Saturday, November 13, 2010

A New Paradigm for Children's Mental Health

There's a lot of talk about childhood nutrition these days.  While there is an abundance of much needed attention on childhood obesity, less prominent in the news is the role nutrition plays in the mental health of our children.  Yet, there are a special group of medical professionals, ranging from medical doctors to dieticians, who are treating mental illness by addressing the health of childrens' digestive systems.

Judy Converse, nutritionist and author of Special-Needs Kids Eat Right:  Strategies to Help Kids on the Autism Spectrum Focus, Learn and Thrive, is on the forefront of this movement, and discusses the current gap in our medical system that overlooks the nutritional needs of children with sensory processing disorder, autism, Asperger's, ADHD, learning and mood disorders.  The science and practice of helping children with bowel and nutrition problems is not new, she says.  The new part is recognizing that children in the groups above usually have inadequate diets or undiagnosed GI problems that can benefit from nutrition therapy.  

Unfortunately, this connection is often lost because most kids do not see a dietician or nutritionist.  They see a pediatrician who has been trained to treat patients with pharmaceutical drugs, and not nutrition.  For example, she describes toddlers who have stopped growing, or whose growth slowed so much they fell beneath the 5th percentile for their age, who are prescribed growth hormone shots by their doctors, overlooking the basic question of whether the children have the tools to properly digest and absorb nutrients.  Or, children with mental health problems who are referred to a neurologist, psychologist or other mental health professional who views the illness as only brain related.  Consequently, most children without obvious GI problems don't get a referral to a dietician or nutritionist.  Yet many have GI problems that go under the radar of their parents and pediatricians.  

The signs of compromised nutritional status vary from child to child.  If yours suffers from any of the following, a nutrition check may be in order:

  • frequent diarrhea, irritable mixed stools, bloating, reflux
  • colic in babies
  • poor picky appetite
  • heightened sensory irritability (light, sound, touch)
  • eczema, rashes
  • frequent infections
  • asthma
  • anxiety, mood issues, irritability
  • growth problem
  • dyslexia
  • seizure disorders
  • ADHD
  • autism
  • incontinence in a previously potty trained child
  • persistent sleep problems
  • pallor with allergic shiners under the eyes
  • headaches and migranes

Undiagnosed food sensitivities, allergies and intolerances can be part of the problem, affecting both growth and behavior.  Converse discusses signs and symptoms in babies and children, formulas to try for breastfeeding babies, and when ELISA (IgG), RAST (IgE) testing, or the use of an elimination diet, is appropriate and useful.   She discusses what to do if your child is reactive to multiple foods, testing for nutrient deficiencies, and other available diagnostic tools.  

You can learn more about nutrition care at Judy Converse's website.  Her book outlines a seven step process for assessing and treating a child's nutrition problems, and has a wealth of information on growth assessment, supplements, lab tests and diet.  This book is a must read for parents who have a child with any of the aforementioned problems.  Pediatricians and professionals who treat children with mental health issues can use the book to help determine when a nutrition referral is appropriate. It is also an important resource for school administrators, counselors and special education teachers who can provide it as resource material for parents.

You can find a dietician through the search engine at theAmerican Dietetic Association.  It allows a search by geographic area and has several area of expertise filters, including food allergies and intolerance, and celiac disease.  To find one who is experienced in treating food sensitivities, inquire about IgG testing, or visit the Medical Help page of this website.

Additional Resources: Autism and Gastrointestinal Symptoms, by Karoly Horvath, MD, PhD, and Jay A. Perman, M.D., Current Gastroenterology Reports 2002, 4: 251-58.

Dark Adaptation, Motor Skills, Docosahexaenoic Acid (DHA), and Dyslexia, by Jacqueline Stordy, PhD, American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2000, 71: 323-26, Supplement.

Medical Nutrition Therapy for Pediatrict Autism:  Strategies for Assessment and Monitoring, by Judy Converse, MPH, RD, LD, Continuing Education Course (link to course sample), 2008.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:
     Growth Charts       BMI Calculator


Purchase from Amazon:


Special-Needs Kids Eat Right: Strategies to Help Kids on the Autism Spectrum Focus, Learn, and Thrive

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