Let me tell you the five most helpful to-do’s I have seen parents use for their children’s health, as we start a new year.
These come from my twenty years’ experience working with families in my pediatric nutrition practice – with mostly complex, difficult cases who couldn’t find improvement elsewhere. In other words, even if your child is really challenged with feeding, growth, chronic illness or disability, developmental trials, allergy or more, I can tell you that these five tips are still my top picks, for setting up the healthiest foundation possible for your kids.
You might think I am going to talk about stuff like picky eating, junk food versus organic, gluten, food allergies, eating more vegetables, probiotics, vitamins, the latest autism protocol, whether or not you should do GAPS, gut biome… Nope. I definitely do cover all that and more in my clinical practice and in my blog, so have a look around.
These tips are about you – and how subtle shifts in your approach to health and what your family eats can cause unexpected benefits to unfold in everyone’s health.
1 – Get fierce about this: Adopt the mantra that health – not illness, disability, endless doctors’ appointments, or dependence on prescription or over-the-counter drugs that bring unwanted side effects – is your child’s birthright. It’s the baseline they are entitled to. Picture them at their healthiest and happiest. Imagine the unimaginable, if that is what it takes. Start with that picture of the joy good health brings.
If they’re not there, if your children are saddled with chronic illness, don’t lament, and definitely don’t feel sorry for them – they have you as their advocate and model, and they need positivity and possibility. Hold that image of total health that they need and deserve. Assume they have it already, and lead the way toward it, quietly and persistently. Expect a good outcome. Their bodies are built to grow, heal, and restore. There is always potential for healing.
2 – Chill out about food. Robyn Obrien’s 80/20 rule is a comfortable sweet spot. Her suggestion is to work for “progress not perfection”. Unless you know your child will sustain severe injury or consequences from eating certain verboten foods which must be avoided, don’t pathologize food. Don’t judge. Don’t chatter about how horrible this or that food is.
I encourage parents to use empowering language, even with small children. I discourage labeling food as “bad” or something that will “make you sick”. This can burden children – even teens – with unnecessary anxiety.
Instead, use words that show the power to choose. If your child eats something that backfires into discomfort or behavioral disintegration, ask which food might feel better next time, if they’re old enough to consider that question for themselves. If not, tell them what you will do next time: “Next time I’ll have xyz ready to eat instead, and you can see if that feels good”. Or “I’ll give your teacher a new snack for you at school. Maybe that will feel good instead.” Don’t harp on what a mistake a transgression was, especially if your child made the choice or if the choice was beyond their control. That is too easily internalized into feelings of powerlessness or failure by a child.
Notice your phrasing, demeanor, and tone when talking about food and health. Leave out the dark, judgmental stuff and emphasize food feeling good, tasting good, or being fun to share or experiment with.
3 – Read food labels? Now try this. If you’re like most parents I work with, you read food labels ad nauseam. You scrutinize every ingredient that passes your child’s lips – especially if you faithfully eat only organic food, avoid corn syrup or dyes, or if your kids ever needed an Epi Pen for eating the wrong thing!
Great. Now try this: Read a vaccine package insert. Read the whole thing, including the ingredients (often listed under the word “Description”). If you care about what’s in your child’s food, you will definitely want to know what is injected into them.
This is a great resource to see the full insert for each vaccine in the schedule. To see ingredients, search for the word “description” (which – as you may wonder – does not necessarily disclose all the ingredients, some of which are allowed to be proprietary, per the FDA).
I’ve met many a mom worried about letting their kids eat, say, corn chips or dairy (because they heard either was “bad” for everyone) – but never knew that Prevnar 13 – just one of dozens of shots on the schedule – has GMO soy fragments in it. Or that Recombivax has yeast, soy, formaldehyde, dextrose, and aluminum in it.
Recombivax is given to newborn babies. If you wouldn’t let even traces of GMO soy, formaldehyde, or aluminum touch your newborn baby’s tongue, why would you let these be injected? Note that eating any protein – or toxin for that matter – is far safer than injecting it, especially if your child is prone to any sort of reaction.
No need to dwell on what a contentious conversation anything with the V-word is, or indulge the drama and emotional reactions to this topic (I’ll delete comments that do). I get it. My graduate training in public health was full-on pro vaccine. I don’t need any instruction here, thank you very much.
It’s just that it’s high time for common sense. We talk a lot about food ingredients, including traces of glyphosate in GMO foods. Nobody talks much about ingredients in your kids’ shots. The “trace amount” argument loses traction once you see that kids receive anywhere from 70 to 100 doses in their first five years, when they are the most vulnerable to the burden of toxic exposures.
It would be fabulous if there was a pharmaceutical or biological product that actually was reliably, equally safe and equally effective for every kid or baby, every single day. But that is just magical thinking. There is no such thing, anywhere. Not a food, not a medicine, not even a fragrance. Can you imagine if it were mandated that all public school children eat Adderall every day, because some kids are too hard to manage in the classroom due to ADHD?
So this is why my Number 3 is for you to learn exactly what’s in your kids’ shots (or yours, if you’re planning on getting pregnant). They are potent. Don’t take them lightly. They may be helpful, or like anything else, they can be harmful. Too many may overstimulate the immune system to cause problems later on. Learn what is in vaccines, when they’re given and how often, and scrutinize if your child really needs them all.
