Kids Health- A Functional Nutrition Approach
Children today are often struggling with health challenges at a rate never seen before, often caused or amplified by 3 things: Poor nutrition, Toxicity and Gut Imbalances.
I used to post the latest statistics in my blogs and social media about the most recently calculated rates of Autism, learning disorders, asthma and eczema etc but to be honest there is now no point posting these stats because we ALL know kids who have health challenges. Sadly, they are now so common!
Why the epidemic of childhood health issues?
There are many factors that come into play that are driving the health issues our children face today. In clinic we see a lot with nutrition deficiencies that are the root cause of the child’s health issues such as children who have:
- difficulty eating or is a fussy eater?
- eczema or other skin conditions?
- asthma, food intolerances or allergies?
- concentration and learning?
- a diagnosis of ADHD, anxiety, depression, dyslexia, or autism?
- consistent gut problems such as constipation, diarrhoea, worms, parasites, indigestion or malabsorption?
In clinic we see hundreds children with issues like these, and they are usually affected by a nutrition deficiency or toxicity. Once treated, the behaviour, health issue or discomfort is resolved.
Here are some of the most common nutrition deficiencies and toxicities that we see in children as functional medicine practitioners and nutritionists:
Mineral, vitamin, protein (amino acids) and fatty acid deficiencies are rampant in kids and result in the common symptoms we see today.
Some of the more common nutrient deficiencies in children are:
Zinc is essential to all brain, gut, immune and skin functions.
The vast majority of kids today are deficient in zinc. In Australia and NZ this has become an epidemic because the soils are highly deficient in zinc and there has been a move away from eating zinc rich foods, the main one being red meat!
Without zinc our skin and immune systems don’t function. So what do we see?? Eczema, skin infections, persistent ear infections requiring multiple rounds of antibiotics, adenoids and tonsils removed (usually with little improvement) and every other childhood condition.
There is mounting evidence in top academic literature that zinc is essential to prevent dyslexia and other learning challenges. We also know that zinc is very important for gut integrity and many of the issues we see in children today have to do with poor gut function (more in next section).
There are also common genetic/inherited issues with zinc retention such as Pyroluria which we see in clinic very often.
It is my strong belief based on clinical experience that 99% of kids today are deficient in magnesium as this very important mineral is mostly taken in through leafy greens, nuts and seeds and other vegetables, and most kids are not eating any of these (or not enough).
Without magnesium we can’t regulate our blood sugar (so you will have a restless child who can’t sit still- sound familiar to anybody?), we can’t have good sleep (kids will find it hard to wind down, can have nightmares and night terrors) and we are likely to have muscle cramps and mental and physical tension.
Omega 3 fatty acids
There are very few kids we see in clinic who eat fish or seafood in any amount (very few adults also!). Humans have evolved to intake these ESSENTIAL omega 3 fatty acids from seafood in order for our brains to work properly. Without essential omega 3 fatty acids we have a heightened level of inflammation (see next section), the brain doesn’t have it’s fuel and we are prone to pro-inflammatory conditions such as asthma and allergies.
- Impairments in learning and attention span. Attention deficits, anxiety, restlessness, poor concentration or poor memory can all develop.
- Mood-related changes, such as irritability, symptoms of depression and anxiety, or mood swings.
- Changes in the appearance of skin, hair and nails. Skin may become inflamed, dry, flaky, sensitive or red. Brittle and thin hair and breaking/weak nails.
Sadly our kids diets today are abundant in health destroying pro-inflammatory fats (of omega 6 family) from rancid vegetable oils in packaged foods and processed takeaway foods. These foods are cooked in toxic vegetable oils such as canola, linseed, soy and sunflower seed at high temperatures or baked goods with toxic palm oil and preservatives.
When we consume too many omega 6 fats and non enough omega 3 fats we are putting the body in a chronic pro-inflammatory state.
We regularly use functional medicine tests such as: Blood tests, Hair Mineral Analysis, GI Map gut testing, Organic Acids testing and Methylation/genetics testing in order to identify nutrient deficiencies and optimise your child’s health.
