights supersede our children’s rights?
But that’s not all our kids face when it comes to insurmountable, unavoidable toxic exposures. Vaccines are so full of toxins, our Supreme Court ruled them to be “unavoidably unsafe” with a sort of “too bad, so sad” decision in 2011. Devastated by vaccine injuries and left with life long disability including autism, Hanah Poling received a payment from the US Department of Health and Human Services Vaccine Injury Compensation Program of 1.5 million dollars as compensation for her injury (a lot less than usual medical malpractice awards, by the way). Her parents (a neurologist who has received National Institutes of Health grant funding in his career, and a nurse) went on to pursue a civil case based on the fact that the product that injured their daughter was unsafe. But the Supreme Court disagreed. It basically said, yes, vaccines are unsafe at times, and families just have to take that risk, so… shrug. Our society does not permit this sort of corporate carte blanche protection for cars, other drugs, or any other product. Just vaccines.
Remember when Paul Offit, academic (non-practicing) pediatrician who has made untold millions on vaccine patents, stated that it’s safe to give babies ten thousand vaccines at once? A lot of people challenged him to be first in line on this. There’s even a Facebook page devoted to Offit’s nutty claim. So far, he has followed the cowardly example of his peers in other industries: He has declined to drink his own Kool-Aid.
We have industries operating outside of a reasonable regulatory context in such a way as to expose our children to an unprecedented flow of toxic substances. We have over a million children with autism in the US today. Did toxins play a role? Watch the film Trace Amounts and you may find that this question is settled in your mind once and for all. Or listen to MIT scientist Stephanie Seneff explain why she believes glyphosate causes autism. Our kids have more cancer, diabetes, allergies, asthma, disability, and chronic illness than ever before. Until our elected officials can stand up to corporate interests for change, it’s up to parents to protect our children, with the cleanest, most toxin-free food, water, and health care we can afford. Visit Moms Across America and Fearless Parent for resources and info on keeping your kids as healthy as possible.
If you think it’s challenging to argue with a four year old about what they should eat, wait til that kid is sixteen.
Teens need strong nutrition as much if not more than four year olds. Entering puberty, kids are entering an explosive growth spurt second only to what is experienced in utero. Not only are pre-teens and teens hitting the steepest part of the growth curve (just look at a growth chart), they are building out organs, tissues, brain capacity, and muscle mass that will carry reproductive, physical, and cognitive capacities for them as adults. You’ve got the vagaries of hormone changes and growing so fast that it can literally hurt, at the same age that kids yearn for independence and lack foresight. One of the easiest ways to express that is through food.
Like never before, teens with some independence have unprecedented access to the emptiest foods. Processed fast food full of high fructose corn syrup, hydrogenated or trans fats, simple starches, additives, colorings, and genetically modified dairy, meats, and grains are in everything they may grab. Think pizza dough, tomato sauce, burgers, fries, soda, frappucino’s… or not eating at all as they rush out the door.
Strike a happy medium. Don’t make food a battleground. Your teenager may have all the ferocity s/he did as a toddler for being stubborn and oppositional, but with the mobility and freedom of a young adult. Here’s how to make it work a little better:
1 – Cook real food meals at least twice a week, or as often as you can. Eat together. Make your son or daughter’s favorite meal. Make this a comfort zone. Don’t tackle heavy topics or bicker over homework. Your teen will come back to it, time and again. Though they may never express it, this will build nourishment as well as a sense of safety and security. It will also support their palates for better food than they can buy out with friends.
2 – Make sure breakfast is an option, and include protein. Many kids rush out of the house without any food, once in adolescence. But even a small amount of protein in the morning can help regulate thyroid function, adrenal function, and brain readiness for school (or driving to school, if your teen is doing that). Starchy starts will not prime these pumps as well, so have protein rich snacks or easy to make foods ready for them to grab and eat, or carry:
Have a pot of hot cereal on the stove like whole grain brown rice, pumpkin with almond flour, or gluten free oatmeal. Add flax meal, ghee, butter, or coconut manna, plus ground cashews, raisins, or macadamia nuts. Cinnamon and stevia or a dash of maple syrup or honey can be plenty of sweetener. Avoid sugary, processed instant versions of hot cereal. For faster cooking, use the blade attachment on an immersion blender to grind whole oats or brown rice cereal to finer texture before cooking. Most of us can’t do this every day, but even once a week is a helpful measure.
