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Is Toxicity Overwhelming Our Kids? Make Sure Food and Supplements Are Helping, Not Hurting

Is Toxicity Overwhelming Our Kids? Make Sure Food and Supplements Are Helping, Not Hurting

In my pediatric nutrition practice, moms often ask: Is it worth it to spend the extra money on organic foods and pricier supplements brands? My opinion is yes. I often witness how children respond to different foods and supplements, to cheaper brands versus brands of supplements with stricter purity standards, to shifting from processed to more whole foods.

CNN recently reported on a study published in the journal Pediatrics about children with ADHD: They found that children with ADHD were twice as likely to have higher levels of a common pesticide than children who did not have ADHD.  In other words, pesticides commonly used on fruits and vegetables may contribute to ADHD prevalence in the US. Are chronic, small pesticide exposures enough to trigger ADHD in a child? Meanwhile, as any parent who has seen success with a Feingold diet knows, food colorings and preservatives of all sorts have long been suspected of triggering hyperactivity or other problems in children – see this list of 9 additives in particular that have been linked to ADHD.

That is one reason why I encourage families to buy organic foods when possible, even though they cost more. Buying locally from a trusted grower is even better – because you can actually visit or talk to that grower if you want, to see if their methods comply with organic guidelines. Another reason is because – back in 1988, when I was in graduate school – I wondered: Do organic foods have better nutrient profiles? It turns out they often do. Grain crops raised organically may have better amino acid profiles – which means that though they may have less total protein than a conventionally raised version, the protein is of better quality and more nutritious. Fruit crops show more vitamin C and antioxidants when raised organically.

Next on the list of much talked-about toxins are heavy metals like lead, mercury, arsenic, or hexavalent chromium. These are ubiquitous in our environment. Mercury now taints many foods we eat, from high fructose corn syrup to fish. One study found that a serving of high fructose corn syrup contained half a microgram of mercury (0.5 micrograms), and estimated a potential daily mercury intake from foods at about 28 micrograms for Americans. Children and teens may eat as many as 7 tablespoons of high fructose corn syrup daily, from soft drinks, condiments, processed foods, candy, and chewable supplements. This can mean a mercury exposure of about 10 micrograms daily, just from high fructose corn syrup.

By comparison, a flu shot contains about 25 micrograms mercury; and, the EPA guidelines suggest we limit mercury exposure to 0.1 microgram per kilogram body weight daily. For a 60 pound child, that means encountering less than 3 micrograms of mercury daily. For a pregnant woman, this may mean no more than 5 micrograms of mercury exposure daily. We haven’t even talked about coal burning power plants – another mercury source – and it’s easy to see that how easy it is to surpass mercury exposure limits, depending on what we eat.

Lately the CDC and American Academy of Pediatrics have had renewed interest in lead screening for children. Over the years, the level of lead in blood deemed acceptable by these agencies has repeatedly dropped – meaning, there is no safe level of exposure to this neurotoxin, second only to mercury on the list of heavy metals with potential for neurotoxic effects. Lead is a common contaminant in supplements. This is an especially big concern for children who have poor iron status, because those children will absorb more lead than kids in healthy iron status. These metals compete for absorption, and lead is readily taken up by the body in lieu of iron, when iron is not adequately situated in cells and tissues that need it. Lead exposures early on can permanently impair IQ and learning ability.

What about arsenic? From chickens and eggs to playground equipment, arsenic has been found in places our kids go and foods they eat. It may contaminate supplements too, along with pesticide residues and a form of chromium called hexavalent chromium, or Cr-6 for short. Chromium in its “trivalent” form is essential to humans – without it, we can’t regulate blood sugar normally. But in the hexavalent form, it’s highly toxic and known carcinogen, as anyone who has seen the movie Erin. A Consumer Labs review of some supplements found hexavalent chromium contaminants.

Just like the food industry, the supplement industry is challenging for the FDA to adequately monitor, and may not have purity guidelines as strict as parents would like. It often falls on the manufacturer to self-impose strong standards for a product’s purity and potency. But you do have the ultimate power, in your wallet. Buy only what you feel is best for your family’s health and well being. Compare purity standards among supplement manufacturers. If you’re not sure, ask for info from the manufacturer. If you’re not satisfied, move on. In Special Needs Kids Go Pharm-Free, I devote a chapter on “Know Before You Buy” to help families understand differences in purity standards for supplements. Now that I’m done giving you the bad news, here’s the good news on what you can do:

1 – Know your growers. Eat organic and locally sourced meats, eggs, dairy, fruits, and vegetables when possible, given your budget. Check LocalHarvest.org for an organic grower near you.

