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Top 3 Mistakes Functional Medicine Doctors Make When Working With Kids

Top 3 Mistakes Functional Medicine Doctors Make When Working With Kids

Functional medicine is all about resolving the root cause for chronic conditions, by giving the body tools to repair and heal itself beyond just prescription drugs to mask symptoms. The idea is to be well to potential, not just un-sick. But there’s a problem, when it comes to babies, toddlers, kids and teens: Those people are not little adults. The functional medicine model that works for grown ups sometimes leaves out critical pieces for kids – and I see these mistakes in my pediatric nutrition practice, regularly!

If you know me, you know I work in an office with a fabulous functional medicine doc, author, and speaker Jill Carnahan MD. Before moving into our new office digs in 2015, we shared space with Robert Rountree MD, another renown educator, author, speaker and founding IFM member (here’s just one of his fabulous pearls of wisdom). Just being in the same room with those two is a joy, as both are fonts of knowledge and experience!

I meet many kids who have come into my practice having already worked with a functional medicine practitioner elsewhere in the US – but often, these kids are still sick, not getting better, or even getting worse. Does this mean functional medicine doesn’t work for kids?

Nope. It means a few key pieces got left out. I see this a lot. Work these bits into your child’s care with your provider, and things might go a lot better. Here’s the top 3 goofs that I encounter, when working with families who tried functional medicine care for a child, but didn’t see great results.

1 – Your Doctor Forgot About The Food
Sounds crazy, but it’s true: The most important piece for children of any age to feel better with a chronic condition (or even leave it behind) is food. How much? What protein sources are safe? How much fat? What carbs are okay? What do you make for dinner? What goes in the lunch box? How many ounces of formula, and what formula is best for the baby? How much breast milk? Should mom be on an elimination diet too? Which foods should she remove, which foods can she replace those with? Should your child eat fermented food, GAPS, ketogenic diet, Autoimmune Paleo (AIP), gluten, low oxalate foods, avoid nightshades, low FODMAPs foods?

All those questions need specific answers and specific instructions.

But… What I often see is that parents are just told what not to feed their kids, without details about what to feed them instead. This often leaves kids over-restricted, not eating enough. I also find that foods are eliminated without a good reason (“aren’t carbs bad for you?” … “I was told potatoes are inflammatory, so we cut those too.” … “I don’t want to feed yeast – the doctor said to go ketogenic just to be safe.”) Or, sometimes, a food that is not a fit gets over-used, like daily high oxalate juices with spinach, kale, and beet juice; or coconut everything, when we find coconut to be a high IgG trigger food or too high FODMAPs for that child. Long short, you really gotta know what food is right for your child, and how much. That is based on lab studies, signs, symptoms, and history – not on any dogma about the “best” diet.

The flip side of looking in detail at what and how much your child is eating daily is growth pattern. Growth is the single most important measure of a child’s nutrition status, especially in children under age five. It can be assessed in great detail, to include stuff like Z scores for body mass index for age, velocity, regression, or level of malnutrition. This is a big blind spot in the functional medicine model, which was borne out of how to manage chronic conditions for adults – who aren’t growing!

Growing dramatically changes how we use energy (calories), protein, fats, carbs, and even some micronutrients like folic acid, zinc, or iron. Just your kid’s brain uses more energy per ounce daily than yours does! Not to mention all the other stuff going on in a growing person.

I request a food diary with each new patient intake, and often at follow up appointments too. This isn’t about watching what parents are doing right or wrong (it’s not about you!). Food diaries reveal a lot about a child’s body, what they feel like eating, what they are absorbing well, what nutrients they may be losing, why they are fatigued or hyper, or what sort of dysbiosis may be active.

Matching this info up with a growth analysis is a gold mine of information about why a child isn’t feeling well. Growth impairments can be subtle or even invisible, without a skilled assessment (which pediatricians generally don’t do either – they don’t have time). Even mild growth impairments matter – they are costly for children. They affect sleep, behavior, mood, self regulation, timing of puberty, and stamina.

And.. Guess what: That Holy Grail of healing leaky gut? It can’t and doesn’t happen when a child has a growth impairment. Just being even a little underweight can, in itself, make a child’s gut leaky. The functional medicine community often overlooks this. You can eat all the kombucha and bone broth you like, but if you’re five years old and off your expected growth pattern, it won’t work so well. There won’t be enough energy and construction material to manage the demands for growth, and the demands of tissue repair and restoration. These heighten a child’s macronutrient needs (protein, calories, fats, and carbs) dramatically – and they have to be the right macronutrients for your child… Or, you guessed it, all your efforts can flop.

I often find that a child will be sprinkled with supplements for toxicity and neurotransmitter support, when all they needed to function better was the right food in the right amounts, consistently, day to day. The only way to find this out is by looking at detailed food diaries and making a deep dive into growth data – including life long growth pattern from birth. This helps identify what the expected growth pattern is in the present day.

2 – Your Doctor Ran Too Many Fancy Lab Tests
…that didn’t really add up to an action plan for the family.

There’s no shortage of super interesting lab tests available now, that broaden our understanding of how the immune system is managing food, how we manage toxic exposures, or what our microbiome is up to. But what do you do with it all?

Sometimes this information isn’t actionable. That is, there isn’t going to be anything you can do with it.