Eggs take seconds to prepare. If even this is too time consuming, hard boil eggs ahead of time so your teen can pack one walking out the door.
Toast, bagels, or English muffins work best when eaten with some protein. Spread with any tolerated nut butter, add cream cheese and lox, or spread with butter and add cheese. Gluten free versions of all of these are available. To replace cheese, use raw goat milk cheddar or chevre (often tolerated when cow’s milk cheeses are not). Proscuitto slices or spreads with salads made from ham, salmon, turkey, or chicken will fuel the brain and endocrine system better than just grains alone.
If power smoothies are appealing, you’re in luck. Have ingredients on hand to mix a shake of choice – for your liquid base, use any tolerated milks, including whole canned unsweetened coconut milk, unsweetened almond or cashew milk, or coconut water. Add a healthy fat with ripe avocado, any tolerated nut butter (sunflower, peanut butter, cashew, almond, sesame tahini), a high quality olive oil, coconut manna or oil, or BulletProof Brain Octane (purified MCT oil from coconut). And of course, include protein! My go-to protein powders are grass fed collagen (BulletProof, Zint, or Josh Axe to name a few), ImmunoPro organic grass fed whey protein (if dairy is okay), Apex Glycemovite, Thorne Medibolic, and Systemic Formulas Metabo-Shake or Orgain powder (vegan or dairy based – but this brand does have more sugar than all the others). The goal is to give a morning protein boost that is hypoallergenic, and easy to digest and absorb, with a strong amino acid profile to fuel focus and attention chemistry in the brain. I skip soy protein altogether in my practice; it is problematic for many kids. Fats give this staying power. Fruit-and-greens-only smoothies are less supportive, so always add a fat and a protein to these blends.
Broths live on my stove at least once a week, when we have finished a roasted chicken or have a ham bone. You can buy bones to cook delicious stocks, or even buy high quality finished broth. Simmer for a day or more (see instructions here) and ladle out a soothing hot drink in the morning that will replenish minerals, some healthy fats, and even a little protein. Drop an egg into hot broth and cook for a minute or two, for an extra boost. Delicious with chopped scallion, cilantro, and a few fresh spinach leaves too. This is a fast food way to get strong minerals, protein and fats.
There’s always leftovers. If last night’s dinner still sounds good, reheat and eat. No rules about what to eat when, as long as it nourishes and supports.
3 – Support sleep pattern with real food. In adolescence, sleep patterns shift (in case you haven’t noticed!), often in direct conflict with school schedules. “Sleep is food for the brain” – and your teenager’s brain needs food for sleep. You may not be able to get your teen to sleep before 10:30 PM, but you can have light snacks available in your home in the evening. This can support a good night’s sleep rather than fitful sleep, and can ease the brain toward better melatonin production.
Avoid sugary treats near bedtime like processed breakfast cereal with low fat milk. These will spike blood sugar and disrupt cortisol rhythms during the night, and can trigger wakefulness.
Hot cocoa may work fine if sweetened with stevia (not sugar), and if a rich milk blend is used instead of low fat milks. Try this recipe, and add a scoop of whey protein or collagen. If not, add a snack of raw almonds, cashews, or even pepperoni slices. Cocoa does have some caffeine!
Build a sandwich with protein (nut butters, meats, hummus, pesto spread), or have a second (third?) helping of dinner, as long as it offers some protein and is more than just a bowl of noodles. Stir in some meat, egg, quinoa, or frozen peas.
Many supplements can support sleep, but if blood sugar is on a roller coaster during the night either from too little food or too much starchy-sugary food, the only answer may be to change what is eaten during the day and in the evening. Another sleep disruptor is food opiates. Yes, you can make opiates from food! These have many negative effects, from mood disorders to aphasia, insomnia, and constipation. A simple urine test can screen for this problem, and simple diet changes can solve it. See my e book on Milk Addicted Kids for more info.
Food has as big an impact on functioning, learning, sleep, mood and behavior in adolescence as it does for babies and toddlers. Engage interest by appealing to whatever is high on your teenager’s list. From clearing acne, to playing a better soccer game, to getting better grades, to improving anxiety, depression, or fatigue, nutrition can be dramatically supportive. As always, I’m here to help. Contact me to set up a plan for your budding young adult today.
