As I work with more and more families struggling to establish stable moods, energy and health in their kids, I have found constipation to be one of a trifecta of issues which get in the way of ev-er-y-thing else they might be doing to support their kids.
These three issues are so important to resolve that I have started to call them The Foundational Trifecta For Resilient Health. Constipation is one of them and it needs to be worked through so they can feel better, focus better, have fewer tantrums, be less anxious, learn better, get sick less often, have more stable energy and emotions, and generally be healthier and happier (you can find out more about the trifectaI in this post).
I wish there were an easy bomb-proof solution to constipation... it's so hard to watch our kids suffer with a painful belly. Truth is, since lots of things can cause constipation typically parents have to play around with various tactics before finding that perfect 'something' that works.
(As an important aside, parents should be away that as of writing this post (April, 2019) the commonly used laxatives containing polyethylene glycol 3350 have not been well tested for safety in children and many parents have reported neuropsychiatric side effects like depression, rage, anxiety, paranoia, tics, seizures, OCD and mood swings. The FDA has agreed to fund a safety study, but it has not yet been done).
It’s worth the trial and error to figure out a safe, natural solution to your child's constipation because relieving it is a huge leap towards optimizing their health.
Certain foods could be causing irritation and inflammation to the gut wall and slowing down digestion. Any food can potentially cause this kind of irritation so it’s tricky to tease out, but I have found cow’s dairy to be the most common culprit, followed closely by gluten and sugar. To resolve this issue we need to work on the entire digestive tract, from tip-to-tail.
Poor bile production in the liver, low stomach acid, stress, and an imbalanced gut ecosystem can result in slow, inefficient digestion and ensuing constipation. I find this can be a significant factor for children who were on stomach acid suppressors or antibiotics as babies.
Water is critical to keeping the bowels flowing and the digestive lining healthy. Your school aged child should be drinking at least 1-2 L of filtered water a day. A constipated child might need more than that.
Stress stimulates hormones like adrenaline that keep our kids in a "fight or flight" state and inhibit hormones like acetylcholine that allow them to rest, digest and relax. Anxiety can lead to fear, increased stress hormones, and withholding. Along with an epidemic of constipation, we also have an epidemic of anxiety in kids and the two are often related.
Osteopaths, chiropractors and some massage therapists can help by manually adjusting the position of soft tissues, reducing fluid congestion, bringing balance to the nervous systems and improving blood flow to smooth and skeletal muscle tissue.
Vitamin C is a natural laxative. It also helps stimulate the production of stomach acid. Because the stomach is at the start of the digestive tract, inadequate stomach acid can trigger a cascade of effects lower down in the system including inadequate enzyme production and poor bile production, all of which will slow down digestion and contribute to constipation. Best to give this in the morning as it can stimulate energy production and interfere with sleep. You can see my supplement recommendations here.
Magnesium is also a natural laxative. It brings water into the colon and relaxes the muscles in the digestive lining. Increasing magnesium-rich foods like avocado, black beans and salmon can help, but giving a supplement is often a better solution. The Oxide form of magnesium will flush the colon the fastest, but should only be used short term as it is poorly absorbed and its laxative effect can lead to mineral deficiencies. Magnesium citrate and glycinate work as well, and are better absorbed by the body. Start with a low dose, given several times a day, and increase the amount until stools soften. Once the bowel is clear reduce the magnesium. (As a gentle aside, your child's magnesium deficiency might be the result of general toxicity... see this video post for more on that).
A well-balanced, diverse ecosystem of microbes is critical to well functioning digestion. Kefir is a fermented drink typically made by adding beneficial yeast and bacteria to milk. Various studies have shown kefir to successfully modify the microbiome and relieve symptoms ranging from IBS to eczema and infection. Kefir has also been shown to reduce inflammation (which could be contributing to the constipation). You can make a non-dairy version using coconut water instead of milk if your child is dairy sensitive. Unlike probiotic supplements, fermented food and drinks like kefir offers more diversity of bacteria, along with beneficial yeast, vitamin C, and also help balance the pH level of the digestive tract. As a bonus, coconut water kefir offers extra hydration and electrolytes. This bubbly, refreshing drink is best given in the morning. Try adding some fresh squeezed lemon into the drink for added vitamin C and enzymes.
You can make coconut water kefir at home using The Body Ecology Kefir Starter mixed with coconut water (order the starter culture here). It ferments at room temperature in about 16 hours. No special equipment is required.
Clearing the colon of waste is essential for resilient health. Relieving constipation helps stabilize mood and behaviour, can improve appetite and, of course, helps a child feel better. When our kids feel better they function better.
While trying to resolve constipation issues, I would also suggest that you avoid non-fermented dairy (like milk, cheese and ice cream), gluten and sometimes raw vegetables, as these can all be irritating to an already irritated gut.
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Jess is a Registered Holistic Nutritionist™ and Family Health Expert, specializing in brain health & resilience for kids. She is the author of Raising Resilience: Take the stress out of feeding your family & love your life, a mother and an advocate for children’s health. Her book and online resources have helped families all over the world improve the lives of their children with learning differences, anxiety, ADHD, autism and mood disorders by fitting the food and feeding piece into their health puzzles. She is the 2019 recipient of the CSNNAA award for Clinical Excellence for her work helping families get healthier, and she continues to work at bringing an understanding of the power of good nutrition to the mainstream conversation about children’s mental health, learning, and overall resilience through her blog, courses and as a contributor to print and online magazines. You can reach Jess at www.jesssherman.com
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