Experts Agree Recovery Starts With Diet
January 20, 2016
What am I talking about today?
Among the seemingly endless list of therapies and treatments that can help your child, the single most important intervention you can make is diet. Experts Agree Recovery Starts With Diet! If the thought of changing your child’s diet makes you panic, I know. I’ve been there. I felt it too. For many kids with neurodevelopmental disabilities (NDs), eating is a challenge to begin with. Just the thought of overhauling your child’s diet when it’s difficult enough to get them to eat at all is terrifying. Maybe right now all you can manage to convince your child to eat is chicken nuggets, mac and cheese or cereal. Deep down you know, as I did, that you might need to make some changes, but your exhaustion by the many other challenges throughout the day prevent you from wanting to take on yet more difficulty.
I hear you. In fact, it took me longer than I’d like to admit to make changes to my family’s diet after first learning about how nutrition could help, but I’m so glad we did. The right changes for your child (and each child is unique) will have an overwhelmingly positive impact on their overall health and can be the first big step towards recovery.
How It Relates to Your Child
There truly are too many symptoms to list that could be caused by the foods your child is eating or not eating. To give you a starting point, here are a few of the symptoms that can be caused by nutrient deficiencies, food sensitivities, and poor digestion, all commonly found in children with neurodevelopmental disorders. (This is not a complete list.)
- pale skin tone
- little bumps on the back of the arms
- dark circles under the eyes (better know as “allergic shiners”)
- stomach pain
- gas and/or bloating
- joint pain
- muscle aches
- mood swings
- temper tantrums
- insensitivity to pain
- head banging
- frequent illness (weakened immune system)
Why You Need to Know About It
There is no straight line between any one symptom and any one system in the body. This is a fundamental fact to remember along the way. It is essential to consider the whole body when observing your child’s symptoms. When you come across a ridiculously long list of varying symptoms that affect many different systems in the body and that can themselves be caused by another wide range of circumstances, it can be frustrating and complicated to narrow down where the problem originates.
So why do the experts recommend we start with diet?
- Many of our children’s symptoms are caused by nutrient deficiencies.
- Clinical experience has shown that children with neurodevelopmental disabilities have multiple nutrient deficiencies (omega-3 fatty acids, magnesium, zinc, vitamin D, A, B6, B1, folate, B12, and various amino acids, to name a few).
- Nutrient deficiencies can be the result of many different causes (various gastrointestinal problems, lack of nutrients from the diet, chronic stress, biochemical imbalances, etc.)
- A whole food/less processed diet will give your child access to more bioavailable nutrients (nutrients found in a natural state with the needed cofactors for absorption and assimilation). That means your child will be able to get the many nutrients needed to thrive.
- Food allergies, sensitivities and intolerances are very common in our children.
- Food allergies, sensitivities and intolerances have a direct correlation to the high incidence of gastrointestinal (GI) problems in our children. GI dysfunction starts a downward spiral of problems that leads to a compromised gut microbiome and gut lining (more on this in a future post). This can result in improperly digested food triggering inflammation and leaking into the bloodstream causing a variety of symptoms, both digestive and throughout the body.
- Food intolerances and sensitivities can show up as such a wide array of symptoms they are often hard to identify. When they are addressed appropriately, symptoms in many body systems are often significantly resolved.
- Certain foods in particular have been shown to trigger unwanted neurological symptoms in our children.
- Casein (one of the proteins found in dairy) and gluten (which contains the protein gliadin in wheat, barley, and rye) are converted into peptides in the intestinal tract that are able to cross the blood-brain barrier and bind to opiate receptors in the brain, creating an opioid-like effect in some individuals. This is why the cravings for foods that contain these proteins can be so strong in children with neurodevelopmental disorders such as autism. Your child’s love of macaroni and cheese is strong for a potentially dangerous reason. These proteins can give your child a euphoric feeling upon eating them, in addition to dulling emotions and creating brain fog.