Recently I attended a day-long conference about GMO foods called Seeds of Doubt. There was an erudite line up of speakers from several disciplines, and continents: Among those at the lectern were a medical doctor, a molecular biologist, a soil scientist, an executive from a major grocery chain, a medical molecular geneticist, a certified crop advisor/ former USDA agronomist, an attorney who sued the FDA (successfully), plus two powerful moms who have broken barriers for the health and safety of kids nationwide: Robyn O’Brien, author and former financial analyst; and Zen Honeycutt, founder of Moms Across America. The gathering included a lecture Skyped in from France, a speaker flown in from England, and a moderator just off a plane from India, not to mention others from far flung US locales.
GMO food is an issue that crosses every continent and several disciplines, from health to economics. Colorado votes next week on proposition 105 to require GMO labeling on foods, and I will be voting in favor of this measure. GMO foods have been in the US food supply for twenty years, unfettered by regulation. Read on to see why this was a really bad move, and what the average American consumer probably doesn’t know.
• At least twenty-six other nations ban or heavily regulate GMO crops and foods. The US is alone in the industrialized world in so freely permitting their use and release into the environment (you can’t take a gene back, once it’s loosed). Shipments of wheat, corn, and soy from the US have been rejected around the world repeatedly. Other nations recognize that there are unanswered questions about the safety of GMO foods.
• Based solely on a Monsanto attorney’s input, in 1992, the FDA classified genetically modified foods the same as conventionally raised crops – even though GMO crops are transgenic, which means that they have genes from other species artificially inserted into them. While genes between plants have been shared for centuries, mixing genetic material across plants, animals, and microbes is recent, unconventional, and unstudied in terms of health effects.
• Because the FDA declared GMO foods to be the same as conventionally raised foods, this permitted GMO foods a loophole: They thus acquired “presumptively GRAS” (generally recognized as safe) status. GRAS status exempts products from pre-market approval requirements like safety studies. With the stroke of a pen, GMO foods freely poured into the US food supply – with no safety data, and no awareness for consumers.
• GMO food crops are modified to tolerate double or even triple the amounts of Monsanto’s patented herbicide RoundUp, and are thus called “RoundUp Ready.” They are also modified to produce a pesticide called Bt toxin, inside the plant’s own tissues. While Monsanto touted that this technology would reduce pesticide use, it has had the opposite effect, with a dramatic rise in global pesticide use reported. This makes GMO crops even more toxic than non-GMO crops. The American Academy of Pediatrics has published findings that agricultural chemicals are linked to ADHD in children.
• Bt toxin, meanwhile, kills pests by perforating their stomachs. Whether this can also cause leaky gut in humans remains unresolved. While Monsanto claims that this can’t happen because the human gut is too acidic, they overlook the fact that US infants are prescribed reflux medications at record rates – a strategy that buffers the gut dramatically. And, several of the top thirty prescriptions for US children are antibiotics, which can also buffer the gut environment. Evidence that Bt toxin genes may migrate to human gut bacteria has already been published – thus transferring the ability to produce this toxin directly in our own intestines. More on transfer of GMOs into the human gut can be found here.
• The overuse of herbicide has also created super weeds that now threaten food crop production, as the herbicide-resistant genes spliced into food crops have spread to weeds nationwide.
• RoundUp’s active ingredient, glyphosate, appears to be linked to multiple health problems in emerging research. Monsanto claims that glyphosate is harmless to humans, because we do not have the metabolic pathway that it targets to kill plants. But, the beneficial bacteria in our intestines do have this pathway, and glyphosate can markedly disrupt our beneficial gut bacteria in the same way that it kills its target plants. The human biome is a rapidly emerging area of research, and we already know that this biome is crucial to our health. Glyphosate, an endocrine disruptor, is easily absorbed from the gut. It also binds essential nutrient minerals like iron or manganese, making them less available to the host. Some research correlates the advent of GMO foods in the US with the alarming rate of new autism and celiac diagnoses (click either graph to enlarge):
One of the first places where GMO foods popped up was in infant formula and processed foods marketed to children. Corn and soy, the first major GMO crops in the US, are found in most any processed food. They appear as soybean oil, corn oil, high fructose corn syrup, modified food starch, corn starch, lecithin, soy protein, or textured vegetable protein. This means that since 1992, infants in the US have been drinking GMO formula. Humans are born with a leaky gut, which healthy gut bacteria gradually tone toward normal digestion. But does this process break down when eating GMO formula? Does it explain the explosive rise in allergies, Crohn’s disease, celiac disease, and other gut and immune problems in children, since the 1990s? At least one researcher, Stephanie Seneff PhD of MIT, believes there is a link. Click here to watch an interview with her.