For example: Your child won’t need boosters if they retain immunity from a prior dose – more may not be better.
If you’re upset because someone gave your kid a bag of Skittles at school, then wig out about the kid next door who skipped chickenpox vaccine, I think you’ve got it backwards. Just my opinion.
Besides, don’t you believe your own kid’s chickenpox shot worked – ?
In this scenario, the candy may be the lesser of two evils. Chickenpox vaccine is made with human fetal DNA, guinea pig embryonic tissue, sucrose, glutamate and MSG, and fetal bovine serum. Check out page 6 under “Description”.
4 – Heed your intuition. It’s a powerful healer, guide, and protector for your kids. And at the same time, remember that intuition is not a mandate for you alone to know everything!
In all my years as a clinician, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard a mom say “I just had a feeling” …and how often that feeling was right. I’ve certainly had that moment many times myself as a mom.
It can be tough to go against the advice of the expert specialist at the Mayo Clinic, but you can do it if you simply feel you must, even if you don’t know quite why just yet. You know your child best.
Don’t confuse intuition with fear, or with the egocentric idea that only you can help your child. While I’ve often seen a mom’s intuition impressively steer a child to a good outcome, I have also seen families withhold good care options or block alliances with good providers, out of fear that they shouldn’t trust anything, or a belief that only mom can know what to do. Neither approach is very successful.
Look for your allies and resources, know your own strengths as well as spots where you could use help, allow the help in, and remember – you do know your child best.
5 – Drop the drama. When we have kids with struggles, it’s so easy to be seduced by the drama of what it takes to be their parent.
It’s easy to over-identify with the tasks of caring for kids with learning disabilities, developmental concerns, feeding and growth delays, allergies, and more.
Don’t do that. It messes up your kids. They’re not here to fulfill you in some way, or address your needs. They’re just here. Pretty much, to be themselves.
I meet traumatized families. Families who have had too many trips to the ER for severe allergy reactions from an accidental walnut, for seizures because a medication keeps failing, for passing out because of FPIES reactions and non-stop vomiting (a broken arm sounds pretty good for these families). Families isolated by too many dietary restrictions, by developmental disabilities including autism, anxiety disorders, or processing disorders.
I meet families who have been verbally battered or treated with great insensitivity by doctors, teachers, neighbors, or even friends or family members. Trusting becomes hard. As a parent, it’s hard at times not to feel victimized, to feel like the hardship with your kids may never end, and to lapse into the trap of believing that this whirlwind of medical/developmental/educational crises is… your whole and sole self.
But this isn’t about you.
Underneath and in between all that, there is your child, endeavoring to just be. Like any other kid.
The kids who come out of these tempests with the best outcomes, in my experience, are the ones whose parents can remain aware of this. They do not attach their own pain, ego, fears, sadness, disappointment, frustration, or feelings of inadequacy as a parent to the child, or to the outcomes. They don’t focus on diagnostic labels, whether it’s eosinophilic esophagitis, PANDAS, autism, Crohns, FPIES, or whatever. They rarely if ever use the labels around their kids, because they know their kids are not the labels. They obtain the labels as a path to health and wellbeing as is useful – that’s it. They don’t spend too much time on Facebook groups devoted to their kids’ labels. They focus on actionable solutions. They trust the fact that as parent, they are doing the best they can.
You’re in charge. You set the tone. Your kids will follow suit, even if they have seemingly insurmountable challenges on their plates. I used to hate it when my mother advised, “don’t complain, don’t explain” …but, she was right.
Everyone has heard about probiotics – but how do you know which are friendly and helpful, and which are UN-friendly and detrimental? Not all probiotics are all friendly, all the time. The microbes in probiotics vary in the sorts of tasks they do for us – so, depending on when, what, and how you’re using them, they can be a big help or a big fail.
Probiotics are bacteria or yeast supplements, in case you missed the memo, that you can buy and eat as a supplement. There are powders, capsules, chewables, probiotic foods and drinks… you name it, it’s out there. The idea is to help populate your intestine with the types of bacteria that keep you healthy. Turns out we really need bacteria, viral exposures, and even some fungal (yeast) species to co-exist with us. These help our immune systems stay robust and direct traffic – especially at the gut wall lining, where our insides meet the outside world.
What’s in a human gut biome, and what species of microbes do what, is a burgoening area of study in medicine and health. While the old paradigm believed in a kill-all-germs and take-no-prisoners approach to immune health, the new paradigm has noticed that this doesn’t really work – because it makes people have more allergy, more inflammatory conditions, more autoimmune problems, and possibly, more susceptibility to serious conditions later in life, like cancer. A great example of this is how exposure to infections like measles and chickenpox in childhood protect us later on from certain cancers or shingles. But, now that we so enthusiastically use antibiotics, vaccines, and cleansers to keep germs at bay, we’ve really altered our human immune-scape!
Enter probiotics. Using these really can help many conditions, symptoms, and problems – from asthma and allergies to colitis or obesity.
But what if you use them and your child feels worse?
You may be using the wrong probiotic at the wrong time for the job.