- Glutamates are amino acids that have a necessary excitatory effect on neurons but in excess can result in hyperactivity and lack of focus. In children with autism, levels of glutamates in the extracellular spaces (spaces surrounding cells) have found to be high. Reducing dietary sources of glutamates (like MSG, among others) can help along with nutritional support (cofactors like B6 to help in glutamates conversion to GABA, which stops the entrance of glutamates into the cell) to balance the level of extracellular glutamate.2
- Phenols are compounds that have the ability to easily cross the blood-brain barrier due to their chemical structure. The neurotransmitter norepinephrine is a phenolic compound that is supposed to cross the blood-brain barrier. But chemical phenols found in food additives, as well as phenols called salicylates found in many plant-based foods, can also cross the blood-brain barrier, triggering symptoms. Removal of phenols and salicylates from the diet can have a profound impact on behaviour in a child who has signs of phenol intolerance or poor processing of phenols (due to low levels of the enzyme that processes these compounds, phenolsulfotranseferase [PST]). Reactions to phenols arise quickly, within 20 minutes to two hours, unlike most food intolerances and sensitivities that can show up even days after consumption, which makes them easier to identify. Some of the more common symptoms are: red cheeks and ears, hyperactivity, fatigue, impatience, poor sleep, headaches and self-injurious behaviour 3. As you can see, other than the red cheeks and ears, many of these symptoms overlap with those of other underlying causes, which makes pinpointing the intolerance confusing.
The path to changing your family’s diet will require creativity, patience and great resources. The payoff, which may take some time, makes it all worthwhile. Be diligent, take notes, and pay attention to patterns. Here are some tips to get you started.
- Start a food, mood, sleep and poop journal. Sounds like fun, doesn’t it? This is the starting point of the medical detective work necessary to gain clarity and insight about the root causes of your child’s challenges. In future posts, I will talk more about the gut-brain axis and the impact of different nutrient deficiencies, but for now, take my word for it (and the word of the many clinicians who have been working with children like ours for many years) and assess the impact of your child’s diet. It’s not about judging your parenting style—the fact that your child will only eat starchy processed foods is merely a symptom of gut dysfunction and not a statement about your ability to parent. This exercise is not about assigning blame but finding answers for your child. The more information you and your practitioners are armed with, the better choices you can make about how to help your child. I have created a handy dandy Food Journal for you to get started with. Grab it here.
- Start transitioning to a whole foods diet. What does this mean? It’s not all about what foods your child can’t eat, but also about what foods to eat to help reverse nutrient deficiencies and imbalances. Eat foods that exist as they do in nature. Fruits and vegetables, healthy meats, and gluten-free whole grains make up a whole foods diet.
- Review your journal at the end of every week. You will likely begin to see some obvious links between your child’s symptoms and what they are eating and drinking. Pay attention to the patterns.
- Take your journal and your observations to your next visit with your practitioner. Good health practitioners are often very experienced at spotting the trends and can help you narrow down possible causes of symptoms.
- When you are ready, consider starting with the casein-free/gluten-free diet or another therapeutic diet or a combination of them tailored to your child. Options include the specific carbohydrate diet (SCD), gut and psychology syndrome (GAPS) diet, body ecology diet (BED), Feingold/Fail Safe diet, low oxalate diet, etc. Look for more information on these diets in later posts.
Your child’s journey to recovery begins with nutrition. The right diet for your child can mean the difference between thriving and striving to make it through the day (for you both!). Believe me when I say that the work that goes into changing your family’s diet will pay off many fold.
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- Summary of Biomedical Treatments for Autism, Dr. James B Adams, PhD, March 2009
- Changing the Course of Autism, A Scientific Approach for Parents and Physicians, Bryan Jepson, MD with Jane Johnson, p. 252
- Nourishing Hope for Autism, ADHD, Learning and Development Delays, Julie Matthews, BS, NC