If I haven’t swayed you yet, there is plenty more about GMO foods that does not add up to a green light for our kids – who are now more saddled with more chronic disease and disability than ever before (more than half of US kids have one or the other). At the very least, consumers need to know if genetically modified organisms are in their food, and have the right to not buy them. You know this is here to stay when General Mills decides to pull the GMOs out of Cheerios, and when McDonald’s is looking at organic foods. If there is one thing you can manage for your family’s health, avoid GMO foods as much as possible.
Look for this on food labels to avoid GMO ingredients & foods
Late August… and hopefully, your garden is producing all that you imagined it would. Great! Unless you notice neighbors and friends avoiding you so you don’t unload those enormous and not-so-tasty vegetables… Like zucchinis that would have tasted better if they were picked a week or two ago. Big giant zucchinis are fun to marvel at but not so good to eat as younger more tender ones.
No worries. Here’s one way to handle giant zucchini: Make fritters. These are delicious, fast, savory, and a good side with many dishes. We enjoyed ours with a homemade chicken vegetable soup for a satisfying dinner. Try them with a white fish if you’re lucky enough to have access to something fresh and local, a light and simple chicken dish, or even for breakfast (no maple syrup needed). A food processor makes this much easier and faster. This recipe makes enough to serve four as a side dish.
Sure, you can bake zucchini bread, chocolate zucchini cake, and all sorts of zucchini sweets.. but this is easy and it keeps you out of too-much-sugar territory.
6 cups shredded zucchini
1 TBSP minced scallion (optional)
3 teaspoons sea salt
1/2 cup gluten free flour of choice (try half coconut flour + half almond flour, or half almond flour + half Hagman Blend)
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 TBSP ghee + 1 TBSP coconut oil
Overgrown zucchini work well. Slice in half lengthwise and use an ice cream scoop or melon scoop to remove seeds. Trim off ends, stems, or blemishes. Cut into chunks that can fit into a food processor, using the shredder blade. You can also use a box grater but this will take a good bit longer. Grate/shred the zucchini and set in a large bowl. Add the salt and mix thoroughly. Cover the bowl with a kitchen towel and set aside for ten minutes.
Whisk the eggs, then add the flour and whisk together until smooth with the cayenne. Set aside.
Use a strainer or cheesecloth to press the water out of the zucchini after ten minutes have passed. Return to bowl. Add the egg and flour mixture, and stir in the minced scallion if you are including it. Mix thoroughly.
Heat skillet to medium high and add the ghee and coconut oil. Drop about 1/4 cup of fritter batter onto the skillet, at about 1/2 inch thick. Brown on both sides, serve warm.
Can you redirect ADHD and learning disabilities without prescription drugs? Such a big topic, so I split it into three parts. Short answer: Yes, you can. Bonus: Your child will be healthier over all from these efforts too.
Parts 1 and 2 covered the hard and crusty bits first: The right food, the right fats, and fungus (yup, I said fungus.. read part 2). Those may be the most important nutrition steps you can take to redirect a child struggling to learn, focus, pay attention, understand what h/she is reading, write, or even socialize more happily. I have seen these steps reduce or eliminate the need for prescription stimulants in kids, and make for happier, healthier, more functional children.
But there’s still more you can do. Part 3 is a finishing touch: Adding some minerals. You can skip the more labor intensive fixes for food, fats, and fungus if you wish. But, your child is less likely to enjoy as much success in tackling ADHD naturally.
Why is this true? Because no matter what you eat, your gut is full of microbes – that’s your gut biome. You need it. With a sterile gut, you would die. Microbes do a lot for us. They “teach” the immune system, regulate inflammatory responses, keep pathogens out by killing them for us, impact neurotransmitter balance, and make extra nutrients for us. They can even exchange genetic material with stuff that you eat (which is one reason why GMO foods are scary – human gut microbes have been found to produce the same pesticide that GMO foods are engineered to make, after volunteers ate a diet of GMO foods.)
