Having a sick child is stressful and worrying, but what if you can deal with the root causes and say goodbye to illness?
If you’re anything like me, when one of our kids is ill, has a rash, a fever, constant colds, teenager hormone problems or period pains, acne, or things like eczema or gut problems, I worry about them and wonder if there’s more I can or should be doing.
Even worse, there can be longer term or more serious health concerns that make you sick with worry for their future – anxiety, depression, poor growth, low energy, autism, endometriosis, or PCOS.
The good news is that a Functional Medicine approach to children’s health can help to solve the root cause of children’s illness.
As a parent or guardian, seeing your child in any kind of pain or distress, especially when it holds them back from being themselves and enjoying life as they should, well there’s nothing worse.
And then there are the practical implications of our children being ill – time away from nursery, school, or university, and time off work or away from other life priorities and problems.
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As a parent who has spent a lot of time in hospital with a very young child myself (plus the normal child / teenager health problems after that!), I know how helpless you can feel and how worrying the health of your child can be.
The good news is that the Functional Medicine approach to children’s health we’ve developed at Coho Health can help to identify the true root cause of health problems and we can provide a clear path to better health.
Common chronic illnesses experienced by children include;
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Children's health: the conventional medicine approach
The conventional medicine approach to many of the conditions or chronic symptoms suffered by children commonly require prescribed medication.
Often, we see that medication has been prescribed (for years) without understanding the specific, true root cause(s) of the problem.
There are times when medication is the best option, and our comprehensive approach highlights when this might be the case.
But in most cases, our clinical experience tells us that taking medication when there is a more effective approach makes no sense.
This is particularly true for children who may be more vulnerable to side effects, and where there is a risk of disrupting delicate and hugely important ecosystems such as the gut microbiome.
Unfortunately, we often see that the prescribed medicine can make the overall health picture more complicated, and can result in other health problems either immediately, or further down the road.
Root causes of common chronic illnesses in children
Unlike in conventional medicine, with a Functional Medicine approach to children’s health, our focus is on identifying and treating the root cause of the problem.
This means assessing a range of different systems and factors.
Gut function and microbiome
The microbiome is a critical factor in the Coho Functional Medicine approach to children’s health.
The microbiome is the community of microorganisms in your body that plays a crucial role in:
Amongst many other things.
The microbiome can be influenced by various factors including, for instance, the method of delivery during childbirth – vaginal birth or C-section.
Recent studies have shown that how a child is born can significantly impact their microbiome (1), which may have long-lasting effects on their health.
A vaginal birth exposes a baby to the mother’s vaginal microbiota.
During delivery, babies swallow and inhale these bacteria, which colonise their gut and other body parts.
This early exposure gives infants a diverse array of beneficial microbes that help establish their own healthy microbiome.
On the other hand, babies born via Caesarean section miss out on this crucial microbial transfer.
Research has shown that the first 1000 days of life are critical for the establishment of the microbiome (2).
The first 1,000 days of life is the time spanning roughly between conception and the child’s second birthday, and research has shown that the foundations of optimum health, growth and neurodevelopment across the lifespan are established during this time.
After birth, infants acquire their microbial communities from their mothers through breastfeeding and skin-to-skin contact.
This is why, in the Coho Functional Medicine approach to children’s health, we always ask questions about the factors above as part of our intake process.
Additionally, antibiotic use, high stress, nutrient deficiencies, and environmental toxins, are common factors that also influence the development of the gut microbiota.
Most chronic conditions (if not all) are influenced by the gut microbiome, and optimising the gut microbiome within the first 1000 days reduces the risk of the child later developing immune and inflammatory-related conditions in the future.
Gut function and microbiome imbalances are associated with many conditions including:
But it’s important to note that if your child is older than 2 years of age then it’s not too late – the gut microbiome can be investigated and improved no matter what the age of the child.
In fact, microbiome health is central to many adult-onset conditions too.
Advanced microbiome testing can help us to understand what steps we need to take to improve the microbiome, get rid of any bacterial, yeast or parasitic infections, and in turn improve a whole range of symptoms.
For example, through optimising the microbiome and the immune system we’ve seen cases of chronic eczema and allergic rhinitis in children completely resolve (even when they’ve tried multiple medications).
Nutrition plays a vital role in the growth and development of children, and the assessment of nutritional insufficiencies is a fundamental aspect of the Coho Functional Medicine approach to children’s health.