One of the most-often misused strains I encounter in my pediatric nutrition practice is Saccharomyces boulardii. “Sacc B” for short, this is actually a strain of yeast (not bacteria) that has shown some action against tough infections like Clostridia difficile (“C diff”), which has become antibiotic-resistant. C diff has become so resistant to antibiotics that the FDA even approved use of fecal transplants to fight it, so any tools to fight it are worth exploring. Sacc B has been shown to reduce symptoms of irritable bowel, inflammatory bowel, and even Candida infection. Sounds great, right?
But it can make your child feel sick and may trigger symptoms like diarrhea, nausea, bloating, picky appetite or rashes if you use it for too long (more than a month). If your child has antibody reactions to Candida or other Saccharomyces species, then using Sacc B may fail – because the body may attack the Sacc B with an immune response. Cross reaction can occur here, as Candida and Saccharomyces – though they are different species and strains – are all in the fungal family. And that can make Sacc B backfire for your child.
Solution? Withdraw the Sacc B if your child is feeling worse on it; or, don’t use it at all until you screen for antibodies (IgG/M/A) to Saccharomcyes cerevisaie and Candida species. You can also run a stool test for microbiology of these species, which should not be found in excess on your child’s sample.
If you use Sacc B, use it in short bursts, say 3 weeks at a time. Look for improvement then rotate off the Sacc B to mixed Lactobacillus and Bifido strain product, or a spore probiotic with Bacillus species. If no improvement, get professional guidance.
Another frequent fail in supplementing probiotics is using them when your child has small intestine bacterial overgrowth (SIBO) or small intestine fungal overgrowth (SIFO). Symptoms of SIBO and SIFO are similar to symptoms of other GI problems – which leads many parents to give probiotics a try. But, these can make SIBO or SIFO symptoms worse, and fast. A healthy small intestine (which is the first part of the intestine after the stomach) contains a lot fewer bacteria and microbes than the large intestine or colon (further down the pipe). Too much microbial action in the upper part feels awful. This is why kids with SIBO or SIFO often don’t like eating, are very picky, struggle with the slightest variations in food textures, or are even averse to feeding themselves. They may claim to be full when they’ve eaten very little. Add some multistrain probiotics, and this can make it all feel worse.
Solution: If your child is old enough to tolerate a SIBO breath test, you may wish to do this – but, I generally don’t use this test, because it is a tough test for a child to endure, especially if they do have SIBO! Your GI doctor may offer it, and you can ask about how to get your child through the test. If positive, you will need to address this before advancing a probiotic regimen. SIBO and SIFO can be helped with herbal supports and may not necessarily need antibiotic treatment. Once you do eradicate the SIBO or SIFO, single strain products at lower potencies can be helpful, such as Lactobacillus rhamnosus or reuteri at 20 billion CFU per day or less.
Now and then I’ll encounter a child who is downright over-dosed on probiotics by a well meaning parent. Many of us have felt enthusiastic about fermented foods like kombucha, sauerkraut, or kimchee, but overdoing it can create symptoms you’re trying to correct, like gas, bloating, pain, or food refusal. If you’re using these daily for your kids but they aren’t thriving with comfortable appetites and eliminations, revisit this strategy. I like to use a GI MAP PCR DNA stool screen as well as a stool microbiology test to look at what is going on. Sometimes a less aggressive strategy is better, and you can start by simply withdrawing fermented foods or probiotic supplements for a week or so, then resume at smaller doses. You may find your child simply doesn’t need so much probiotic supplementation, from any source.
Lastly, don’t confuse probiotics with pre-biotics. Pre-biotics are starches that friendly bacteria can ferment for us. Some kids (especially with FPIES) don’t tolerate pre-biotic supplements very well, because they may be high in FODMAPs. If you’ve chosen a product that has ingredients like inulin, chicory, galactic-oligosaccharides, cellulose, or maltodextrin, or if the label says “prebiotics”, take note – this may not be the one for your child. You can buy probiotics that omit these ingredients from brands like GutPro or Custom Probiotics.
The choices are dizzying in the world of probiotics, but the good news is there is probably a product that can help your child with appetite, eliminations, and more. If you’d like help, work with me to look deeper into what your child’s solutions might be.
Healing leaky gut is one of the most requested tasks in my pediatric nutrition practice. Many parents are surprised to hear me say that it is possible to repair leaky gut in children of all ages.
But what really works? There is a lot of buzz about dietary approaches, probiotics, and supplements, and less good research on leaky gut than we’d like, especially when it comes to infants, toddlers, kids, or teens. However, after twenty years in my clinical pediatric nutrition practice, I can tell you what nutrition supports I’ve seen consistently work, and what strategies often fail.
First, let’s get on the same page about what leaky gut is, and isn’t. It doesn’t mean there are actual ulcers or holes in your child’s intestine that are “leaking”. But it can mean that the intestinal wall has lost some integrity – and has become too permissive about the size of molecules that it lets pass into your bloodstream.
Another way you might hear leaky gut described is “intestinal permeability” or “hyper-permeability” – again, expressing a condition in which the intestine’s normally very selective, tight process for digesting and absorbing food has become, well, loose and sketchy!
