Is Poor Digestion Sabotaging Diet Efforts With Your Child
What Am I Talking About Today?
Is Poor Digestion Sabotaging Diet Efforts With Your Child? Have you taken a lot of time and energy to make sure your child is eating a diet that supports their recovery goals yet it seems like you aren’t making the kind of gains you would like? Well, you know that saying, “You are what you eat.”? It should really be, “You are what you digest.” Children with neurodevelopmental disorders are known to have a high rate of digestive disorders/disturbances, so you need to know a bit about how the digestive system works to determine if this should be an area of focus for you and your child. Addressing digestive disorders can impact way beyond just what nutrients are being absorbed. Researchers are finding out more and more information everyday about the gut/brain axis, or how the function/dysfunction of the gut impacts the brain and vice versa.
How It Relates to Your Child
In some children, symptoms of digestive dysfunction are very obvious (diarrhea, constipation, bloating, belly pain), but there are many other digestive signs and symptoms you may not be aware of because, let’s face it, we didn’t all grow up learning and talking about these things. In fact, digestion is usually thought of as a taboo subject. You can forget about the taboo—it’s time to talk poop. Let’s start with a list of signs and symptoms of digestive dysfunction:
- constipation (unless your child has 1–3 bowel movements daily, normally right after a meal, your child is constipated)
- undigested food in the stool
- light coloured stool that floats
- stools that aren’t properly formed (should look like #4 of the Bristol Stool Chart)
- belly pain (kids usually point to their belly button when they are asked where the pain is)
- posturing (leaning over a table or couch to put pressure on the belly to relieve the pain, often seen in nonverbal children)
- colic (in the first year of life)
- vomiting or reflux in the first year of life
- heartburn/reflux in second year and beyond
- fussy eating habits/picky eating (will only eat a handful of foods)
- craving for sugary and/or starchy foods (cereal, bananas, breads, cookies)
- nausea after eating a meal with more fat
- dislike or lack of interest in proteins (meat)
- dry skin
- muscle cramps
- and more…
Why You Need to Know About It
Every cell that makes up every tissue that makes up every organ in your child’s body depends on their digestive system to provide the nutrients they need to keep functioning.
If your child’s digestion is not working optimally then not only will they be missing out on much needed nutrients but it can also have a significant impact on detoxification (because the digestive tract is a major detox pathway) and immune function (because up to 80% of the immune system is located in the gut—it’s called gut-associated lymphoid tissue).
Digestion is a “north to south” process that, believe it or not, starts in the brain. In order to trigger the digestive cascade and properly digest food the body must be in “rest and digest” mode, also called the parasympathetic state of the autonomic nervous system. Unfortunately, our children are often continuously in a sympathetic “flight or fight” mode. This is where things start to go astray.
It is kind of like the old song that goes, “The knee bone’s connected to the leg bone. The leg bone’s connected to the ankle bone . . .”
Is Poor Digestion Sabotaging Diet Efforts With Your Child?
Here is a very condensed version of how digestion is supposed to work.
As I mentioned, the brain begins the process of digestion. Once food is in sight, the brain triggers the salivary glands in the mouth to produce enzymes that start the digestion of carbohydrates. Once food is chewed properly and swallowed, the stomach produces gastric juices, including hydrochloric acid (HCl) in addition to the enzyme pepsinogen and intrinsic factor which help to digest proteins and cleave minerals in conjunction with the mechanical breakdown that occurs with stomach “churning.” This activity (in particular the drop in pH/increase in acidity in the stomach due to sufficient HCl) triggers the opening of the pyloric sphincter (the valve at the bottom of the stomach) releasing partially digested food into the upper part of the small intestine (duodenum).
This release of food (now called chyme) into the intestine at the appropriate pH level (1.5–3.0) triggers the release of mucous to protect the lining of the small intestine and the release of the hormones secretin and cholecystokinin (CCK) into the bloodstream. Secretin signals the pancreas to release two substances into the small intestine: bicarbonate of soda (to reduce the acidity of the food/chyme) and pancreatic juices which contain digestive enzymes. CCK signals the gallbladder to release bile into the small intestine (which is necessary for the breakdown of fats so they can be absorbed).
By the time the food/chyme leaves the upper part of the small intestine it is almost entirely digested. Carbohydrates have been broken down into glucose molecules, proteins have been broken down into amino acids and polypeptides (small protein chains), and fats have been broken down into fatty acids and glycerol molecules. Peristalsis or contraction of the digestive tract (which, in the small intestine, is triggered by the release of bile from the gallbladder) moves these absorbable molecules into the lower part of the small intestine (jejunum and ileum). There, millions of villi and microvilli (microscopic finger-like projections) along the surface of the small intestine absorb nutrient molecules into the bloodstream.
Leftover chyme (indigestible fibres, bile, water and sloughed off cells) then moves into the large intestine through the ileocecal valve. The large intestine’s job is to recycle the water and waste material to nourish the colon cells and capture any nutrients still available with the help of the bowel flora, or microbiome, which produces vitamins K, B1, B2, B12 and butyric acid (a short-chain fatty acid). Finally, the nutrient extraction and generation process is complete and the leftover waste/feces is expelled.
Whew! Talk about a journey. Are you overwhelmed yet? It may seem like a lot to take in, but it’s important to understand how digestion works because any roadblock in the digestive process creates a domino effect leading to a number of areas of dysfunction and potential problems that can show up as various symptoms ultimately affecting just about any system in the body. Digestion is the foundation for good health. Likewise, poor digestion is the foundation for poor health.
Stay tuned for the 28 Day Digestion Challenge, where I give you the low down on what to do step by step. In the meantime, once again it is our job as parents to do the detective work—observe and document. If you are already implementing these practices then you are ahead of the game and will soon be able to help discover the foundational issues that need to be addressed on your child’s path to recovery.
- Start a food, mood, sleep and poop journal. Oh joy! 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. I really can’t stress enough how observing and documenting these areas can help you discover many opportunities for healing. 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.
- When using the journal be sure to document the quality of the poop. This can be done by referring to the Bristol Stool Chart. (Trust me, the right practitioner will thank you for it.)
- Observe and document your child’s autonomic nervous system state. Do you think s/he is in a parasympathetic “rest and digest” state or sympathetic “fight or flight” state when you sit down to each meal.
- Review your journal at the end of every week. You will likely begin to see some obvious links between your child’s symptoms (digestive and otherwise). 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.
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