The Brain-Gut Connection: Better Health for You and Your Child

Written by: Lauryn Lax

 

Matthew was a happy go lucky kid.

At 7-years-old, he loved Legos, Hot Wheels, and video games, just like everyone else. He was social, active in sports, and enjoyed spending time with his family.

On the outside, Matthew was a typical 7-year-old boy.

The only thing different?

Matthew could not sit still. Could not concentrate. Struggled significantly with keeping his focus.

In the classroom, his teacher modified his tests to ask half the number of questions his peers answered. His mom constantly had to remind him to stay on task—clean his room, complete his homework, focus on finishing what he started. And his soccer coach asked him to run an extra lap or two during practice—noting he had lots of energy to get out.

Based on his behaviors and difficulty with concentration and task completion, the pediatrician diagnosed Matthew with ADHD—something he said he, “Sees all the time in kids…Normal.”

And nothing that a little bit of medication or therapy couldn’t help fix—or remediate.

I first saw Matthew fairly shortly after his initial diagnosis of ADHD, and “Developmental Delay” (i.e. signs of sensory processing disorder).

The treatment?

Initially sessions with Matthew focused on helping him tap into his own higher-level thinking and problem solving skills. Additionally, we worked on helping him with his own self-coping skills—identifying his awareness to take movement breaks and concentrate on his work in short segments.

However, a few weeks in to our treatment, I consulted with his mom, and instantly realized something was missing—nutrition.

Matthew lived off cheese quesadillas, Goldfish snack crackers, orange juice, Cheerios, chicken nuggets, and Mac & Cheese. Occasionally he’d eat fresh fruits and broccoli with cheese, but that’s about as real as it got. Mom reported Matthew having frequent smelly gas, eczema as a baby and occasional illness—like ear infections or sore throats—but “nothing crazy.”

When we first talked, I mentioned the role of nutrition in therapy, as well as the link between brain health and gut health, to which mom asked, “Like sugar? We don’t keep a lot of sugar in the house.”

“Sort of,” I said. “But it goes deeper than that.” And we went on to discuss the impact of gut health and diet on our brain health and behavior.

Mom was hesitant, but open to the idea of at least considering making some dietary changes at home.

“The problem? Matthew is a really picky eater,” she said.

“That’s ok, I’ve got a kid-friendly recipe for practically every food in the book kids like, and…ultimately, YOU are the parent—his guide and teacher of his health. Consider this a parenting life lesson…”

Over the next 30 days, the family committed to trying something new.

Starting small, the family began incorporating a daily dose of pre-biotics and probiotics, threw out (and gave away) old processed foods, stopped driving through Chic-Fil-A  a few days per week, and began eating more real food:

Switching from cinnamon raisin bread to coconut-flour based muffins; processed conventional cheese to full-fat grass-fed cheese; incorporating a protein with each meal; switching juice to water; starting the day off with eggs and bacon instead of Honey Nut Cheerios; packing lunch—instead of noshing on Nachos; making homemade pizza (or ordering this frozen pizza) over Dominoes…

And over the course of 4 weeks, they witnessed Matthew’s behavior and lifestyle transform before their eyes.

Even only a couple weeks in, I noticed a distinct change in Matthew’s therapy session and his ability to attend and focus during session.

Three months later, Matthew’s teachers noted Matthew’s enhanced performance in the classroom—improved attention and focus, more legible handwriting and less reprimands to “sit still.” At home, Matthew was able to sit down and complete his homework in half the time it had taken him previously, and he still had energy for days—with more time now to play outside and do things he loved. The smelly gas? It also began to go away.

By that three-month mark as well, I reported less need for Matthew’s therapy services— decreasing our frequency to every other week, and eventually discharge.

The secret sauce?

Simple: A diet and lifestyle change.

How can nutrition and lifestyle really make a difference for your kiddo (or you)?

Read on to learn more…

 

AN EPIDEMIC?

An estimated 1 in 10 children are diagnosed with ADHD every year. That’s at least two kids in every classroom in the U.S. unable to concentrate, focus or and/or “sit still.