Practitioners – myself included – might scrutinize zonulin, stool microbe studies (microbiology culture or PCR DNA methods), inflammatory markers like calprotectin, or immune markers like immunoglobulin A in a stool sample to gauge gut environment. Some doctors may order a lactulose-mannose test in which patients drink a concentrated solution made of those sugars. How these two sugars, which are different sizes, are excreted in urine can give a measure of how permeable the gut is. For more on intestinal permeability tests and their pros and cons, click here. Food allergy and non-IgE food reactions may also be measured, which requires a blood test.
Key To Restoring Leaky Gut Is….
Key to restoring a healthy gut is repairing “tight junctions” – these are the microscopic, traffic-cop structures of your gut. They form a tight seal between cells in the intestinal wall. When these junctions are injured, they break down – and larger-than-ideal molecules cross from the intestine into the bloodstream, triggering all sorts of reactions to stuff that your bloodstream and distant tissues were never meant to see in the first place. These might be anything from polypeptides (over-size fragments of food protein molecules that can masquerade as false hormones, false neurotransmitters, or invading antigens) to toxins, getting access your body from your gut, when they’re not supposed to. This permeability scenario is a catch-22, in that it can easily perpetuate itself, as more injury persists in the gut.
The intestine is our largest immune system interface with the world outside the body – so leaky gut can also wreak immune havoc, from autoimmune problems to frequent infections and illnesses.
What injures the gut? Lotsa stuff – and, making this harder is that leaky gut symptoms are often diffuse and insidious. They can evolve gradually, or with an abrupt onset that never quite resolves. Leaky gut can trigger symptoms in the GI tract of course, but also far from the gut, like headaches or joint aches, stiffness, pain, fatigue, or frequent colds and infections.
image courtesy Jill Carnahan MD
Here Are Usual Suspects for Triggering Leaky Gut
- antibiotic use
- intestinal Candida or other fungal species infections
- undiagnosed food allergy or food sensitivity
- intestinal flu or virus
- food poisoning
- non celiac gluten sensitivity
- poorly tolerated routine vaccinations
- chronic stress
- traumatic brain injury or concussion
- C section birth (baby misses exposure to helpful vaginal flora)
- mom treated with antibiotics in pregnancy or at delivery for any reason
- mastitis (mom needs antibiotics while breastfeeding)
- radiation therapy
- being underweight especially if you’re a baby, child, or teen
Most kids have had at least one of the items on this list. But that last one is key. In itself, underweight can cause intestinal permeability especially in children. You can address all the other triggers, but if your child is underweight – that is, more than fifteen percentile points off his or her expected pattern – your child’s gut can remain “leaky”. There simply isn’t enough raw material and energy on board for that tissue to repair itself, while your child is also trying to grow.
Here’s the rub: Generally, nobody scrutinizes your child’s growth pattern that closely (I will be honest and tell you that I even see gastroenterology work ups overlook this level of detail – and I routinely read my patients’ reports from their GI specialists nationwide). Without defining your child’s actual expected growth pattern – that is, where your child should be today given parental stature, pregnancy history, birth/delivery history, and growth history since birth – then you don’t know if your child is underweight or undernourished. You can learn more about that here.
I meet many children who are underweight. Sometimes it’s caused by families placing kids on diets that are too restrictive. Or some families have become so traumatized by frightening reactions to foods that they just don’t know how or what to feed their children – so, they don’t. Sometimes it’s caused by a well meaning practitioner who didn’t monitor growth and food intake, because they’re focused on lab tests and supplements instead, gave no guidance on what to actually eat, and encouraged a restrictive diet without effective replacements for foods taken out. I have also seen underweight caused by reflux medicines, which can diminish appetite and digestion when used for more than a few weeks or months. When it comes to picky eating, this too will drive growth status down in kids, injuring the gut too via underweight and poor diet.
The flip side of this coin is assessing what your child eats – how much and what – and the only way to discover if your child eats enough non-triggering, nourishing food is to assess a food diary (part of every new patient intake I do), and then align it with the growth assessment. The food your child eats is the lumber that will be used to do the gut repair – so it has to be the right stuff, in the right amount. Supplements (including glutamine, which is a helpful amino acid but not an energy source), herbs, and probiotics don’t provide this raw building material. I meet a lot of kids who have been given a lot of supplements, lab tests, antifungals, special diets, and measures to repair leaky gut. But they’re still struggling – because this essential growth and feeding part gets lost in the shuffle. But put the right feeding plan with the right supplemental supports, and boom – now you’re talking!
Here’s What Works to Repair Leaky Gut In Kids
- Balance gut microbe environment with herbal or prescription agents to directly address fungal burden, Clostridia burden (even commensal strains can be problematic if they far outnumber other helpful strains), Strep or Klebsiella, parasites, protozoans, and whatever comes up on testing. Combine this with probiotic supplementation that matches your child’s stool studies. My preferred tools for assessing this are GI MAP and Doctors Data Stool Microbiology.
- Customize the special diet to your child. Skip dogmatic, one-size-fits-all approaches.
- Give enough protein! Kids may need anywhere from 1 to 2 grams of protein per kilogram bodyweight per day depending on degree of growth impairment.
- Give the right protein; assess first which proteins are triggering with lab studies. Replace trigger proteins with equal or better value non-trigger protein sources, and keep them varied.
