Healing Eczema, Asthma, Sleeplessness, and Tantrums Naturally

The mangy munchkin's eczema

It might come as a surprise to you to learn that it is possible to “heal” sleeplessness and tantrums, and as even more of a surprise that it is possible to heal all of the conditions mentioned above simultaneously through dietary changes. But it is!

Let me tell you the story of the mangy munchkin’s legs, pictured above at the beginning of summer 2015. She’d been suffering from persistent eczema for several months and had also started developing symptoms of asthma. Non-steroidal creams wouldn’t clear up the eczema so I took her to a pediatrician for advice. The doctor’s suggestion was to try a name-brand cream and then to try an over-the-counter steroidal cream if one of the non-steroidal creams she recommended didn’t help. Knowing about the connection to gut health and overall health, I asked if a change in diet might make a difference but the pediatrician insisted that food was rarely an issue with eczema except in serious cases (I guess she didn’t think Libby’s case was serious).

None of the non-steroidal creams she recommended worked. Not wanting to use steroids on the mangy munchkin’s delicate skin, I took her to a naturopathic doctor for alternative advice. The naturopath immediately concurred that food was likely an issue, so she ordered a food sensitivity test that examined antigens in her blood to determine whether certain foods may have been causing an autoimmune reaction in her body, resulting in the eczema. Sure enough, a handful of foods that she ate commonly (including eggs, dairy, coconut, and beans) registered on the test. After eliminating these foods from her diet for a month and applying a bit of Neosporin to the last remaining spot of eczema on her left leg (which had become infected from scratching), her eczema cleared up completely–and along with it, her systems of asthma disappeared.

Just one month of eliminating certain foods from her diet healed her eczema, whereas nearly three months of trying various creams did not. While the steroidal cream may have cleared up the eczema (we’ll never know since we never tried it), her rash surely would have returned given that all of the foods she was sensitive to would have still been in her diet had I followed the first pediatrician’s advice. Had I not turned to her diet to heal her, we would have been dealing with bouts of eczema indefinitely, and very likely with a worsening of her asthma.

What’s more, her nighttime awakenings and fits as well as her daytime tantrums subsided, something that I didn’t even think to associate with her diet at the time. I only recently realized that her food sensitivity issues were connected to her sleep issues as well when she experienced a resurgence of her eczema this week after she ate handfuls of cashews one afternoon. She’d never had them before so we didn’t realize she was sensitive to them, and along with the rash came several nights of midnight awakenings and several days of crankiness and bad behavior, which is just now subsiding as her rash has disappeared.

Dr. David Perlmutter and Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride both share countless stories of behavior and sleep improvements promulgated by dietary changes in their books on gut health. If you have a toddler who has trouble sleeping and/or throws lots of tantrums (or is depressed), don’t assume it’s the terrible twos or threes–it could be a food sensitivity (or sensitivities, as in the mangy munchkin’s case). Any child or adult, for that matter, who exhibits anxious or moody behavior could be suffering from a damaged gut, which is connected to the brain through the vagus nerve and has been proven by scientific studies to influence not just our digestive tract but also our minds.

What if you can’t afford a naturopath or there simply isn’t one in your area? The GAPS diet is an approach developed by Dr. Campbell-McBride that offers a more-or-less surefire way of healing the gut even if you don’t know what your or your child’s food sensitivities are. It requires a drastic alteration in diet, eliminating most foods besides meat, vegetables, and broth for several weeks to several months depending on how serious a person’s symptoms are (and thus how seriously their gut is damaged). If that seems difficult to swallow, think of it this way: meal planning becomes super easy since there’s only so much you can eat! The website linked above provides a wealth of resources for those considering the diet, including recipes.

The good news about a natural approach to healing is that once a child is off of the foods to which they are sensitive for a period of time, giving their digestive and immune systems a chance to heal, those foods can be reintroduced and enjoyed once again down the road; how much further down the road depends on how quickly they heal. It only took a month of eliminating the foods to which the mangy munchkin was sensitive before her symptoms cleared up and she was once again able to eat butter, coconut, gluten, and other foods she had previously been sensitive to, only now without any side effects.

I urge anyone with children—indeed, anyone at all—to take seriously the connection between food and health. Modern medicine and the media would have you believe that the only thing food affects is our weight, but in reality it affects so much more. Anthelme Brillat-Savarin had it right when he coined the phrase “you are what you eat.” If you eat crap, that’s what you’ll feel like. If you eat well, you’ll nourish your body into performing at its absolute best.

The Truth About Sugar

Trick-or-treating

Above is a photo of the mangy munchkin reveling at her first Halloween in costume. Just over 1 1/2, she spent most of the evening in a daze, looking somewhat confused whenever someone placed a treat in her little basket. A year later, when I searched for that same basket to use again this Halloween, I found it in the pantry–still full of the candy I wouldn’t allow her to eat.

Every year at this time millions of parents face the dilemma of what to do with bagfuls of candy that we really don’t want our children to eat but that we feel strangely obligated to allow. After all, we don’t want to let it go to waste. And we don’t want to be the mean parents who keep our kids from enjoying Halloween.