Another 1 in 10 kids have Eczema—a skin breakout.

One in 45 children have Autism in the U.S.

One in 6 are estimated to struggle with a sensory processing disorder or difficulties with feeding.

Today, more than 50-percent of kids have one chronic disease.

And there are millions more who have digestive problems—colic, bloating, gas, diarrhea, constipation, and malnourishment.

Doctors often explain these symptoms as a result of….

Genetics.

Others say, “they were just born this way.”

And still others…don’t always have an answer or explanation (and are not inclined to investigate them further).

An often overlooked and under addressed trigger to poor health or disease—including brain health?

The gut.

As an occupational therapist, nutritionist, and functional medicine practitioner, I see the impacts that an unhealthy gut can have on the body (and mind), and can no longer stay quiet about it.

By simply addressing a symptom, such as behavior, in a therapy session, or a symptom such as skin breakouts with an eczema cream—without addressing the roots of the behavior, or the eczema, or autism, or ADD/ADHD…every medicine, therapy or band-aid in the world is not going to stick.

We must address the gut.

THE GUT: A GATEWAY TO HEALTH.

All health and disease starts in the gut.

Say what?

The gut is often called the “gateway to health.”

Throughout our lifetime, our digestive system is solely responsible for providing our body and cells with:

1.) Nutrients to function

2.) Filtering toxic exposure and pathogens

3.) Producing many important cells and chemicals—including immune cells and brain neurotransmitters

Hence, if our digestive system is dysfunctional or our gut is not healthy (bacterial overgrowth, parasites, “leaky gut”), then the rest of our body suffers.

Although most people associate gut-symptoms like constipation, bloating, and gas as the only symptoms when it comes to GI health, other less known symptoms of unhealthy gut microbiome (gut environment) include:

Inflammation

ADD/ADHD

Skin breakouts

Seasonal allergies

Food intolerances

Sugar cravings

Hormonal imbalances

Blood sugar imbalances

Headaches

Anxiety

Mood imbalances

Autoimmune conditions

Sensory processing

Autism

OCD

Foggy brain

Migraines and headaches

And, personality, mental health, and behavioral disorders

How are these connected to poor gut health?

Think about it this way: If you are not fully absorbing or digesting your nutrients…over time, there are going to be deficiencies.

Your body, metabolism, and overall health will be impacted because your brain (and body) are not getting everything they need to fully thrive.

As a result, imbalances and disease happen.

…Including our brain health.

THE BRAIN-GUT CONNECTION

We can not talk about gut health without talking about brain health.

Your brain and your gut are connected.

In fact, did you know that your Vagus Nerve—the nerve responsible for conducting your digestion is connected from the top of your stomach, directly to your brain?

In addition, about 80-percent of your serotonin (your “feel-good brain chemical) is produced in the gut—not the brain.

That’s FOUR times the amount of the chemical, responsible for peace, mood balance, behavior, digestion, sleep,  and memory.

And, moreover, your gut health also influences the amount of GABA (the chemical responsible for calming down brain activity) you have in your brain.

Gut bacteria feed off of GABA.

What this means for you or your kiddo?

If you have an unhealthy gut (i.e. more bad gut bacteria and poor digestion), then you have LESS GABA to go around in your brain (the bacteria are eating it), resulting in: More anxiety, less focus, and more unrest.

Get this: A 2016 clinical preliminary study from Autism Speaks compared the gut health of a child with autism to the gut health of his sibling—without autism.

The analysis showed that the child with autism but not his sibling carried a number of distinctive intestinal (unhealthy) bacteria that earlier research had associated with autism. What’s more? These bacteria spiked in numbers during periods when he experienced significant worsening of autism symptoms such as self-injury.

In addition, other research supporting these findings continues to emerge—suggesting the links between gut health and ADD/ADHD, behavioral imbalances, Rett’s syndrome, and formerly diagnosed Asperger’s.

 

One of the most well-known studies comes out of UCLA.