- Use free amino acids. Supplementing with amino acid mixes that give all 8 essential amino acids (and not just glutamine) has been a big bonus in my practice for kids who need deep gut repair. Formulas and powders are available. These give the gut direct access to building blocks for new tissue growth and repair. I use anywhere from 5 to 15 or even 30 grams daily of this protein source, depending on a child’s needs or status. Caveat: These won’t work well without an adequate total diet around them to support energy needs.
- Give enough total food including “clean” (non sugary) carbohydrates, which are crucial for growth in children (carbs preserve protein for structure and function, and keep it from being burned for energy) and ample healthy fats and oils. Kids can need 4-6x more calories per pound than adults, depending on age and growth status. Don’t feed them like little adults – give energy-dense, nutrient-rich food.
- Mastic gum, licorice root, zinc carnosine, glutathione, mineral-rich foods or products like Restore are just a tiny sliver of the thousands of products that can aid gut tissue repair. Work with a knowledgeable provider who has used these in children before. Using these tools is a routine part of my practice.
- Correct sleep pattern so your child can sleep deeply and wake rested. Sleep is when our organs are busy with repair and clean up. Hint: Children who are underfed tend to sleep poorly and wake more often.
- Minimize stress in your child’s world. Don’t discuss “leaky gut” with younger kids and don’t frame food or their bodies as problematic. Use positive language and emphasize the power to heal, which we all have.
- Give it time (like, months), be chill, and remember that your child’s body is a miraculous thing with its own innate drive to grow, repair, and heal.
And Now For The Leaky Gut Fails…
- Using rigid diet strategies for growing kids can be too restricting to support growth, gain, and gut repair. Yeast free diet, GAPS, ketogenic diet, AIP, SCD, Paleo, or Body Ecology all have merits (and devotees!), and I use components of all of them in my practice. But in themselves, none of these were created for use in children (except ketogenic diets for seizure control) and can fail when children are already struggling to gain or grow. If you’re not seeing good growth, gain, and progress in behavior or food reactions with one of these strategies within 2- 4 weeks, or if initial improvements lapse quickly, then it probably isn’t right for your child. Customize to your kid instead!
- Needing your child to like any of this, including taking supplements, having blood draws, or accepting different foods. You’re the adult. They’re not going to make it easy for you – that’s a given. Hint: Picky appetites can improve with addressing these three steps – don’t assume your child “won’t eat that”.
- Staying on reflux medicines for months at a time. These will work against your gut healing efforts by keeping pH in the stomach too weak to initiate good protein digestion. They will also cause your child to feel less hungry over time, to eat less, and to become more picky – thus leaving your child underfed and unreplenished for the task of gut repair. Learn more about the downside of reflux medicines here.
- Using glutamine, vitamins, minerals, or lots of supplements before you situate the right feeding strategy for your child. Feeding strategy means knowing what foods to use, how much and which sources of protein, fats, and carbs, and for how long, to support your child’s expected weight and height.
- Being aggressive with fermented foods, probiotics, or too much Saccharomyces boulardii. These can backfire if used for too long or at too high a dosage, and may even start to create their own dysbiosis or discomfort.
- Leaving fungal, parasite, SIBO or SIFO, or other dysbiosis untreated or under-treated. This can interrupt appetite, digestion, and stooling and keep tight junctions from sealing up.
- Giving up after 2-4 weeks. This is a restore and repair effort that may take months, depending on how long your child’s gut has been in the weeds.
Want help? This is a lot! Let me sort the best options for your child. Contact me today to set up a time to work with me remotely or in person. Or, peruse my options for books and on-line-course support.
You’ve probably noticed the uptick in terrifying news stories about flu in the last month or so. That’s no mistake – the CDC, FDA, and pharmaceutical trade would like you to be afraid, very afraid, of flu, in hopes that you’ll go get a flu shot.
Too bad the shot is such a fail this year.
This happens. Every year, best guesses are made about which flu strains to include in a vaccine, many months ahead of flu season. The soothsayers don’t always guess right.
And too bad even in good years, flu shots are no slam dunk. Their efficacy is, well, meh. In the 2014-2015 flu season, they were almost 100% ineffective, offering protection only 6% of the time. Over the years, they barely reach a 50% efficacy rate at preventing flu – a coin toss or worse for odds. Some data show they don’t work at all, especially in the elderly,and they may even spread more infection.
Besides not having a stellar performance record, there are problems with this product: It contains mercury or aluminum (which is almost as neurotoxic as mercury, and suspect as an Alzheimer’s trigger), contaminant or rogue viral material, formaldehyde, and so on (why do parents wring hands about which organic Paleo snack is best, then don’t blink about injecting this stuff into their toddlers?). This is all heavy baggage for a product that the government would really, really like you to use, and that is why supermarkets, schools, drug stores, and even McDonalds are trying to give you a flu shot. My neighborhood supermarket plays flu shot shill on its pharmacy phone line, offers a feel-good incentive of a free meal to the homeless if you get one, and hangs placards everywhere about how easy it is to just walk in and get one.
But alas. People still recoil. Still, all is not lost. There are many strategies to build your immune strength so that you either don’t get flu, or if you do, it is a milder bout with shorter course.
