Top Nutrient Deficiencies Found in Our Children—What You Need to Know
July 14, 2016
More and more, we are seeing children with nutritional deficiencies, a phenomenon that studies show is even more apparent in children with neurodevelopmental disorders like autism and ADHD. Today we will explore what you need to know about the top nutrient deficiencies found in our children, including: what the research has shown to be the most common deficiencies, how the deficiencies contribute to their symptoms, why these deficiencies exist, how you can find out if your child is deficient and what you can do to correct the vitamin, mineral, fatty acid, amino acid and mineral deficiencies in your child. The good news is, nutritional deficiencies that are impacting your child’s ability to thrive can be corrected.
Common Nutrient Deficiencies and Their Impact
Studies have shown that our children commonly have multiple nutrient deficiencies that contribute to their symptoms and impede their ability to recover. It would take an entire book to discuss all the possible deficiencies, their interrelationships with other nutrients, and the combined impact at a cellular level, which causes dysfunction in many systems in the body.
Various studies have identified the most common deficiencies found in our children, including B vitamins (B1, B3, B5, B6, B12, biotin, and folate), vitamin C, fat soluble vitamins (A, D, E and K), minerals such as magnesium, zinc, and selenium, and fatty acids (DHA, LA, and ALA). The following are a few examples of common deficiencies and how they can impact your child.
Vitamin B6 (pyridoxine and pyridoxal-5-phosphate/P5P)
Vitamin B6(pyridoxine and pyridoxal-5-phosphate/P5P) plays an active role in over 100 enzyme reactions, mostly concerned with protein metabolism. Pyridoxine is the inactive form of B6 and pyridoxal-5-phosphate (P5P) is the active form.
Why is B6 important?
P5P is required in a wide variety of metabolic functions in the body, especially in amino acid metabolism and in the central nervous system, where it supports the production of the neurotransmitter GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid). P5P is also required for the metabolism of the neurotransmitters norepinephrine and acetylcholine and is the regulator of histamine, a chemical released during an allergic response. P5P is also required in sulfur metabolism and helps to recycle methyl groups, both critical components of the body’s ability to detoxify pesticides, additives, heavy metals and other toxins 1.
One study by researchers at Arizona State University found high levels of B6 (the inactive form, pyridoxine) in children with autism along with low levels of the cofactor vitamin C, which inhibits the ability to convert pyridoxine into the active form of B6, P5P, causing a functional deficiency.2 3
What are the sources of B6?
Although B6 is widely available in foods, it is not found in high levels in most foods and is further reduced upon cooking and processing. The best food sources of B6 are meats (organ meats in particular), fish, poultry, whole grains (unprocessed) and spinach. Click here for a full list.
The alternative to food sources of B6 is supplementation, ideally of the active form, pyridoxal-5-phosphate or P5P. Supplementing with P5P will eliminate the concern that other cofactors are not present to convert pyridoxine to P5P, or the inactive to active form.
Taurine is an amino acid that plays an important role in brain metabolism. Taurine has been shown to be the most depleted amino acid when testing the urinary output of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) males.4
Why is taurine important?
Taurine has several functions, including a role as an inhibitory neurotransmitter, which has been found to be a factor in controlling epilepsy, a condition often co-occurring in children with neurodevelopmental disorders.
Taurine also functions in electrically active tissues in the brain and heart by stabilizing cell membranes. Taurine helps to preserve excess sulphur in the body so it can be used later in sulphur metabolism—again, a necessary part of detoxification—which is often impaired in children with neurodevelopmental disorders. Taurine aids gallbladder function, which helps control fat digestion and improves fatty acid status (see fatty acid deficiency below), among other benefits.
What are the sources of taurine?
The main food sources of taurine are meats and fish (especially shellfish).
Taurine is produced by the body from the amino acid cysteine in the presence of P5P (active B6), which as you know from discussion above, our children are deficient in P5P. This process of making cysteine is complex and requires multiple enzymatic steps and cofactors (other vitamins in addition to P5P and amino acids), including the methylation process, which is often impaired in children with neurodevelopmental disorders. For these reasons, our children are at higher risk of having a taurine deficiency, which makes diet and supplementation key.
Both research and symptomatology indicate our children are deficient in fatty acids.
Why are fatty acids important?
At the most basic of levels, fatty acids (fats) are a source of energy. They also play many roles in our bodies:
- They are an important part of cell membranes
- They are necessary for healthy liver function
- They are required for the absorption of fat soluble vitamins
- They are required for the adequate use of proteins in the body
- They are imperative to managing the inflammatory process
From this list you can quickly see how fatty acid deficiency can cause a downward spiral in our children’s health.
A study from the University of California Davis showed children with ASD have low levels of the fatty acid DHA in certain phospholipids of the nervous system, called phosphatidylethanolamines. Phosphatidylethanolamines make up 45% of the phospholipids in the nervous tissue, including the white matter of brain, nerves, neural tissue, and spinal cord.5 Not only is this a cause for concern, as deficiency directly impacts cell structure of the brain and nervous system, but it also impacts cell membrane permeability and the ability of necessary nutrients to move into the cells and metabolic waste to move out of the cells.