In it, researchers recruited 25 healthy women. For four weeks, 12 of them ate a cup of probiotic-enriched yogurt twice a day, while the rest didn’t. (Full-fat fermented plain yogurt is a natural probiotic that contains live bacteria). Before and after the study, subjects were given brain scans to gauge their response to a series of images of facial expressions—happiness, sadness, anger, and so on.
The results (published in 2013 in the journal Gastroenterology), revealed significant differences between the two groups: the yogurt eaters reacted more calmly to the images than the control group. The lead researcher (Mayer) said, “This was not what we expected, that eating a yogurt twice a day for a few weeks would do something to your brain.” He thinks the bacteria in the yogurt changed the makeup of the subjects’ gut microbes, and that this led to the production of compounds that modified brain chemistry.

More good news? A 2011 study also found if you have more GOOD bacteria in your gut and healthy digestion, you have MORE healthy GABA, serotonin, and thus more optimally-functioning brain activity and balance. This study suggests a gut healing and healthy environment can influence how we think.

The bottom line? A healthy gut and support for gut healing can influence how we think and how we feel.

HOW DO I KNOW IF I HAVE POOR GUT HEALTH?

Knowledge is power, and the first step to addressing both brain and gut health is recognizing the symptoms (many mentioned above). Look to your own health, or your child’s, and consider the current diseases or imbalances you have. Remember, the gut is the gateway to health, and if the gut is imbalanced, there is a big chance that other imbalances are present.

In addition, awareness of common triggers can help you assess your current state of health—and underlying reasons.

Common triggers that disrupt a healthy gut flora include:

C-section baby (did not swallow mom’s healthy bacteria in vaginal canal)

Formula-fed babies

Packaged, refined, or processed foods

Sugar and chemical additives

Stress

Poor sleep

Antibiotics

Long term medication use

Illnesses

Injuries/surgeries (stressors on body)

Environmental toxic exposures, and more

While other factors can pull the “trigger” for many modern diseases, it is important to realize that our gut health is a foundational piece that “loads the gun” for the health epidemics we see today.

By simply first observing any imbalances, and questioning, “Why?” can help lead you into some deeper digging into your gut health.

Once you’ve recognized some deeper digging may be warranted, some simple changes in lifestyle, current nutrition habits, and proper supplementation are the FIRST steps you can take at home to improve you (and your child’s) health.

In addition, clinical lab testing may be conducted to help identify any underlying pathogens wreaking havoc on your gut. Some common tests that can be run include:

SIBO Testing (small intestinal bacterial overgrowth)

Stool Testing

Organic Acids Testing

Food Sensitivity & Allergy Testing

A Wellness Blood Panel

Not all tests are created equal, and it’s important to partner with a knowledgeable healthcare professional, such as a functional medicine practitioner or nutritional therapist, aware of what to look for on these tests.

 

WHAT TO DO ABOUT IT?

I mentioned simple lifestyle changes—and it couldn’t be further from the truth.

If any gut imbalance is suspected whatsoever, you never know until you try something new, if it could be beneficial for you and your child.

While it may seem like an “inconvenience” to try to change habits—such as food or movement—(or that your child will throw rotten tomatoes at you), remember, you are their guide, teacher and educator for life—and self-care for a life time.

Some simple, but effective changes you can take today include:

 

  1. Eat Real Food. This one may be obvious, but eliminating known gut triggers (i.e gut irritating foods, including grains, cow’s milk/dairy, sugar, and processed foods) and eating real foods is a first line of defense to let your gut heal.If you can’t pick it, grow it, or kill it…it’s not real food.Unfortunately, the forces may seem against you in our current society (with Golden Grahams, frozen pizza and Goldfish calling you and your kiddo’s name), but this is the fastest track to seeing a distinct difference in the behavior, brain function, and arguably the therapy your child may receive for his or her condition.

    This step is all about making “real food” normal again: Meat and fish. Veggies. Fresh fruits. Some whole foods starches (potatoes, sweet potatoes, carrots, beets). Healthy fats (avocado, coconut oil, butter, grass-fed butter, nuts, seeds, olive oil, olives, coconut butter).