Your body uses a tool kit to fight and manage infection. The tools it uses are manufactured by you, from food you eat. Vaccines don’t deliver any of those tools. All they do is deliver a ghost version of the infection, with some irritants to stimulate your immune system. It’s your job as a host-body to respond with protective strategies – things like immunoglobulins, white blood cells, and so on. Those are what protect you, not the vaccine itself. You have to make that stuff.
So prep yourself and your kids with the right stuff. There will be flu. There will be snot. There will be fever. But maybe your kids avoid it, or maybe you don’t get so bad a bout. Here’s how immune systems work best:
- Make sure your child is not underweight. Don’t think s/he is? Read this. Your child should be north of the 10th percentile for body mass index (BMI), or for weight to height ratio. This is when kids’ bodies have robust resources to draw on to fight and manage infection, a task that consumes protein, calories (energy) and the nutrients below, to name a few. Underweight kids get sick more often, stay sick longer, and are at higher risk for complications from infection, due to a well understood phenomenon called cycle of malnutrition and infection. This kicks in even when kids are just a little bit underweight.
- Maintain strong status for vitamin D, heading into winter and all throughout. Though lab ranges generally cut off at 30 ng/mL as too low, in our office we prefer to see patients in the 40-60 ng/mL range.
- Maintain strong status for vitamin A rich foods. Cod liver oil is a good source, but don’t use more than a teaspoon daily for kids under 40 or 50 pounds. Too much vitamin A is not a good thing and will trigger low appetite, bone pains usually in long bones, dry peeling skin, demineralization of bones, or vomiting. If your doctor tests your child, levels should be at least 20 mcg/dL for health; below that warrants supplementation, according to the World Health Organization.
- Eat zinc rich foods or supplement zinc. Zinc is another critical nutrient for immune function and building white blood cells. It has helps prevent viruses from replicating and attaching to your nasal membranes. Since it’s in foods many kids can’t eat (allergy) or don’t like, it’s common to have marginal zinc status. You can safely supplement 15-30 mg/day in children with lozenges, liquids, or pills; more may be needed acutely. As much as 75-150 mg zinc has been clinically trialed in children, safely. Pumpkin seeds, most nuts, lamb, pork, eggs, spinach, flax meal or flax seed, shrimp, chick peas, mushrooms, and cocoa are zinc rich foods. Caveat: Chocolate with cane sugar won’t go far since sugar will drop white blood cell count and drop your body’s defenses. Which leads me to my next recommendation…
- Don’t eat sugar during flu season. See previous bullet. This means eat more vegetables than fruits; skip juices or soda for water, tea, or broth; pass on baked treats, muffins, candy, granola, sugary power bars, starchy pasta with sugary tomato sauce; check your kids’ favorite condiments for sugar (ketchup, dressings, canned or frozen snacks).
- Check your kids’ iron status early in the fall. This is best done with a full iron study, which includes:
- Serum iron
- TIBC (iron binding capacity)
- Hemoglobin (HgB) and hematocrit (Hct)
- Complete blood count (CBC)
This is more blood work than your pediatrician usually would order to check iron. I like that data because it fully describes where and how your child is using iron, a critical immune nutrient, and thus tells me what to do about it all, for nutrition support. It will also yield details about your kids’ red and white blood cells, and where nutrition deficits may be emerging. Since we store iron and since it is a toxin as well as a necessary mineral, the body has eloquent strategies to absorb it from food, store it, use it, or excrete it. Looking at just ferritin, which is what your doctor and your insurance plan may prefer, won’t tell the whole story. If iron status is marginal, shore it up with good diet: Eggs, red meats, dark greens, beans, ample protein, and a supplement if necessary. Don’t supplement iron without supervision – it can be toxic or deadly if misused. Weak iron status can take weeks or months to replenish, so start early in the fall.
- Good old vitamin C: When the government set up minimum daily requirements for nutrients decades ago, we didn’t know much then about nutrition in healthy people, much less in sick people. Eating 60-100 mg of vitamin C daily might keep your gums from bleeding or getting scurvy, but it won’t go far to tool up your immune system. This is a safe nutrient to eat a lot of, barring known concerns for kidney stones; infusions of C of 50,000 mg (fifty grams) are not unusual in functional medicine practice. Vitamin C stimulates production of neutrophils, lymphocytes, and phagocytes – all powerful defenders for you. Eat a lot of it. Too much will cause watery stools, so that is your barometer for how much you can tolerate. Supplementing 500-1000 mg/day and more during illness may do the trick.
- Play outside, and get exercise. Tell your kids to go build a snow man. Do yoga, get upside down, go sledding, take a walk. Sunlight, fresh air and movement will move lymph, which carries much of your seek-and-destroy fighter pilot white blood cells. Lymph’s only pump is your muscle action, and gravity. Blood is pumped by the heart but lymph depends on moving and breathing vigorously to flush itself around, and help you release debris and toxins from infection-fighting.
- Don’t stress. Seriously. Stress is a swift and powerful buzz kill for your immune system. It actually suppresses it. Do what you can to counter it, if you can’t avoid it: Watch funny movies, break some plates, watch kitty videos, say oooommmm three times.