Or do we? I, for one, have no trouble dumping whole baskets of candy in the trash can (it’s garbage anyway) or saying NO to gorging on sweets on Halloween night. I’ve never been one to bend to peer pressure, and when my children’s health is at stake, my resolve is even stronger. I’m known (probably not very affectionately) as the food nazi in my family, monitoring every bite of food that goes into my girls’ mouths. I’ve even leapt across rooms to defend my children from spoonfuls of sugary sweetness that I don’t want them exposed to, and I can only hope that some day my relatives come to respect my concern over the large amounts of sugar customary in our society.

You see, it’s not just a temporary sugar high that impacts our children (or ourselves) when we eat too many sweets. Eating sugar–especially refined sugar–alters our microbiomes in a way that leads to damaging inflammation in our bodies, which in turn makes us susceptible to autoimmune conditions such as autism, ADHD, asthma, eczema, diabetes, heart disease, and even Alzheimers, not to mention everyday illnesses such as the common cold. Having an imbalanced microbiome can even impact our moods, making us more irritable, anxious, and/or depressed. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that when we altered the mangy munchkin’s diet in order to clear up her asthma and eczema, her temper tantrums also abated. Terrible twos? Maybe it’s just too much sugar (and refined carbohydrates in general).

So what constitutes “too much” when it comes to sweets? I once read that the human body has not evolved to handle much more sugar than is contained in a single orange–about 35 grams per day (I unfortunately can’t remember where I read this information, but rest assured that I wouldn’t have committed it to memory had I not trusted the source). I was shocked when I first read this because at the time I consumed far more sugar than that even though I ate far less sugar than most of the people around me. I still consume more than 35 grams of sugar on most days, but I try to keep my “overdosing” to a minimum.

With time, I’ve slowly whittled away at the primary sources of sugar in our diet. We don’t eat desserts after meals (my girls don’t even know that word) and we snack on more veggies than fruits (although I do allow up to two servings of fruit each day). We don’t eat breakfast cereals, nearly all of which have some amount of added sugar; in fact, we don’t eat processed foods at all since a majority of them contain high-fructose corn syrup–even foods that aren’t generally thought of as sweet such as ketchup. We don’t drink fruit juice but instead sip on water kefir, whole milk, and just plain water.

As I’ve eliminated sources of sugar, I’ve found that I’ve simultaneously lost my desire for sweets, making it surprisingly easy for me to resist cakes, cookies, and candies, even when they are the centerpiece at a party. Instead, I crave fats, proteins, and whole grains: lightly salted fried eggs, buttered whole-wheat sourdough bread, oatmeal cut with coconut oil and heavy cream. Yum! I do allow myself a serving of dark chocolate every day, but I don’t consider it candy–it’s brain food.

If you think you or your kids could NEVER stop craving sugar, consider this: the microbes in your gut actually send signals to your brain to feed them the kind of foods they crave, so when you start starving the bad bugs (the ones who crave sugar and refined carbs), they will begin to die off and you, too, will stop craving sugar. In fact, “die-off” is a term that refers to the process your body may go through as your microbiome rebalances itself, during which time you may experience headaches, diarrhea (or constipation), or other unpleasant flu-like symptoms as your body expels the unwanted microbes (you can read more about die-off here). This short article by Dr. Raphael Kellmen explains how rapidly our microbiome can adjust to dietary changes–literally overnight!

As adults, we can likely muster the fortitude necessary to do what we know is good for us–but what about our kids? How do I get a one-year-old and a two-year-old to eat well? It’s actually surprisingly simple: you say no to the bad stuff (refined sugars and carbs, processed foods, and vegetable oils) and provide them with the good stuff (whole grains, healthy fats and proteins, and plenty of fresh veggies and fruits–just don’t overdo it on the fruit). It may take a few days for your children to accept your “no” and begin to eat the healthier foods you offer them, especially if they’ve become accustomed to a particular diet, but they WILL learn. We had to go through several days of the mangy munchkin barely consuming a bite of food when we transitioned her away from the snacks that daddy had been sharing with her (chips and candy) and back to eating solely healthy foods, but she eventually learned that no means no and if she wanted to satiate her hunger, she’d better eat what was offered.

Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride, in her book Gut and Psychology Syndrome, describes an approach based on Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) for getting children to change their diets. She suggests presenting a small bite of a child’s favorite food, set off to the side, and only allowing it to be eaten once a bite of a healthier food is eaten first. If the child refuses, allow him or her to do so and don’t try to stop any kicking or screaming. Simply restate your conditions and give the child time to decide that they are willing to eat the healthier food in exchange for a bite of their desired food. The next day, mandate two bites of the healthier food before the desired food is allowed. Continue increasing the number of bites of the healthy food required to obtain a bite of the unhealthy food until the child will contentedly eat a full meal of healthy, nutritious food–and then stop offering the unhealthy food altogether. Persistence is crucial because if you break your resolve just once, you will prolong the battle indefinitely. Your child needs to know that you will not cave when they throw a tantrum or use whatever tactic they are prone to use to get their way. Due to the rapid changes that occur in our microbiome when we alter our diets, it shouldn’t take long for children to begin appreciating and even craving the healthier foods. My girls absolutely love sauerkraut, milk kefir, and real sourdough bread, foods that most people consider far too sour and tart to consume, and I believe it’s because their microbiomes have come to crave these rich sources of probiotics.

