I'm on a mission. 1 in 8 of our kids under 8 is being diagnosed with some kind of behavioral disorder. And 1 in 8 of our 65+ elders are being diagnosed with a neurodegenerative disorder (Alzheimer's, dementia, Parkinson's, etc).
I hope you find this as alarming as I do. Both conventional & complementary medicine are failing to comprehensively address this. It's time for us all to take charge of growing healthy brains & keeping them healthy. It takes a village….
(In my last post I introduced Frankie - one of the 5 children I saw last month who was diagnosed with a behavioral disorder.
Click Here for Part I of this post).
Laying the Foundation for a Healthy Brain
What to do
I always begin with the gut. This is why: Your entire digestive system, from esophagus to rectum, is lined with cells which make up your Enteric Nervous System, sometimes called “the second brain”. This system of cells communicates deeply with your brain as it regulates your digestion. Imbalances in your digestion cause the enteric nervous system to signal distress to your Central Nervous System, causing mood changes and other problems.
I think of the gut as the critical soil of the body. In the same way that a garden requires nutrient rich soil for healthy growth - a healthy gut biome is essential for providing sustenance & the assimilation of nutrients for the development of every single organ system in the body. It plays a vital role in appropriate communication with & messaging to the central nervous system (brain). It ensures a robust immune system.
Any child who’s been on antibiotics, in utero, during labor or in early childhood, has some degree of gut dysbiosis and/or impairment – which in a garden amounts to nutrient poor or deficient soil. Treatment here begins with repairing the damage & replenishing the terrain.
I also make sure we are covering the key needs of a growing nervous system. Nourishment, oxygen, good circulation.
What to Eat
When I think about food, I consider rich sources of minerals & vitamins. A wide range of whole foods fit the bill. Vegetables are a must. All vegetables are helpful, particularly greens (except nightshades – tomato, potato, pepper). Even adding a chlorella or greens drink can be very helpful here. With picky eaters, see if you can find ways to make eating vegetables a game. Perhaps kids get to pick what greens they’ll have for dinner at the market. Sometimes growing your own greens and getting your kids to join in on harvesting them can make the key difference. Most kids like to get their hands dirty & they’ll be proud of what they’ve grown.
The brain is actually 70% fat so I recommend high fat foods; coconut oil, avocado, olive oil, ghee, organic butter. Wild (not farmed) fish like salmon is ideal brain food – providing a high content of essential fatty acids & omega 3’s. Protein helps to stabilize blood sugar & mood – choose organic free range options such as chicken, red meat, eggs. Gluten free grains like brown rice, quinoa, millet and teff stabilize blood sugar and are also full of B vitamins which calm the brain. Soaked nuts of all kinds (soaking nuts for a few hours or overnight neutralizes some enzymes which interfere with digestion). Beans, lentils and other legumes are great if tolerated, as they have high fiber content. I coach parents on leaning towards easily assimilable foods (stews, soups, roasted vegetables) and away from too much cold & raw (dairy, salads, fruit). Much much more could be said about diet, and in the office I am usually customizing an appropriate diet for the individual that I am seeing – this is just an overview.
What (not) to Eat
Here are the usual suspects: gluten, dairy, sugar. Sugar acts as a drug in little developing nervous systems & feeds unhealthy internal bacterial and fungal populations. There are some outliers to look for: soy, corn, nightshades & food additives. Avoid these. If the culprits are not obvious, we do a diet diary together so I can get a sense of a child’s food preferences. It’s true that we often crave what’s not good for us. In the case of Frankie - he couldn’t get enough of potatoes & potato chips. Guess what we eliminated for three weeks!
What to use (keep in mind this is just the foundation)
1) Some form of probiotic with prebiotics. The kind of probiotic actually matters & depends on the symptoms. Some are more helpful with fat absorption. Others can be used when there is yeast overgrowth. Since prebiotics are sweet, it shouldn’t be difficult to convince finicky eaters to take them.
2) Intestinal Repair Complex; a combination herb/mineral formula in powder form that has practically no taste and can be hidden in anything. This supplement is usually taken on a short term basis.
3) A combination of Omega 3,6,9’s. Sometimes this will be in the form of Krill Oil or Evening Primrose Oil or Borage Oil. I generally choose liquid Borage oil for kids with eczema.
4) A customized herbal tincture or set of herbal formulas. This is patient specific & highly necessary in my practice for both kids & adults. We are often addressing heavy metal or other environmental toxicity - this can actually come through the breast milk!
5) Specific micronutrient supplementation like zinc - some kids require a little extra for a short while, I pay attention to what the history & the symptoms are telling me and prescribe accordingly.
What to Keep in Mind
The pace of the modern world often has us wanting quick fixes, disconnecting us even more from our natural rhythms and well-being. I encourage parents to pay attention here: how much time is spent in the car? On a screen? Rushing from one place to the next?
Cell phones and wi-fi have become an insidious distraction for all of us. Take the time to put the phone aside and go for a walk with your child or your elder. The brain needs oxygen & circulation. Consider this a necessary aspect of any brain health plan, whether for you or someone else in the family.
Your physical digestion directly reflects your ability to “digest” and process the input from the world around you. When your digestive system is compromised, you’re pushed more easily into “fight or flight” mode, making it more difficult to process stimuli, make good decisions, and control your impulses. But when your body can nourish itself properly, everything feels easier.
Even if you happen to be a rambunctious 3 year-old--or the mother of one.
*Quick Follow-up on Frankie:
(Click here for the rest of his story) Frankie’s mom has already seen improvement in the 3 weeks since they came in. More energy. Less irritability. He's able to sit down & listen to a full children’s story. He’s getting along with other children & seems to be less shy. The rash on his arms and face is almost all clear. His cheeks are rosier. In the meantime, I’m working on mom so that she doesn’t have to suffer through feelings of overwhelm and frequent insomnia. Supporting her health should be considered an integral part of her son’s wellness plan – especially considering she still occasionally nurses him. Stress hormones do get transmitted through the breast milk & are likely affecting Frankie. But even if she weren’t breast feeding, our children’s nervous systems are dependent upon input from a primary caregiver – and it’s best if that input is steady, nurturing, loving & stable.
“No man (or woman) is an island, entire to him(her) self.”
~ John Donne
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