You just may be able to beat colds and flu even when flu shots fail. Tool up your body’s fighters so they have the armour they need to do their job. Food is the building material for all these tasks. Vaccines can influence the assembly line, but you still need the raw lumber to build stuff like immunoglobulin, neutrophils, lymphocytes, phagocytes, T cells, and much more; that stuff is made of protein, fats, good carbs, vitamins and minerals, which you gotta eat. Vaccines aren’t the lumber. They’re just the fire drill. Getting a flu shot without good nutrition already on deck is like throwing the fire alarm without having the fire truck, fire fighters, or hoses ready. Flu is no joke for vulnerable people, and it isn’t always obvious who might be vulnerable – but you can keep your fire crew at the ready at all times with good nutrition.
Is your child underweight? Your doctor would have told you, right?
Maybe not. In fact, I am often the first person to capture this finding in a toddler, child or teen who has seen multiple providers, from the pediatrician to gastroenterologist to allergist and so on. But this is really important for kids. Why? Because once kids slide into growth impairments, it throws a lot of other stuff off kilter for them. One, their immune systems don’t work as well. They can get sick more often, stay sick longer, and have more complications from infections than kids in healthy status. Two, they struggle more to behave, learn, focus, or sleep, and will often experience more anxiety, less self regulation, and more mood swings. This can happen even with mild or moderate growth impairments. In other words, kids don’t have to be severely underweight for this stuff to go wrong. When kids finally hit bottom with that failure to thrive (FTT) status, this will create a leaky gut – something many parents ask me about – because there aren’t enough nutrients and energy from food for the child’s gut wall to maintain its integrity. And, the younger a child is, the more vulnerable they are, when dropping off channel.
Pediatric providers generally won’t intervene on or even mention a lagging growth pattern unless your child is really, really underweight, as in – heading for the very bottom of the growth chart. Why not? There are several reasons why this can be true:
- Your insurance may not pay your doctor to intervene on any growth impairment other than failure to thrive (FTT), a severe and entrenched problem in which a child has fallen to below the fifth percentile for weight for age.
- Your doctor may not know that dropping just fifteen percentile points off expected growth pattern, for either weight or stature, actually means your child is underweight or undernourished.
- Your pediatrician may not know how to calculate your child’s ideal body weight, expected weight, or expected height, or doesn’t have time to do it.
- Your doctor doesn’t have time to scrutinize, integrate and explain all the growth data in that brief fifteen minute visit, including all the things that impact growth, from your kids’ food intakes to energy level to genetics.
- Your doctor isn’t sure how to help you fix the problem, or why it’s happening in the first place, if they notice it.
Because I work with kids with problems like allergy, autism, FPIES, inflammatory bowel conditions including Crohn’s disease, or all sorts of circumstances in which they can’t eat regular diets, it’s common for me to find that a child is indeed underweight. Many parents who contact me have placed their kids on special diets on their own, and don’t realize their kids are underfed and malnourished, even with all the best efforts at feeding well. But it can be a relief to know exactly what and how much food your child needs to grow, feel, and function better.
Usually, parents are downright surprised at what a difference something as simple as the right food intake makes for their kids. This quote is straight out of clinic today from a mom regarding her fifth grader, who had severe attention and focus issues for which he’d used medication, difficulty with independently toileting (constipation, stool accidents), frequent infections, and felt unhappy or frustrated often:
“Looks super healthy, I’ve never seen him this healthy. He seems more like a regular kid. He is thriving. He is growing like a weed. He is happy.”
This boy is off stimulant medication, using the bathroom independently and not having accidents, and has not had any infections for months, for the first time in his life.
What would your pediatrician do for these problems?
He would do what had been done for this child, and failed: Give methylphenidate (stimulants like Focalin, Ritalin, etc) for inattention and hyperactivity; Miralax for the constipation; antibiotics for the infections; and a “he seems fine” shrug for the moderate drop off of expected weight for age.
Nutrition care is not a replacement for medical care – and vice versa: Medical care is not nutrition care. They do different things, and require different skill sets. Strong nutrition in kids makes them healthy; prescription drugs mostly avert acute problems. Neither replaces the other, both are important for kids – but, unfortunately for kids all across the US, nutrition is not a big player in pediatrics nowadays.
Is your child underweight? Is it impacting their health? It’s easy to find out. There are well established criteria for determining things like expected growth pattern for a child, and how to restore it if lost. There are many tools at my disposal too, to sort out what foods would best serve your child, what foods you might really need to avoid, and what foods you really may not have to worry about. If you’re not sure, schedule an appointment and we can just find out!
There has been buzz for years now about camel milk, and its purported benefits for autism, Crohn’s disease, allergies, feeding problems and more.
I’ve been slow to embrace this possibility, because all mammalian milk (including human breast milk) contains milk protein – that is, casein – and casein can become problematic for many reasons. Casein structure varies a bit from species to species or even across breeds of animals in the same species (as described in the A1 versus A2 milk conversation). This is what can make goat milk or sheep’s cheese more tolerable than cow’s milk for some kids. But all these milks – including human breast milk – can make a neuroactive protein fragment called casomorphin.
I’ve needed a good explanation for why this is not a problem with camel milk, and I found it. Here’s the story.
Casomorphin is great for babies in their first year. It is correlated with optimal psychomotor skills and muscle tone. But it can wear out its welcome, when a child’s intestine doesn’t acquire the skill to digest it thoroughly, past the age of 12-14 months. I routinely see this in my practice, in milk-addicted kids: Constipation, delayed language or aphasia (non-verbal), extreme picky eating, tantrums, ADD/ADHD, disrupted sleep, and behavior problems.