Junky, starchy, processed, sugary diets promote a lousy gut biome. That means more toxins and trash for your brain and body, because those microbes produce their own waste, and then you absorb it. These toxins can be agitating, irritating, and measurable with a urine microbial organic acid test, in case you’re wondering how to find them. Some of the toxins that gut microbes produce have been linked to autism and seizure disorders.
With a healthy biome, which you develop from eating whole unprocessed un-sugary food, “waste” is the good stuff: some B vitamins, acids to kill pathogens and regulate gut pH, clearance of toxins, completion of digestion so nutrients are more available to you.
Long short? Your gut bugs eat what you eat, and they eat first. So, clean house (see parts 1 and 2) before you begin a supplement protocol for ADHD or attention and focus. Otherwise, you’ll just be feeding those expensive supplements to the garbage gang. This is one reason why children can react or regress dramatically when given a new supplement, before cleaning up the diet or without first directly treating gut microbes that shouldn’t be there. You might just be fertilizing the weeds, so to speak; they bloom, and create an explosion of toxins that can be systemically absorbed. No good. It’s also why you might see a supplement do nothing in particular, when all signs indicate it should really help. Things can really change once that gut microflora environment is in good shape. Even prescription medications for ADHD can work better (or not be needed at all), once these pieces are optimized.
Once you’re ready to supplement, pay attention to minerals. These are critical for the brain to focus and learn. Iron, zinc, copper, magnesium, calcium, selenium, and chromium all have tiny but crucial roles to play, in helping the brain smoothly produce neurotransmitters – as well as dismantle neurotransmitters as needed, to keep things balanced. Serotonin, dopamine, GABA (gamma amino butyric acid), and dozens of other neurotransmitters let us do what we need at the right moments: Sleep, relax, be alert, concentrate, read, remember, process, react, stay calm, and so on. These amazing chemicals do all sorts of things in our brains. Too much serotonin can build up and create more anxiety, or even a deadly state called serotonin syndrome, but too little can leave you depressed, or paradoxically, too anxious. Too little dopamine can mean you can’t focus or learn very well; too much can mean you have obsessive compulsive behaviors. Too little GABA may mean you have seizures; too much can leave you lethargic. It’s all in the balance, and the body uses a steady supply of several nutrients to maintain that balance: Glucose, iron, B vitamins, protein, magnesium and more.
Pumpkin seeds have it all: Minerals, essential fats, fiber, protein
Most kids I encounter with ADHD are eating diets low in minerals. They tend to eat starchy, sugary diets that are marginal for healthy brain fats, low for good proteins, and nearly nil for minerals. If your child isn’t eating a lot of fresh vegetables, leafy greens, seeds, or nuts /nut butters, and fresh meats or eggs, then they aren’t eating a lot of minerals. This describes most kids I’ve met in my practice.
First on my list of minerals to check is iron. It has a history when it comes to attention deficits. Kids can need anywhere from 5 to 15 to as much as 50 mg per day, depending on their iron status. This one is a deal breaker for turning tyrosine, an amino acid that we get from protein we eat, into dopamine in the brain, which allows us to pay attention. Children with poor iron status will have attention problems; they may also be quite hyperactive as they languish in a weakened status known as pre-anemia. Before medicating, ask your pediatrician to do an iron study. Because iron is so complex in its many roles in the body, your doctor will have to do more than look at just serum iron (which means little all by itself) or hemoglobin and hematocrit (which many pediatricians like to check with a quick fingerprick and blood drop). Before iron is supplemented, do this careful footwork first with your pediatrician.
An iron study, a tool I use often in my practice, should include a blood draw for serum iron, transferrin, ferritin, iron binding capacity, and a blood count to show how red blood cells look. Ferritin levels (in my experience) should be at a robust 40 or better for kids to have optimal functionality from iron status, even though the reference range drops to 10 or even 6 from some labs. Low ferritin means low levels of iron are available for the body to use. Whether or not a child is being placed on a medication for attention, iron status should be solid; otherwise, it will interfere.
Iron rich foods? The usual suspects include red meats and eggs, but I also like to suggest pumpkin seeds or sunflower seeds, sunflower seed butter, dark leafy greens (chard, kale, spinach), cashews, molasses, quinoa, and of course, legumes like lentils and all sorts of beans. Eating iron rich foods with citrus or vitamin C will help the gut absorb more iron. Even using iron cookware can help.
Pallor, shiners at eyes, insomnia, and fatigue should trigger an iron assessment.