Optimal nutrition is necessary to support their immune system, cognitive function, and physical health.
However, many children suffer from common nutritional deficiencies that can impair their overall health status.
A study assessing nutrient deficiencies globally in children under 5 years of age between 2010 and 2019 found that a deficiency in vitamin A (in 61%) and in protein (in 62%) were the most common (3).
The period up to five years of age is critical for children’s growth and development, and it is common for children to have nutritional deficiencies during this time (4).
Iron deficiency is also one of the most prevalent nutritional deficiencies among children worldwide
The WHO estimates that 41.7% of children worldwide have iron deficiency (5) which is the most common cause of anaemia in children.
Iron is an essential mineral that supports healthy brain development and energy levels.
Symptoms of iron deficiency anaemia include:
An iron deficiency can lead to negative consequences related to attention, learning and school performance later in life (even before anaemia sets in) (6,7).
We wonder how many times children have been reported to parents for lack of concentration in class, or get poor grades, when the root cause is actually low iron levels (not that they are deliberately trying to be nuisance!).
Vitamin D deficiency is another common condition observed in children worldwide.
Vitamin D enhances calcium absorption for strong bones and teeth, while also regulating cell growth and immune function.
Vitamin D is also important for mood and energy.
Of course, these are examples of just some of the most common deficiencies.
There are many others, and in our experience a thorough assessment is key to understanding the vital individual factors and requirements for your child.
This then informs appropriate dietary needs for the child, as well supplemental considerations.
Please note that there is significant variability in nutritional supplement quality, doses, and nutrient forms, so we highly recommend you work with a Nutritionist or Functional Medicine practitioner who can provide you with a bespoke supplement plan for your child.
If your child is taking any medications, it is also critical that supplements are checked for what we call ‘drug-nutrient interactions’ to ensure the supplement is safe to take alongside any medication (something all practitioners are required to do).
Toxins and detoxification
Unfortunately, environmental toxins pose a significant threat to children’s health and wellbeing – and this can start before birth as toxins are passed from Mother to baby.
This is why in the Coho Functional Medicine approach to children’s health, we always consider environmental toxins.
From air pollution to contaminated water sources, children are exposed to harmful substances every day (as are adults).
Children, are however, more vulnerable to chemicals than adults are.
For example, lead affects nervous system health, and for adults working in an environment where they are exposed to lead fumes, studies have shown that this results in peripheral neuropathy (8) (damage to the nerves e.g., in the hands or feet).
But children are much more sensitive to the effects of even smaller amounts of lead.
Low-level lead exposure during childhood is linked to poorer intellectual development and lower IQ (9), it has also been linked to a shortened attention span (10).
For lead, which is just one of many different toxic heavy metals in our environment, sadly a ‘safe’ threshold for children has not as yet been identified by governments, but safe lead exposure limits have been set for adults.
Even if there is a ‘safe level’ of exposure – as a mother myself this fills me with fear when we know that super-low levels can be so detrimental to health.
I don’t know about you, but I know for sure that I’d rather my children’s school water supply had ZERO levels of lead, rather than a government calculated ‘safe level’.
Another set of chemicals found in our environment are considered to be ‘endocrine disrupters’ since they can disrupt our hormone balance by tricking the body into thinking these chemicals are hormones, much like the ones we naturally make.
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Endocrine disrupter molecules look and behave in a similar way to hormones we make.
Exposure to these endocrine disrupters, found in pesticides, industrial chemicals, and phthalates (plastics) for example, can lead to hormonal imbalances in children, including going through puberty too soon.
When puberty begins before age 8 in girls and before age 9 in boys, it is considered precocious puberty, and is affected by exposures to endocrine disrupters and xenooestrogens (chemicals mimicking oestrogen) (11).
The fact that young children are now more likely to experience an early puberty than children 20 years ago, is terrifying.
The silver lining is that there is a growing movement towards reducing these toxins and protecting our children’s health.
Governments around the world are implementing stricter regulations on industries that produce toxic chemicals, but we still feel this is too little too late for so many children.
While there are issues regarding pricing and availability of organically grown foods, this is one way to take action and reduce chemical exposure to children.
We can also opt for non-toxic household products.
Supporting children’s natural detoxification pathways can help to reduce the ‘toxic load’ in the body.