Another study from the National Research Center in Egypt showed that children with ASD have multiple essential fatty acid (EFA) deficiencies, which resolved along with some ASD symptoms when fish oil supplementation was employed.6
What are the sources of fatty acids?
Fatty acids are broken down into two groups:
- Essential fatty acids (EFAs) are fatty acids required by the body but that cannot be created by the body, so they must be ingested through food sources. Essential fatty acids include omega-6 linoleic acid (LA) and omega-3 alpha-linolenic acid (ALA).
- Fats that are conditionally essential are those that can be generated by the body from other fats if all the cofactors (such as digestion, enzymes and required nutrients) are present. These conditionally essential fats include omega-6 fatty acids gamma-linolenic acid (GLA) and arachidonic acid (AA), and omega-3 fatty acids eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).
Ideally, these fats are obtained through a whole food diet of pasture raised/grass fed meats, free range eggs and cold water fatty fish. Sometimes parents feel, in particular when it comes to DHA and EPA, that supplementation with fish oil is necessary to get sufficient amounts. A quality source of cod liver oil is a good choice as it also a good source of fat soluble vitamin A and vitamin D, which are also commonly found to be deficient in our children.
I could write a book on all the implications nutrient deficiencies have on the health of our children, but at least now you understand the basics of how just three nutrients can impact your child’s health. Now let’s focus on why our children are deficient and how to correct the deficiencies.
Why Are Our Children with Neurodevelopmental Disorders Nutrient Deficient?
The nutrient deficiencies typically arise from one or a combination of three challenges our children have:
- Poor digestion. If our children are unable to properly break down the food they are eating, then the nutrients will not be readily available for absorption. For more details on the importance of digestion, check out earlier articles on how digestion works and the sabotage of poor digestion.
- Unhealthy gastrointestinal (GI) tract. Poor digestion (and other factors) leads to an unhealthy GI tract, which then is unable to absorb the necessary nutrients, leading to a deficiency.
- Inability to convert and use the nutrients at the cellular level. This occurs due to genetic mutations (known as SNPs), which impair nutrient conversions and limit the cofactors necessary for the conversions to occur.
How Do You Determine If Your Child Is Nutrient Deficient?
- Assess their diet. If your child is not consuming the nutrients, then they can’t possibly be getting enough. Here is a great website to find information on nutrient contents of food. Remember that nutrients are depleted by processing and sometimes by cooking, so keep this in mind as you evaluate your child’s diet.
- Assess their digestion. This can be done by assessing their symptoms using our digestion cheat sheet and/or through a comprehensive stool analysis.
- Have your practitioner run hair, blood or urine testing (discuss the pros and cons and cost benefits of each with your practitioner) to identify nutrient deficiencies.
How To Correct a Nutrient Deficiency
- Ensure your child's diet includes appropriate amounts of the nutrients he/she is deficient in and a balance of the other nutrients. Minimize or eliminate processed foods, and include as many whole foods in their natural state as you can.
- Correct/support digestion and gut healing by using digestive supports and a gut healing protocol that includes probiotics. See our digestion cheat sheet for ideas for your child.
- Supplement with therapeutic doses of the nutrients where necessary. It is best to get the help of a qualified practitioner, as the dosing will likely be different than the label instructs, and you must be cautious of toxicity implications with some nutrients. Ensure you are using the best quality supplements you can afford (professional grade) to be sure they have no fillers or additives that your child may be allergic or sensitive to (i.e. dyes, gluten, dairy, etc).
- Document your progress in your Food, Mood, Sleep and Poop Journal. Sometimes the changes you will see in your child will not be apparent until you review this journal.
Results You Can Expect from Nutritional Therapy
I wish I could tell you the exact results you will see by focusing on nutrient replenishment for your child. It’s not that simple. Each child’s response is different and is dependent on what nutrients they are deficient in and what other systems in their bodies are not functionally optimal.
Some parents report miraculous improvements overnight with the introduction of a particular nutrient their child was in need of, while others don’t see these overnight results and the changes happening are not noticed for a long time.
Remember that “righting the ship” can take some time. In my experience, the slow and steady approach, building up your child’s health and repairing the damage, takes time. One day you will look back and realize how far you have come and realize that your patience and persistence has paid off.
Now that you’ve learned what you need to know about top nutrient deficiencies found in our children, tell me in the comments below if you have tried nutritional therapy with your child and what results you saw. As always, feel free to contact me directly through the Contact page or come join us in the My Child Will Thrive Village Facebook group, and ask your question there.
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- Staying Healthy with Nutrition, Elson M. Haas, MD, Buck Levin, PhD, RD, Crown Publishing 2006, pg 121-122.
- J Altern Complement Med. 2004 Dec;10(6):1033-9.
- J Altern Complement Med. 2006 Jan-Feb;12(1):59-63.
- Med Hypotheses. 2011 Dec;77(6):1015-21. doi: 10.1016/j.mehy.2011.08.038. Epub 2011 Sep 16.
- Prostaglandins Leukot Essent Fatty Acids. 2009 Apr;80(4):221-7. doi: 10.1016/j.plefa.2009.01.007.
- Clin Biochem. 2008 Sep;41(13):1044-8. doi: 10.1016/j.clinbiochem.2008.05.013. Epub 2008 Jun 12.