For example: A Cyrex Panel 3 for Wheat Proteome Reactivity and Autoimmunity is as detailed as you can get, to see what an immune system “thinks” about gluten. It costs about $300, out of pocket. But if you’re just trying to figure out if a gluten free diet would help, all you need to establish that is deamidated gliadin antibody test. Your pediatrician or PCP can do that, and bill your insurance. (Your pediatrician will tell you it’s “normal” if the result is less than 20. But I will tell you to withdraw gluten if your child has any suspect symptoms for gluten intolerance, with a value above 10). Even if you pay cash for this simple test, it isn’t likely to cost more than about $50.

Or you might see a test for red blood cell toxic and essential metals, like this one. I like this test because it captures a lot of information in one sample. But, in children especially, iron needs more detailed digging than this test can show. If iron is marginal, it’s easier to absorb toxic metals like lead. The only way to know if iron is truly marginal is to do some standard stuff that, once again, your pediatrician can do very inexpensively or on your insurance. Include ferritin, CBC, transferrin, saturation, and serum iron to get this picture. Plus, kids show signs of mineral deficits clearly in behavior, sleep pattern, mood, hair, or skin. For children, a nutrition focused physical exam should be included in assessment too, not just lab tests. And by the way, here in my practice and in the practice of Jill Carnahan, we don’t use hair testing for mineral analysis, because we don’t find it to be terribly accurate or useful.

Another popular (and costly) test is the NutrEval by Genova Diagnostics, which runs close to $400 out of pocket. Some insurances may cover this test; in my own practice, this is rare. Many functional medicine docs rely on this for nutrition assessment. While it does do several tests for one fairly decent price, it does not assess children as well as it does adults. Nutrition assessment in children must include growth and food intake data, as well as clinical signs and symptoms. No one lab test can do this, even a comprehensive panel like the NutrEval. Because it is sold as a comprehensive, complete tool, it tends to mislead into thinking that all solutions lie in the supplement protocols that come with your test results. How often I have seen this fail!

The NutrEval also includes an analysis of essential fatty acids. I think you can skip that: It’s easy to see things like essential fatty acid deficits in kids, based on their food records (are they eating any?), behavior, and clinical signs that relate to essential fats. You don’t really need a blood test for this in my opinion, unless you are revisiting how to dose a fatty acid supplement protocol that doesn’t seem to be working. Even then, you can check other parameters in signs, symptoms, or other less costly labs to find out.

Another common misunderstanding I encounter with parents who have done a NutrEval is they believe that their kids’ protein status has been assessed, because there is an amino acid profile in it. Amino acid profiles don’t assess protein status or intake, which is crucial for kids. The amino acid profile rules out inherited metabolic disorders, another common and often insurance-covered test that you don’t need a functional medicine doctor to order for you. Protein status in kids is assessed with a metabolic panel (a common and cheap LabCorp or QuestLab test that your pediatrician can do), and by looking at clinical signs, growth, feeding, and elimination patterns.

For more cost saving tips on what lab tests to start with, without spending thousands out of pocket with a functional medicine doc, see my e book on 5 Essential Lab Tests For Kids With Autism. Goes for any kid, with a chronic condition! Any practitioner skilled in Nutrition Focused Physical Exam for children can save you a lot of time, trouble, and money – and help you avoid a care plan that backfires.

3 – Your Child Has Been Over-Treated, or Treated Too Aggressively
There are so many cool tricks and tools for wellness potential that insurance doesn’t pay for. These are the things that your functional medicine doctor is trained to use – cutting edge stuff that includes everything from far infrared saunas and nutritional or immunoglobulin IVs, to highly specialized supplement protocols and ozone suppositories, or novel ways of using prescription drugs off label, for special circumstances. It’s hard to hold back, when we want to help people heal!

But here’s the thing: Children are delicate little creatures. Especially really young ones, like, babies. Or kids of any age who have been overwhelmed with mold toxicity or Lyme disease, or who didn’t tolerate the vaccine schedule. Their bodies are overwhelmed. Don’t overwhelm them all over again, with a barrage of treatments, all at once.

I have seen children go from bed-ridden to literally jumping, enjoying school, and playing normally again simply by suggesting a family stop treating their child for all these found problems, and by helping to re-boot with nourishing, gentle foods that fit that child’s needs. Then we pick and choose which “layer” the child might successfully address first. Are they anemic, or are there other mineral imbalances? Can they absorb foods and nutrients in the first place, or is there achlohydra, SIBO, SIFO? Are they pooping comfortably? Can they detoxify ….anything? Where can we gently support some detox?

When children are over-treated, they get sick, tired, weak, anxious, fatigued, depressed; they don’t eat right; they can’t play, they’re weepy or more angry, with volatility; they have rashes, fevers, or get every cold and bug more easily. It’s not necessary to go through this. It can be easier, gentler, and work better.

Functional medicine is the way health care is trending. We all want to feel really good, not just live “meh”, without sickness. Kids deserve it too. If your child is not playing, sleeping well, eating well, and enjoying activities they love, take a look at whether these mistakes are in the mix with your functional medicine provider. Re-boot the plan, and your child can feel better.

What REALLY Heals Leaky Gut in Kids

What REALLY Heals Leaky Gut in Kids

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.

 

 

 

 

 

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