The kind of advanced Functional testing we use can help reveal detoxification pathways that are working less efficiently, and this provides an opportunity to improve these processes through food, supplemental and lifestyle interventions.
For instance, an Organic Acids test based off a urine sample is a great way to assess:
Check out a sample report of a Genova Diagnostics Organix Acid test here:
Genetic testing (SNP tests) can identify detoxification pathways that may not be working too well based on children’s inherited genetic information.
Children experiencing symptoms since birth, may be affected by their most recent exposures (e.g., environment, milk), but the root cause of their help problem may be their capacity to detoxify efficiently.
Many chronic symptoms in children are associated with gut health and immunity, and the two are strongly correlated.
When helping children to improve their immune system health, gut health must be considered as it has such a strong influence on immunity.
In addition to optimising the gut microbiome, immune supportive nutrients should be optimised.
Vitamin D is notoriously low in children, and lower in children who have been breastfed, compared to children who have received vitamin D fortified formula milk.
In the UK, US and many other countries around the world, vitamin D supplementation to all breastfed babies from birth is recommended (12, 13).
For infants receiving formula milk that is fortified in vitamins, supplementation may not be required.
In the UK, vitamins A and C are also recommended from 6 months old (12).
These government led health policies are in response to the widespread insufficiencies of critical vitamins required for children’s growth and development.
Yet in our clinical experience, we find that many new parents are unaware of these guidelines.
Optimising microbiome health, nutrient status and food quality, is a great starting point and can rapidly improve immunity.
If a child is still showing signs of poor immunity, then common immune ‘stressors’ can be investigated.
We often explore factors such as food sensitivities, environmental or food allergies, stress, and chronic bacterial, yeast, parasitic and viral infections.
A paper published in 2022, estimates that over half, 56%, of preschool-aged children globally have at least one micronutrient (vitamins and minerals) deficiency (14).
Micronutrient deficiencies impact growth, development, cognitive function, infections, eyesight and school performance and can have a significant impact on health during puberty when there is an increased requirement.
Additionally, antioxidant and phytonutrient (plant-based nutrients) status is nowhere near optimal in children, largely due to an increase in processed foods.
It can also be challenging for many children to consume a wide range of plant-based foods, for various reasons.
Children either from choice or health reasons can easily fall into a pattern of eating the same foods repeatedly, further increasing the risk of phytonutrient deficiencies.
Macronutrient status is an important consideration too.
Getting the right amount of healthy fats, protein and carbohydrates supports optimal health.
The ideal macronutrient ratio can change depending on some chronic diseases in children.
For example, a higher fat diet may be beneficial for children with epilepsy, a lower carbohydrate diet for those with type 1 diabetes or a lower fibre diet for children with chronic digestive issues.
Coho Health practitioners are experienced at working with children and their families to help resolve nutritional issues in a stress-free way, working closely with parents or guardians to understand what nutritional changes will work best for the child.
For specific health challenges, specific dietary models may need to be considered, for example the Specific Carbohydrate Diet (SCD), dairy-free diet, gluten-free, grain-free, keto-style, low FODMAP etc.
Our intention as practitioners, is to restrict food choices only when absolutely necessary, and only for the shortest possible time.
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The Coho Functional Medicine approach to children’s health
The Coho Functional Medicine approach to children’s health includes a thorough assessment of nutritional status and possible reasons for any chronic illnesses.
We take a systems biology approach to health, meaning all body systems are assessed and where there is room for improvement in function, natural evidence-based solutions are advised.
Identifying specific issues through testing can be extremely helpful.
While it can be difficult to collect a blood sample for testing purposes from many children, blood samples certainly aren’t always necessary, and we often use other types of lab testing.
Urine and stool sample testing can provide a significant level of detail – we can understand individual nutrient requirements, how the body is converting food into cellular energy, detoxification pathways, gut microbiome health, gut inflammation and ability to digest and absorb food.
These non-invasive tests can also reveal levels of environmental chemicals / toxins, amino acid status, neurotransmitter levels, hormones and many more markers.
The conventional medical route is often to suppress or manage the symptoms, which unfortunately means the underlying cause is undiscovered and continues to be an issue that might lead to other problems, either immediately or later in life.
A holisitic, root-cause approach not only helps to deal with the immediate health concerns of the child, but also help optimise their health and well-being for the future, giving children the best possible chance for a happy, healthy and successful future.
To your optimised, healthy future,
Dee & the Coho Health team
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