    Where did we get away from the idea that eating foods like apples, broccoli, chicken, beef, potatoes, berries, nuts, or greens is “abnormal” or weird? And eating Kix for breakfast, PB & J’s for lunch, and take-out Chic-Fil-A nuggets and fries is “normal?” Why would we feed our kids foods that stall their growth, inhibits optimal brain function, and disrupts their gut?

    Obviously, you can’t live in a bubble…but this one step alone can be an impactful game changer for seeing you or your kiddo’s gut health and brain thrive. To break it down: Incorporate a protein, healthy fat, and vegetable with every meal—and view food as medicine. No perfection…but aim for real food the majority of the time (And it can be tasty! See below for more details).

     

  2. Drink Water. Water nourishes our entire body to health and keeps our digestive system at tip top speed. Without enough water, our body runs dry—and our digestive system is more compromised to function.
  3. Chew Your Food. Digestion starts in the mouth, where we first start helping our body break down food. Remind yourself (and your kids) not to swallow food in more whole form—making your body work harder. Fully break down your food with plenty of bites to nearly liquefy it in your mouth before swallowing whole.
  4. Incorporate Probiotics. Probiotics are “good bacteria” that fight off the bad guys in your gut. They come in tablet or liquid form and are tremendously impactful for setting your gut up for success. In addition fermented foods—like kombucha, sauerkraut, and full fat fermented yogurt—are rich in probiotics).
  5. Don’t Forget Pre-biotics. In addition Pre-biotics help you absorb your probiotics. These come in a powdered form, and a supplemental dose of 4/g day will do it, mixed in applesauce, a smoothie, water or some watered-down fresh-squeezed juice (not Tropicana); In addition, natural pre-biotic foods include green-tipped bananas, sweet potatoes (with skin), avocados, onions, garlic, dandelion greens, leeks, and asparagus.
  6. Add In Some Helpers. Additional supplements to compliment the healthy bacteria probiotics, are:Digestive enzymes and ;
    HCL (hydrochloric acid)You naturally have digestive enzymes and HCL in your body—however, when gut health is compromised, these are suppressed, or depleted. Boost yours by trying a tablespoon of apple cider vinegar in a shot glass of water before your meals (or lemon water or a supplemental form), as well as taking 1-2 digestive enzymes with meals to help break food down (may pour the capsule powder into food as well—there is no taste).
  7. Stress Less. Making a concerted effort to de-stress (your lifestyle and your mind) can play a huge impact on your brain-gut connection. Sometimes the simplest things as: Ensuring we are getting enough sleep, moderate exercise (not too much or not too little), not over committing ourselves, burning a candle at both ends, and taking time-outs from work for rest and play can greatly influence the effectiveness of all gut-healing therapies. Practice this in your own life—and instill it in your kids.
  8. Dont Go it Alone.
    Overwhelmed? Seems like a crazy idea? I created my Family Fuel 30 Day Nutrition Re-set program to help you take the overwhelmingness out of health and lifestyle change—for your kiddo’s health. Over the course of 30 days, I meet with you three times to support you, guide you, and teach you how to make “healthy eating” and improved gut health actually attainable (and easy). I know you’re busy and it may seem like too much work to get your kids (and whole fam) on board for something new…so let me help you take the guess work and teeth pulling out of it. Email me at lauryn@thrivewithlauryn.com to learn more.

 

Dr. Lauryn Lax, OTR, NTP, CPT is the founder of her brand and practice Thrive Wellness & Recovery. As an Occupational Therapist, Nutritionist, and Functional Medicine Practitioner, Dr. Lauryn is passionate about bringing preventative healthcare to society through lifestyle redesign, real-foods nutrition, functional movement, and mindset coaching. She earned her Doctorate in Occupational Therapy from Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee, her Nutrition Therapy Practitioner (NTP) Certification from the Nutritional Therapy Association, and has received additional training from the world’s leading Functional Medicine Practitioners, both the Institute of Functional Medicine’s training courses and Chris Kresser’s ADAPT Framework. In addition, Dr. Lauryn is a Certified Fitness Professional and trainer. She currently lives in Austin, Texas, and works with girls and women all over the world to achieve their life, nutrition, fitness and health goals.

 

 

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