If you and your doctor find that your child needs an iron supplement, consider easier to absorb forms like ferrous bis-glycinate rather than ferrous sulfate, which can be harder for some to tolerate. Iron supplements in the correct form and dose do not usually trigger constipation. Iron is one nutrient that most microbes really, really like. For that reason, I hesitate to enrich iron in kids without first knowing status for bowel microbes or other infections. If a child reacts especially badly to efforts to reverse iron depletion, it may be because gut microbes are enjoying that iron and creating a toxic bloom. Clear those out, and things can go better.
Next on my list is magnesium. This mineral is needed for smooth nerve impulse transmission and can be quite calming when used correctly. It works with B vitamins to allow the brain to have a steady supply of glucose, which is its preferred fuel. Skip the blood work, because this is a safer mineral to supplement (iron can quickly become toxic). You can go directly to magnesium rich foods: Banana, dark leafy greens, unsweetened cocoa powder (omit the sugar by using the powder in smoothies with some stevia), avocado, lentils, chick peas (hummus), pumpkin seeds, and nuts. Another trick: Let your child soak in a tub near bedtime with a cup of Epsom salt in it. This is magnesium sulfate, which handily absorbs through skin to enrich pathways needing this mineral. The sulfur helps too, as it is needed to run liver and digestive enzymes. This can help your child fall and stay asleep easier.
If supplements are easier, there are many that give magnesium, in powders, capsules, and liquids. Know this: Magnesium citrate and magnesium oxide are particularly effective laxatives, so if you don’t want that result, dose carefully or use a different form (magnesium glycinate for example). And, the body carefully balances magnesium relative to other minerals, especially calcium. Many products include both in a 2:1 ratio (twice as much calcium as magnesium). Kids need about 300 mg magnesium daily. Some in my practice with constipation and neurological challenges safely use up to 700 mg. Don’t do this without professional guidance. Magnesium can reach toxic levels, where it will impact cardiac, nerve, and muscle function.
Next stop: Zinc. When I hear a child is wiggly, chewing shirts or sleeves, gnawing on pencils, paper, or fingers, bothered by tags and fabric, and just all around distractible, I will look at zinc. It’s not imperative to do blood work here because clinical signs for weak zinc status are easy to spot (white dots on nails, penchant for chewing fabric, picky appetite, sluggish growth pattern and appetite), but blood work can give you a concrete idea of what is needed. Zinc levels should be squarely in the middle of the reference range, not toward the bottom. Blood work can also reveal levels of zinc relative to copper in the body. An upside down ratio (too little zinc, too high copper) is often present with aggressive, impulsive, inattentive, or combative behavior. Correcting this ratio with careful supplementation can lessen these behaviors.
Most of our zinc is found in the brain, and in the hippocampus in particular, which is pivotal for memory and mood. Marginal zinc status has many impacts on the brain and how it balances things like GABA (which gives a calmed, attentive state) and glutamate (excitatory and unable to remember or learn). Less zinc will tilt that balance away from GABA.
Zinc is found in foods already mentioned here – nuts, seeds, meats, pork, chocolate, eggs, tahini, chick peas, legumes – and in others like salmon, scallops, flax seeds, or garlic. It needs a properly acid stomach to initiate its absorption, like any minerals. Supplements abound, from liquid (tasteless to those needing zinc, metallic tasting to those in good zinc status) to lozenges to capsules. I often place children on 25-40 mg of zinc daily, when warranted.
Scallops are full of minerals, protein, and healthy fats.. if you can get them
Chromium, selenium, iodine, and calcium all have parts to play in optimizing attention and focus as well. You’ll find these in the same foods – seeds, nuts, meats or pork, fish, dark greens, or deep colored fruits like blueberries or cranberries. You can choose from multivitamins that provide a strong complement of these minerals, but whole food sources deliver additional benefits: Good energy sources, fiber, proteins, healthy fats and oils, and in some cases, phytochemicals not classified as nutrients but noted for other benefits (anti-inflammatory, anti-oxidant, or neuroprotective).
Nothing ever exists in a vacuum when it comes to nutrients. A lot of one mineral may mean displacing another – so monitoring the whole child, the whole diet, and the whole complement of supplements, if you use them, is important. Approaching your child’s ADHD as a nutrient balancing act rather than a stimulant shortage can not only resolve the attention piece, but can create better health over all for your child in the end.