2 – Grow a garden this year. Start planning now for your kitchen garden, whether it’s herbs on your windowsill, cherry tomatoes in patio crocks, or more in a small patch in the yard. Easy crops for beginners are lettuce, pole beans, bell peppers, carrots, or herbs.  You’ll know exactly what you’re eating!

3 – When buying supplements, demand the best. Compare purity standards, which vary based on a manufacturer’s commitment to quality. For example, fish oils should be strictly mercury free; calcium supplements should be rigorously screened for lead and other contaminants; probiotics should guarantee potency; any supplement should be free of pesticide contaminants, and fillers with no function.

4 – And, just because a supplement is costlier, it may not be better. Ask the manufacturer what toxins they screen their products for, and how. Transparency is the key – if you are told this is proprietary, it may be wise to choose another product.

Nutrition Solutions You Didn’t Know: Being A Pharm-Free Kid

[/caption]We’d all nod in agreement if asked, “…does nutrition matter for babies and kids? Is it important that they have enough to eat?  Does it make any difference what they eat?” I bet any pediatrician would too. So why don’t we tap that when it comes to helping special needs kids thrive to their potential? After all, these kids are at higher risk for nutrition problems than typical peers – problems that often go unnoticed, and have the power to impede progress.

We can, and this is what I have done in my pediatric nutrition practice for over ten years, working with kids who have asthma, severe food allergy, autism, Down’s syndrome, arthritis, growth failure, feeding problems, ADD or ADHD, clinical depression, and more. On top of that work, I’ve written Special Needs Kids Go Pharm-Free – because even after a decade working with kids, I am surprised that parents still have so little reliable information on how to leverage nutrition-focused tools for a child with a chronic condition or disability. Just as they can for any child, nutrition tweaks can make or break the difference between staying well or getting sick a lot, succeeding versus struggling at school, growing as expected or being stunted, and relying on symptoms-only drug treatments versus ditching the drugs altogether to feel and function even better.

Pharmaceuticals are not a bad thing. But our health care system may be stacked to make these too much of a good thing for our children.  For example, prescriptions to young children for stimulants (like Ritalin) and proton pump inhibitors (reflux medications) – just two types of drugs – have skyrocketed in recent years.  Children are now more medicated and more immunized than ever before – but are more chronically sick and disabled too.  Between 1980 and 2000, a 57% increase occurred in the rate of children with disabilities served by government programs.  In our public education system nationwide, about one fourth of learners are served under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) – and the increase in number of children served under IDEA has grown at twice the rate of the general pediatric population.  In the same time frame that Americans have used more medications than ever, our overall health related quality of life has declined.

What this means is that our children have become more sick and disabled in the last thirty years, not healthier, and that prescribing more medications may not be helping. Physicians aren’t trained in non-pharmaceutical strategies for disease management in the US, as they are in several other developed countries.  Controversy continues regarding the influence the pharmaceutical industry may wield here on medical training, clinical trials, even medical journal publications – making good information on strategies like nutrition almost invisible.

Gluten free noodle bowl and gluten free pot stickers. No sweat.

I’m not sure how to eat these. Anybody? Beuller?Special Needs Kids Go Pharm-Free to the rescue. Affected children are often assumed to be presenting in a certain way because of the condition or disability itself, rather than because of a fixable, nutrition-related impairment.  Here are just a few examples of how nutrition can impact a child with a learning difference, developmental disability, or chronic condition. More examples with strategies to address them are found inSpecial Needs Kids Go Pharm-Free. These spotlight nutrition problems that have been linked in myriad clinical trials and public health data to learning deficits, growth or developmental impairments, insomnia, psychiatric disorders, or behavior problems in children; others abound in my case files:

–        Children with Down’s syndrome may have gluten sensitivity or celiac disease more often than typical peers. Even in the absence of celiac disease, untreated gluten sensitivity in itself may impede growth, stooling, and functional abilities for a child with Down’s syndrome.  A gluten free diet may help a Down’s child make unexpected leaps.

–        Over a third of boys with Asperger’s syndrome tend to be clinically underweight – that is, their body mass index (BMI) is <10th percentile.  This is a growth pattern deficit that may impair infection fighting, sleep, continence, and cognition.   The only correction: More food!  Healthy fats, easy to absorb proteins that are not inflammatory, good carbs – and plenty of them all.  In some cases, specialized formulas or custom made smoothies can help too.