I suppose some moms might call me mean for not allowing my children to eat sweets devoid of other nutrients (we do eat fruit and coconut puddings sweetened with a tad of honey), but I don’t have a problem saying no when the mangy munchkin asks to have a piece of cake or a cookie at a party, or when the nurse offers her a lollipop after a doctor’s appointment (I bring a small box of raisins instead). I’ll jealously guard the health of my children’s microbiome for as long as I can do so because you become what you eat, and I want my girls to become healthy women whose microbes send them signals to choose nutritious foods. I’ll still allow them to go trick-or-treating tonight, but that bag of candy they come home with will go straight in the garbage–where it belongs.

The Extraordinary Importance of Gut Health

The mangy munchkin getting dirty

I came up with several playful titles for this post before settling on the more serious one above.  The topic of digestive health and gut bacteria is certainly ripe for humor but it is such a critical topic that I decided to choose a title that would underscore its importance.

I recently purchased a copy of the latest book by David Perlmutter, MD (a neurologist), Brain Maker: The Power of Gut Microbes to Heal and Protect Your Brain–for Life.  I’m excited to read his take on a topic I’ve been poring over since learning of it several years ago from a good friend of mine who has healed all eleven of her adopted children’s various ailments through changes to their diet and home environment.  Thanks to this family’s story, I knew to turn to food instead of prescriptions to heal my mangy munchkin’s persistent eczema, which you can read about here.

So why is gut health so important?  According to Perlmutter,

“It’s now undeniable that our intestinal organisms [bacteria, yeasts, fungi] participate in a wide variety of physiologic actions, including immune system functioning, detoxification, inflammation, neurotransmitter and vitamin production, nutrient absorption, signaling being hungry or full, and utilizing carbohydrates and fat.”

In fact, we could not do these things without them, as they coexist in a symbiotic relationship with our bodies.

Because the organisms in our gut play such a vital role in our well being, it is critically important for all of us–especially those of us with children and with health problems–to be aware of the emerging science of gut health and to stay up-to-date on the new information being published about our microbiome.  As Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride, MD, argued in her groundbreaking book Gut and Psychology Syndrome, poor gut health can be a major factor, if not the primary factor, in conditions ranging from allergies and autism to depression and diabetes to multiple sclerosis and schizophrenia.  If you or anyone you know suffers from these or related conditions, I strongly encourage you to read her book.

I plan to write a more detailed review of Brain Maker when I finish reading it, but for now I’d like to discuss a few points he makes in his opening chapters.  One is that our lifestyles and hygiene habits play as much of a role in our gut health as our diets do.  In the western world, where a majority of people live in sanitized environments, the average person’s gut microbiome is much less diverse than that of a person living in the developing world, where sanitation isn’t as ubiquitous and people live in closer contact with the ground, plants, and animals.  As it turns out, diversity appears to be important for a healthy microbiome since a lack of diversity means one species of bacteria can take over others more easily, leading to toxicities.  If you have children, let them get dirty!  Allow them to pet animals (healthy ones), play in the dirt, dig in the garden, climb trees, and so on. And DON’T use hand sanitizer afterwards.  Simply wash their hands with soap and water.  Disinfectants, it is turning out, may be part of our downfall.

Another point, essential for parents and parents-to-be, is that the method of childbirth/delivery (vaginal versus cesarean) sets infants up with completely different microbiomes, with as-of-yet unknown consequences–although the correlation is clear: children born via c-section are at higher risk of allergies, ADHD, autism, celiac disease, obesity, and type-1 diabetes.  If your child was born by cesarean delivery, and also if your child was exclusively formula-fed (which is likewise associated with a higher risk of certain conditions) PLEASE DON’T PANIC!  Our microbiome is not set for life; we can alter it by making changes to our lifestyles and diets.

What sorts of changes must we make?  That will be the topic of a future post–future posts, actually, as I plan to populate a category on fermented foods with recipes for sourdough, sauerkraut, pickled beans, kefir, and other yummy probiotic treats that will feed all the good guys in your guts.  For now, you’ll either have to patiently await those posts or go out and track down your own copy of the two titles I mentioned.  You’ll also find a lot of information online simply by googling “gut bacteria” or “gut microbiome.”

Please note that I am not a doctor and do not purport to have the necessary knowledge to dispense medical advice.  I only share what has worked for my own family and friends and what I read about in well-researched publications.  Please also note that I am not in any way affiliated with these authors or their publishers.  I am not receiving any income by promoting these books; I simply think they are phenomenally important reads for every human being, especially those of us living in the sterilized, symptomatic western world.