I have never met a child with sensory processing disorder, autism, Asperger’s, ADHD, or other learning, behavior, or mood disorders who did not have nutrition problems. Up to 80 percent of children with autism, for example, have active bowel symptoms, gut inflammation, and even malnutrition. When a child can’t eat and absorb nutrients normally, she can’t sleep, grow, explore, learn, or develop typically either. All children benefit from good nutrition, but when children with special needs are given careful nutrition support, the changes in their behavior, mood, learning, sleeping, and development can be truly dramatic. It’s easy to assume that a child’s lassitude, lethargy, disengaged demeanor, tantrums, rigidity, or blank countenance is entirely due to his special needs diagnosis—until you see all of these shift with good nutrition interventions. Watching a child’s demeanor and ability to change when he is fully nourished is always an eye-opener.
Using nutrition therapy for a child with special needs can be complicated. Parents need support, guidance, expertise, resources, and encouragement for it, while providers need information they can work with to help you. It is a potent therapeutic approach that can work very well, or not work at all. This article explores one important nutrition tool you will want in your parenting and caregiver toolbox—balancing intestinal bacteria, or gut flora, for short.
Signs that Your Child’s Bowel Flora Need Balancing
Bowel flora are the microbes we need in the GI tract to help digest and absorb food, and to fend off invasive pathogens (viruses, microbial parasites, or detrimental bacteria). Good bowel flora—the helpful bacteria for your gut—keep the lining of the GI tract healthy and keep bowel habits normal. Newborns especially rely on the right bowel bacteria to help them digest first feedings and develop normal immune function.
The clinical signs for imbalanced bowel flora are too numerous to name here. But here are some common red flags:
- · Abnormal bowel habits, such as frequent diarrhea; constipation; poorly digested food in stool on a regular basis; frequent unusual stool color or odor; or onset of urine or stool incontinence in previously potty-trained children.
- · Extreme behavior, such as tantrums or extreme irritability; sensory irritability, especially for noise; or silliness or hyperactivity following a starchy meal.
- · Physical symptoms such as ringworm rash; intermittent diffuse rashes of unknown origin; acne; history of oral thrush; persisting diaper rash; or bloated belly.
If you suspect your child’s gut flora is out of balance, ask your pediatrician to prescribe lab tests. Providers use stool culture, urine microbial organic acids, and breath tests to identify and diagnose flora problems.
Optimizing Bowel Flora
Once you know the precise bowel flora status of your special needs child, start treatment post-haste. Bear in mind that many pediatricians are just catching up to the possibility that treating children with autism and other special needs with nutrition therapy can be quite effective in improving the lives of these children and their families. If your pediatrician does not want to help your child with this part of the puzzle, find a pediatrician who specializes in nutrition who will work with you.
The first tool is probiotics. As discussed earlier, young infants need and can use probiotics. There are preparations just for them. Bifido bacteria with a little Lactobacillus is a good blend for babies up to a year old. It has a mildly sweet taste not too different from cotton candy. Toddlers can shift to blends that emphasize Lactobacillus and other strains. Older children who have gut dysbiosis need higher potencies of probiotic, starting in the range of 8-10 billion "colony forming units" (CFUs) per dose, perhaps twice a day. Chewable probiotic tablets and eating yogurt daily may not deliver the effective doses of probiotic needed to kill off or crowd out unwanted microbes. Besides, many special needs children have casein intolerance and therefore cannot eat yogurt made with dairy products, so appropriate supplementation becomes more important.
The second tool is antifungals. There are prescription medications for fungal (yeast) infections and intestinal candidiasis, as well as many naturopathic agents. Your doctor can prescribe medications such as Nystatin or Diflucan to treat fungal infections. As with antibiotics, it is important to finish these prescriptions completely. Rotation with antifungal herbs or supplements can also help keep yeast from returning. These include calendula, oregano oil, goldenseal, uva ursi (use only 4-7 days at a time), garlic, tea tree, black walnut, pau d’arco, monolaurin, cranberry extract, grapefruit seed extract, olive leaf extract, and caprylic acid. Finally, companies such as Herbs For Kids, WishGarden, and HerbPharm make preparations that can treat candidiasis.
How to Tell if Bowel Flora is Repaired
If your child’s symptoms have cleared up, there’s a good chance the treatments were successful. You may notice significant changes in your child’s eating, sleeping, eliminating, playing, learning, and behavior. If you are enjoying a stretch of calm in this regard, pat yourself on the back for having taken targeted action. But don’t stop there.
Correcting bowel flora is only one of several important steps in an overall nutrition care plan for your special needs child. Nevertheless, it is an important and critical one for helping a child who has learning, behavior, or developmental challenges be happier and healthier.
Judy Converse, MPH, RD, LD, is a licensed, registered dietitian specializing in pediatric nutrition for learning and developmentally disabled children. Her new book is Special-Needs Kids Eat Right: Strategies to Help Kids on the Autism Spectrum Focus, Learn, and Thrive (Perigee, 2009).
More information for parents of special needs kids is at her website, www.NutritionCare.net.
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- Importance of Balancing Gut Flora in a Special Needs Child - March 25, 2009