–        In puberty, low BMI in boys is linked to low total cholesterol.  This is inversely related to testosterone level, meaning that testosterone will rise when cholesterol is too low. Low total cholesterol has been linked to psychiatric disorders, suicidality, and aggression.  Excess testosterone has been noted in about a third of boys and girls with autism; aggressive or obsessive compulsive behaviors showed improvement, in early work treating high testosterone with medication in these children.  Keeping a child’s BMI above 20th percentile, plus allowing ample daily healthy organic fats and oils, are nutrition measures that may help.

–        Any child with a self-limited diet (eats just a few foods) or mechanical problems with feeding (tube feeding, swallowing disorders, oral tactile defensiveness) can quickly become depleted for minerals like zinc, which allows normal appetite, growth, and immune function; magnesium, which helps nerve cell function; chromium, which helps control blood sugar; and selenium, a key antioxidant.  Children with Down’s syndrome in particular should be screened for zinc status.  While a high potency supplement can help, so can slow cooked stews and broths, chock full of vegetables and gluten free carbohydrates like quinoa (a grain that is also high in protein), black rice (higher in iron than regular rice), lima or kidney beans (to add zinc, protein, fiber) or breadfruit and potato (great for potassium).  Adding grass fed beef or free range poultry – organic if you can afford it – will further up the mineral, protein, fat, and calorie content of a crock pot meal.

–        Any child with a self limited diet or chronic inflammatory condition like cystic fibrosis, rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn’s disease, food allergies, or asthma may have sub-optimal iron status – which will make them more susceptible to infections, more cranky, hyper or irritable, less able to focus at school, and less likely to sleep well.  Entrenched iron deficiency (anemia) can leave your child tired, averse to exertion or typical play activities, showing shiners at eyes, and prone to eating non-food items.  Have your pediatrician screen serum iron, ferritin, transferrin, hemoglobin, and hematocrit.  If a supplement is needed, use one that is gentle and well absorbed, like ferrous bis glycinate instead of ferrous sulfate – but only with supervision, as iron quickly becomes toxic to children.

–        Copper is a metal we need in extremely small amounts, and a potent neurotoxin, if too much circulates in a free, unbound form.  High serum copper level has been linked to several psychiatric diagnoses.  Some children with autism may need treatment to reverse copper toxicity and should avoid copper in daily multivitamins; special formulations are available for this purpose.

–        Several studies have documented the presence of opiate-like polypeptides from poorly digested food proteins in autism; these have neurotransmitter effects that can impede language, pain tolerance, stooling, cognition, sleep, and behavior.  Special diets or digestive enzymes that target these proteins have shown promise.

–        Children with autism were found to have four or more GI issues, including histological changes, diarrhea, reflux, constipation, and abnormal endoscopies, about 40% of the time, compared to 5% of the time for their neurotypical siblings, in a study published in Pediatric Gastroenterology.  While some studies countered this finding, debate centers on methodology weaknesses in those studies that “bury” evidence of gastrointestinal problems in these children. In clinically standard nutrition screening in my own practice, I routinely find these problems in children with autism. If your child has a picky, weak, or rigid appetite, vomits undigested food, is dependent on medications for constipation or reflux, has undigested food in stool, can’t move bowels at least three times a week, has more than three loose or foul stools/day, or often presses his stomach on pillows, knees, or furniture for comfort – these signal atypical digestion and absorption that may mean lessened health or functional ability for your child. Several nutrition interventions may eradicate these uncomfortable symptoms and improve the flow of crucial nutrients to your child’s brain, muscles, bone, and organs.

–        Food allergies and sensitivities may go undetected in kids with Crohn’s disease, rheumatoid arthritis, autism, asthma, or other conditions.  Help can be had with correct screening for these, plus plug-ins of hypoallergenic formulas, special diets, or supplements to diminish inflammation.

–        Children with seizure disorders may improve with dietary measures beyond the traditional ketogenic diet.  Lessening inflammatory foods, avoiding neurotoxic trigger ingredients like glutamate, glutamine, phenols, or colorings, or treating undectected bowel infections for Candida or Clostridia are measures that have helped children in my practice with seizures.

Changing how your child eats, using a special diet, or adding targeted nutraceuticals may be a long term commitment for a person with a chronic condition or disability.  But it is a critically worthy one, if it means a child can improve beyond expectations, attend a regular school with no aide, avoid residential care or placement as an adult, have independence or have a job, and contribute to society in what ever way their unique talents and gifts allow.   I have witnessed all of these outcomes in persons with disabilities because of nutrition interventions.  This is not new, not novel, not even alternative – it’s simply engaging what we already know to be evidence-based in child nutrition. Any parent can start tapping these tools anytime, with Special Needs Kids Go Pharm-Free.

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