Heavy metal and environmental toxicity
The presence of heavy metals in the environment since the industrial age has been unprecedented in human history and there are a number of ways that children are being subjected to heavy metal toxicity.
Primarily this happens through the gestation period and the baby picks up whatever metals the mother AND the father has accumulated in their lifetime. Actually even the grandparents’ load of metals is often passed on intergenerationally, we know this because when we do Hair mineral analysis testing on grandparents, parents and children the patterns are all there.
Our water and food supply contain trace amounts of heavy metals such as arsenic, cadmium, mercury, lead and others and over a lifetime this becomes quite a load. Mercury from metal dental fillings has been a major source of toxicity for many generations. Lead from old paint is still a problem when renovating. There are numerous other sources.
Why do we care about heavy metal toxicity in children?
One of the biggest ways heavy metals impact us is through the nervous system. They actually can destroy neurons (watch THIS video of neuronal death by mercury), they stop energy production (blocking ATP) and slow the mitochondria (the main energy production parts of the cell), as well as create a burden on the methylation pathways (read more here) making it very difficult for little bodies to detoxify.
From my clinical practice, I can tell you that ALL children are impacted by this issue to some extent today. The ones who develop conditions listed above happen to have genetics that are not favourable to heavy metal detox and gut conditions that allow entry of metals into the body (via leaky gut).
Toxicity is a major issue for our children who do not have the detoxification capacity in the liver and kidneys to deal with the inappropriate amounts of pollutants they inherit from their parents in utero and absorb from the environment. ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder) kids are usually more affected because their genetics are against them in regards to liver detox genes and genes that make glutathione, the body’s master antioxidant.
We use several tests in clinic to identify heavy metal toxicity, the key one being Hair Mineral Analysis which is a very non-invasive and cost effective test every child should have.
We also often use the Organic Acids Test to understand how the mitochondria of your child has been affected, which nutrients they are deficient in and how their gut is functioning. This is a urine test that is very easy to administer/collect.
Whilst allergic reactions to such foods are often obvious and get diagnosed quickly, food intolerances are not as easy to diagnose and are often missed. Food intolerances are responsible for vague symptoms like headaches, behaviour changes such as anxiety/depression, digestive symptoms like IBS (irritable bowel syndrome), aches and pains (including arthritis type symptoms), reflux and indigestion, inability to lose weight and many others seemingly unrelated symptoms.
Testing for food intolerances is important as eliminating foods that your body is producing antibodies to can significantly improve symptoms of numerous health conditions. Testing will help determine whether food reactions are contributing to physical or mental symptoms. It’s also a scientific and reliable way to determine reactions that are difficult to single out even with restrictive elimination diets. Often the foods that come back with high levels of antibodies are foods that the person has been eating for many years without any obvious symptoms. Slowly, these foods are undermining health.
In clinic, we utilise diverse food sensitivity and intolerance tests depending on the presenting issue of your child.
Gut Imbalance (Dysbiosis)
We all have an imbalanced gut microbiota, as simple as that. Unless you have been living on an organic farm, never had a single course of antibiotics, eat off the land and deal with animals every day, never been exposed to polluted air or water – then chances are you have dysbiosis.
The ‘Human Gut Project’ has demonstrated that traditional people (the Hadza in Africa in this case) have a diversity of microbiota unmatched in the Western world. How do they do this? They eat a lot of fibre and live off the land, inhaling microbes and touching microbes all day long.
This is a far cry from Westernised city living where we are clean and sanitised every day and many kids never play outside. The generation of parents today was raised on anti-bacterial toothpaste and spray cleaners that kill 99.9% of germs, with numerous C-section births, little breastfeeding and multiple courses of antibiotics for childhood ear infections and tonsillitis. It is no surprise that our kids have compromised immune systems.
A gut environment dominated by pathogenic species of bacteria (as I routinely see on most stool analysis tests) predisposes us to weight gain, inflammation and poor immune function.
Most children with ASD as well as eczema, asthma, sensory processing issues, fussy eating, etc all have dysregulated gut flora. It is a critical component of health that every person needs to address.
