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Gut health and healthy brain function in children with ADHD and ASD

By Michelle Harrell February 8, 2016

With the awareness being brought forward regarding gut health and neurocounseling, the future looks bright for our children with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Although all the tools that are available for neurocounseling are excellent for improving cognitive, emotional and social skills, we now have additional research to support the addition of nutritional therapy to our toolboxes as counselors.

Although I am a new counselor, I have spent more than 25 years researching and applying nutritional therapy in my own life after being diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome in my early 20s. I have WatermelonTummyseen firsthand the benefits of nutritional therapy and how it affects emotional, mental and physical well-being, especially as I reversed the symptoms of ADHD with both of my two children. As a teacher, I have also witnessed the increase in children with ADHD, ASD, and other mood and anxiety disorders that could be greatly combatted with supportive counseling and nutritional therapy protocols. As I begin my journey as a counselor in the schools and private practice, I can’t imagine not grasping the opportunity to add nutritional therapy for my clients.

Improving gut health can have a dramatic effect upon mood and cognitive functioning because of its healing nature within the immune and nervous systems. The use of nutritional therapy to support gut health in children and adults builds resilience and supports the bottom-up aspect of neurocounseling that understands and recognizes the bidirectional connection between our gut and our brain, as discussed by Allen Ivey and Mary Bradford Ivey.

 

Current statistics

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), ADHD currently affects approximately 11 percent of children ages 4-17. ADHD is a chronic mental health and neurological condition that has been increasing at a rate of 5 percent per year since 2006.

ASD is also on the rise. According to the CDC, ASD affects approximately 1 in 68 children in the United States. That rate is expected to increase to an estimated 1 in 25 children by 2025. ASD is currently five times more likely to occur in boys than in girls.

The fact that both of these conditions are on the rise at these current rates in our children should be cause for serious concern. As a parent and a teacher, I have observed the increasing demand that these chronic health conditions are putting on caregivers and professionals. Many counselors are responding by offering neurocounseling and other proven therapies to assist with behavioral issues, emotional regulation and cognitive needs. Neurofeedback, along with cognitive behavior therapy, is also proving to offer improved brain function that is sustained after treatment ends. Because nutritional therapy supports brain function, the two work in synchronicity for a client’s well-being.

Much has been discussed and debated about the issue of diet with children who have ADHD or ASD. Many parents have noted that removing certain foods appears to reduce symptoms of the disorders, and there is general recognition that gluten, sugar and other allergens have had a negative effect on these children. Even though these irritants seem to cause increased symptoms in many children, the underlying gut health situation might be the actual culprit here.

The gut ecosystem is a system that needs to be in balance. The gut is balanced when good bacteria and yeast exist in a healthy ratio within the digestive tract. When this balance is disturbed, food sensitivities and allergies can be noticed. According to Donna Gates (the author of The Body Ecology Diet) and Natasha Campbell-McBride (a medical doctor who wrote Gut and Psychology Syndrome), when gut health is restored, it results in a reduction in food allergens, allowing children to once again consume gluten and other supposed no-nos in a moderate amount.

Children with ADHD and ASD have shown remarkable improvement and overall symptom reversal by using food-healing protocols that increase healthy gut microbes, according to Gates and McBride. This can be a great relief and blessing for families that have been following a strict gluten- and casein-free diet. Imagine the joy of parents who can once again allow their child to attend birthday parties to enjoy cake and ice cream.

 

Basic knowledge

ADHD and ASD are just two of the many mental and developmental disorders that can benefit from the application of nutritional therapy to improve gut health. Gut health is important for brain health and directly affects mood and emotions. A growing number of researchers are interested in the relationship between gut microbes and brain function. According to the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), approximately 90 percent of serotonin is made in the gut. Researchers at Caltech are also studying the benefits of gut flora and its direct contribution to reducing autism symptoms in mice and humans.

According to Lisa E. Goehler, an expert in psychoneuroimmunology and faculty at the University of Virginia School of Nursing, gut microbes are responsible for creating most of our serotonin and numerous other neurotransmitters that are essential for healthy brain function. Serotonin is necessary for the brain to experience a positive mood and be resilient to stress. Microbes in the gut also have the essential task of supporting digestion by synthesizing vitamins, fermenting things we can’t digest and producing hormones that influence our immune, endocrine and nervous systems, according to Goehler.

Not just quantity, but diversity of gut microbes is important for overall health, Goehler says. She states that lean individuals have greater diversity in their gut microbes. But even a heavy person who has a diverse and abundant good microbe count is shown to be in better health than those with limited amounts of microbes, she says. According to Goehler, heavy individuals with a greater diversity of microbes experience fewer problems with metabolic syndrome and cardio and neurovascular disorders. This can even be a factor in the health of children who are overweight.

In general, Goehler reports, when good gut microbes are limited and displaced by toxins and yeast, digestion is impaired, resulting in leaky gut syndrome. In leaky-gut syndrome, yeast begins to take over when good bacteria have been reduced due to antibiotic use and unhealthy food choices. Yeast overgrowth causes leakage in the wall of the small intestine, allowing contaminants and undigested food into the bloodstream that would otherwise not have been able to cross the intestinal wall barrier. Yeast and other pathogens can then travel to the organs and cause additional health issues.

