Attention, Behaviour, Food, and Environment: Helping Children Thrive
In many ways, September is the beginning of the year for families with growing children. While most parents look forward to seeing their children go back to school, some children find the transition to a more structured school environment difficult. Behaviours may become a problem: kids may act up, question homework, earlier bedtimes, and morning routines. While these are normal family challenges, they are often multiplied when kids have learning and mood problems such as ADHD, autism, anxiety, or sensory processing issues. For these families, the start of school year can bring meltdowns, moody, and/or anxious behaviours from their kids, and negative communications from teachers and school administration. It often seems to come to a head around the first parent-teacher interviews at the beginning of October.
Many of these parents end up in my office, feeling browbeaten and discouraged after these interviews. Commonly, a school counselor, family doctor or pediatrician has suggested medications. Parents, in turn, may feel pressured to accept medication without understanding how this will benefit their child in the long run, and are worried about side effects.
They also wonder if other options exist to help their child thrive in school and grow to be happy and successful adults, but feel that no one is listening.
Certainly, while our understanding of conditions such as ADHD and autism in children is better than ever, it is also true that many more children struggle with learning, social and developmental challenges than their parents’ generation. Research has suggested a number of reasons for this: overuse of antibiotics, low nutrient diets, increased toxins in our air, water and food supply, and decreased levels of exercise, particularly out of doors. Certainly, genetic vulnerabilities can play a role—many children, for example, with autism spectrum disorders have family members with other mental health conditions such as depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) or ADHD.
Still, as we are discovering, genes are not destiny. As a Naturopathic Doctor and clinical complementary medicine (CAM) researcher, I believe that you cannot look at developmental or mental health issues without considering total body health. A good majority of children with autism, for example, have problems with digesting food, and may have chronic diarrhea or constipation. Many children with ADHD have long-standing problems with ear, nasal or lung infections, and may have taken multiple courses of antibiotics. Both often have problems with allergy, asthma, or eczema.
Additionally, children born prematurely or by caesarean section, or who have undergone family stress or adoption, are at increased risk of ADHD, depression, and anxiety. While these may seem like co-incidental or unrelated issues, they are all indications of underlying imbalances in biochemistry and immunity that can affect multiple organs, including brain function.
Generally, all doctors—MD or ND–treat symptoms. That being said, to truly get at the heart of many of these conditions, we need to figure out why the mood, development or attention problems are persisting. As an example, if food is not being digested well because the immune system is on alert, the result will be poor absorption of nutrients and a functional malnutrition may occur. What researchers are telling us is that this may be the result of chronic, low lying digestive pain or could be the body’s way of increasing gut production of neurotransmitters such as serotonin. In either event, the child is looking for relief of distress by eating only ‘white’ foods—breads, pastas or sweets—and
refusing most other foods. This can set up its own vicious circle where meal times become battlegrounds, and the child misses out on a balanced, nutritious diet they need for brain health. What we see are kids who are unhappy— frequently hyperactive, angry, sad, or fearful.
To change these patterns, proper assessment is essential. Naturopathic Doctors are trained to consider how many different factors may affect a child’s functioning at home, at school and at play. As mentioned, good digestion and immunity are key to this process, and are linked through the promotion of good microbial (think probiotics) and cellular barriers that keeping out harmful bacteria and viruses, while allowing digestion of needed macro- and micronutrients. Restoration of immune defenses using the right supplemented probiotics and botanical medicines are also helpful, as are the identification of foods that may be triggering sensitivities or allergies.
When digestive issues are addressed and the immune system restored to balance, then nutrient and other balancing therapies will become more effective, decreasing the need for prescription medications to treat symptoms. All of this is not to say that symptom management doesn’t matter, but that treatment of mood, behaviour or developmental problems should be part of a whole body approach that uses the body to balance and mend the brain, creating happier, healthier children inside and out.
Dr. Marianne Trevorrow, ND
OWC Airdrie Active and Strathmore
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