In clinic, we use GI Map Gut Testing to get a detailed understanding of your child’s gut function, leaky gut (permeability), microbe populations, parasites/worms and so much more.
Acute inflammation is when the body throws its defences against an invader and is usually obvious to us: pain, swelling, heat, redness are all signs of inflammation.
What happens these days however is chronic inflammation, the kind we can’t really see but is below the radar and which results in harmful effects to us. This chronic inflammation tips our immune system into ‘overdrive’ and we lose tolerance to ‘self’.
Autoimmune disease develops. The inflammation doesn’t go away but continues year after year as the body tries to get rid of an infection or a food (like gluten or dairy) but it just can’t. It keeps attacking it’s own tissue: in coeliac disease this is the intestine, in MS it is the myelin tissue in the brain and spine, in Autism it is the brain cells.
It has been a very recent discovery that the brain has an immune system (Louveau, Nature, 2015)*. This makes sense of course, because the brain is not separate from the body and if the whole body has an immune system, the brain must too, however this WAS a major discovery with major implications. A brain can be inflamed, and that is exactly what happens in ASD, depression, anxiety and arguably many other neurological disorders.
There are many markers of inflammation we can identify on blood tests, GI map tests and Organic acids tests and design protocols to address these.
Simple things you can do to improve your child’s health
- How? Through diet! Go back to basics. Whole foods, no processed junk, lots of plants, some animals and good old bone broths. A diet rich in vegetables and fruit is alkalising- it is very difficult for disease to take hold in an alkaline state. Eat lots of herbs and spices- they are all highly anti-inflammatory. Eat small oily wild fish- omega 3 fats are highly anti-inflammatory. Eat only grass fed meat which contains more omega 3 fats.
- Nothing creates more inflammation in our body than sugar. Overheating and processing as well as adding sugar to supermarket foods creates ‘AGEs’ (Advance glycation end products)***, aka: oxidised gunk. Sugar oxidises fats and makes them rancid in the body. Keeping sugar to extremely low levels is the goal.
Keep your gut happy:
- It all starts with the parents: nourish yourself with real food, avoid C-section births, breastfeed the baby. Buy a fluffy pet (shown to improve immune system), let the child play with dirt and save antibiotics for extreme infections. All these strategies will improve the gut microbiome for generations.
- Eliminate gluten from the diet. Dr Alessio Fasano has found a molecule called zonulin that opens the tight junctions in our small intestine (the ‘gates’) and allows undigested food proteins into the blood stream, triggering immune response and inflammation. This process occurs in EVERY person. Some people’s immune systems are more reactive, but gluten is best avoided or kept to an absolute minimum. Children with ASD are particularly sensitive to gluten’s toxic effects (read my article on gluteomorpins here).
- Eat fermented foods and take probiotics. The best way to know which ones is to an actual gut analysis for your particular gut- I do these stool tests regularly in clinic. Instead of buying a generic probiotic, this is a much more specific and individualised approach.
- Make bone broths and eat them daily! A great way to nourish your gut cells and restore damaged gut lining
There’s a lot in our air and water that we can just do nothing about. There are two parts to successful detoxification:
- Reduce your load: cut out large fish that contains mercury, filter your water (I use reverse osmosis), throw out all personal and home products that are not organic. Yes, that includes shampoos, toothpastes, moisturisers, make- up, soap, detergent, the lot. Read more about toxic products – do not let your family become a human experiment.
- Optimise your body’s detox capacity: your liver and your kidneys do most of the work. Drink plenty of clean water, sweat a lot and exercise daily. Ensure that great detox foods are part of your diet, for example: coriander, turmeric, parsley, spirulina, garlic. There are many more.
Our clinical treatment strategies are individually designed to allow your child to detoxify heavy metals (and other toxins) in order to restore brain function, methylation pathways and most other body processes.
Clinical Nutritionist Toni Chambers is a specialist in kids nutrition and functional medicine. She is highly experienced in addressing all the above conditions and has helped many kids to much better health.