Casomorphin is easy to measure in urine. I have found it in the urine of older toddlers still breastfeeding, who strictly avoid dairy foods in their diets otherwise, and whose mothers strictly avoid dairy too – proving that the casomorphin indeed can come from weak digestion of the protein in breast milk. In these cases, weaning to non-dairy proteins in food did the trick.
Casomorphin is a “powerful opioid, more powerful than morphine itself“. It blunts sensation, and can delay potty training; it also prevents a process called synaptic or neural pruning, in which the brain adjusts its growth to accommodate new developmental phases. Without pruning, kids’ heads grow disproportionately large, and development – especially for language and social reciprocity – can stall. It’s common for me to see this phenomenon in children with autism who have had diets liberally inclusive of dairy protein, whether it’s from milk, cheese, yogurt, ice cream or whatever – all these dairy products contain casein. Gluten and soy proteins can form morphine-like neuroactive peptides too, in the context of weak digestion. These have been linked to autism features, for many years now. This is why kids with autism may begin to speak, function, behave and sleep better by removing wheat, dairy and soy foods entirely – stop eating opiate like neuropeptides, and their brains begin to work again.
What about camel milk? It turns out that the casein in camel milk is different enough in its structure to not create these opiate neuropeptides – while at the same time, its other components are also unusual – making for some extra healing benefits. It doesn’t have the same casein structure that cow’s milk has, and thus can’t create casomorphins that have brain-damaging potential, as is seen in autism. Camel milk lacks the beta-lactoglobulin found in cow milk; that, plus its different casein structure, means that the two most allergenic proteins in cow milk are absent from camel milk. The whey proteins of camel milk are different too, making them less allergenic. And camel milk has higher amounts of the immune protecting proteins lactoferrin and immunoglobulin than cow milk – though some dispute that the difference is enough to explain the medicinal benefits. But because camel immunoglobulin molecules are tinier than those in cow or human milk, and because they appear to be more potent in completely neutralizing an infectious agent, they can more easily target and disable viruses or bacteria in the gut. Traditionally, one of its many uses was for clearing rotavirus – something your child was probably vaccinated for, as rotavirus vaccines have been included in the CDC schedule since 2008 (look for RotaTeq on your child’s vaccine record). Who knew all they may have needed was camel milk?
Little data exist for its healing properties, but the little that is out there is compelling. A controlled clinical trial in fourteen children with autism who drank pasteurized camel milk instead of cow’s milk for eight weeks “revealed a decreased hyperactivity, increased alertness, grasping power and curiosity, better social interaction and many parents commented on the newly expressed effort of their children to listen and obey instructions.” The children also had daily bowel movements instead of being constipated, and got sick less often. Urine samples showed no elevation of beta casomorphin-7, the trouble-maker molecule in question for milk drinkers. In a larger, double blind, randomized trial of 65 kids with autism, profound improvements were once again noted, from just two weeks of camel milk consumption. And yet another blinded and randomized trial in 60 children with autism found that camel milk significantly reduced oxidative stress (a well documented feature of autism that underlies behavior problems, GI symptoms and more) while it gave a boost to the kids’ glutathione levels, which is a healthy body’s top protector against toxins. Glutathione is legendary for being depleted in kids with autism, and has been the target of much investigation, since correcting it may diminish features of autism. Glutathione is also a key to reducing symptoms of Crohns disease; a healthy gut wall is rich in this antioxidant, while a sick one is depleted of it.
Another obscure report lauds camel milk as a wound healer in diabetes; other findings suggest that camel milk has enough insulin-like peptides in it to effectively lower blood sugar. Meanwhile, here’s that nasty casomophin from cow milk again, possibly triggering diabetes. I found no trials specific to food protein induced enterocolitis syndrome (FPIES), but did find one that plainly showed that most kids with milk protein intolerance handle camel milk just fine, and that skin prick testing worked to screen for this option.
While controlled trials are few, anecdotes are plentiful on the web, describing remarkable improvements in children with autism who switched to camel milk.
This all sounded good enough for me to spring for $275 worth of frozen camel milk (it doesn’t come cheap). I’m going to try this out. My son has a long history of inflammatory bowel symptoms and struggles to gain weight; I have a long history of autoimmune problems and am dependent on infused human immunoglobulin therapy to, well, pretty much stay alive. If anyone had good reason to give camel milk a try, I do. And there are a few hundred kids in my case load who might benefit. I like to have first hand experience with whatever I recommend to my families.
The only dromedary dairy in my region was cryptic and unfriendly when I reached out; they wouldn’t let me visit or purchase in person, so I passed. Besides, knowing that the entire Front Range of Colorado is under siege from cancer causing fracking contaminants in air and water, I felt it would be better to buy a product from somewhere else. Camel milk isn’t sold in stores near me as far as I could find, so I went with the one outfit that seemed well equipped to produce, sell, and ship milk reliably: Desert Farms. Stay tuned to hear how this goes! Should be interesting. As a recipient of immunoglobulin therapy, I am monitored closely every three weeks for my immune status, so I will be tracking what happens. Let me know how camel milk worked for you, if your family tried it!