Nutritional therapy to restore balance begins with reintroducing additional healthy gut microbes back into the system. Probiotics and cultured foods seem to be a foundational piece to any effective gut-healing protocol. More of the science that goes with this essential piece of the puzzle is outlined in programs of leading practitioners. The results of restoring healthy flora back into the gut for healing has yielded many positive results for some families with ADHD and ASD.

I was pleased to find the work of two professionals who have been having similar results with the reversal of ADHD and ASD symptoms with a diet based on consuming probiotics and cultured foods. Gates’The Body Ecology Diet and Campbell-McBride’s Gut and Psychology Syndrome were remarkably similar, even though the two developed their works separately on opposite sides of the world. Gates, of California, and Campbell-McBride, of the United Kingdom, collaborated in a video to share the similarities between their results and the importance of balancing the body’s digestive ecosystem. I highly recommend their video as a source of valuable information for anyone seeking to learn more about the advantages of cultured foods (see https://youtu.be/nLP0Ijo2CK4).

Gates and Campbell-McBride both offer straightforward steps for balancing digestion, and they both have documented multiple cases of reversal or, in some cases, complete healing of ADHD and ASD in children when their methods are combined with additional holistic therapies. They both recommend the use of coconut kefir and fermented vegetables as foundational pieces of their plan. They both also mention that, historically, all cultures had some sort of cultured food that supported gut health, but during the latter half of the 20th century, this knowledge seemed to be disregarded for our current modern diet. Introducing these foods back into people’s diets has resulted in tremendous health restorative qualities for many of their clients. Having valuable resources that are in layman’s terms for clients to use can help support clients’ wellness plans.

 

Overcoming barriers

Counselors will come up against a variety of barriers if they choose to integrate food healing into their practice.

First is the issue of counselor training and understanding. Clearly we as counselors did not set out to be certified in nutrition, and many counselors may not want to pursue the additional certification. I have found it worth the time and energy to learn because I can apply it in my own life and experience improved personal health in addition to supporting my clients’ needs. Clients may also feel more inclined to see if food-healing protocols might work for them if their counselor is applying them as well. Regardless of whether you align yourself with another professional who possesses the credentials to offer nutritional therapy or you decide to jump in and educate yourself, your clients will benefit. But the choice is obviously the counselor’s to make.

As a recent counseling program graduate who wants to move forward into practice as a neurocounselor and offer nutritional therapies, it is important to educate myself on current research-based approaches that are demonstrating positive results. Current scientific research shared by Goehler in her workshop titled “Understanding the Gut Brain: Stress Appetite Digestion and Mood” offers one such professional learning opportunity for counselors. Of course, other researchers offer additional workshops. I make it a point to include these types of workshops in my professional development plan.

Although I am knowledgeable about food therapy and plan to constantly improve my skills, I also know my limits and will refer my clients as needed to those who are experienced experts in nutritional therapy. I also know that one size does not fit all. Clients require individualized plans that are suitable for their health needs.

Even if clients begin eating a healthier diet that is right for them, barriers such as cultural resistance at school, work or home can discourage them from continuing a positive habit. Counseling strategies might include encouraging clients to build healthy communication and confrontation skills when responding to those who question their dietary preferences. These skills can especially benefit teenagers who have to address their peers at a time when peer influence is of great importance in their lives.

Barriers of child taste preferences can be a serious problem for parents who have children with ADHD or ASD. Oftentimes, these children resist the foods that will restore their gut health. In his book Conquering Any Disease (2014), Jeff Primack shares the ingenious strategy of introducing delicious fruit smoothies into a child’s diet to restore gut health in children who have health issues. His research and books on food healing and smoothies have resulted in positive outcomes for Foodchildren with ASD and ADHD. These children were soon demanding more healthy smoothies as their tastes slowly changed toward a diet that would support their goal for improved health.

Within private practice, counselors can overcome barriers by educating clients through workshops and seminars. Clients can also benefit from support groups if they feel alone or don’t receive support from their immediate family or community system. Free online forums such as the one that Gates created (see bedrokcommunity.org) can offer testimonials and encouragement for parents who hope to help their children by integrating nutritional therapy along with other holistic protocols and counseling services.

School counselors might experience the most challenging barriers within a system that does not quite understand the role they play as mental health supporters. It would be interesting to see how administrators respond to data indicating that instances of ADHD and ASD are increasing and information about the current solutions available for parents and teachers to offer. The current demand to address the needs of ADHD and ASD students is enormous and requires a significant amount of time and resource planning for all school personnel. School counselors are being called on to assist with the increasing numbers of behavior issues and learning needs related to ADHD and ASD diagnoses. In addition to their current workloads that may include extra administrative duties that keep them from being available for these students’ counseling needs, school counselors are still trying to establish their identities as counselors in schools. This is where advocating for a comprehensive school counseling program as outlined by the American School Counselor Association, a division of the American Counseling Association, can be useful. Comprehensive school counseling programs encourage school counselors to be change agents, which could include mental health efforts that integrate nutritional support for these students.

School counselors can bring this information to light in a variety of ways, including offering a professional development class on mental health for school staff, administrators and school board representatives. As a teacher, I would have appreciated learning more about many of the diagnoses that I was designing 504 plans, individualized education programs and response to intervention frameworks around. Teachers are in the trenches daily dealing with stress and anxiety issues related to ADHD, ASD and other mental health disorders but don’t know the details behind these diagnoses. They will truly need the support of school counselors and administrators in the years ahead given the projected increases for ADHD and ASD.

There are many other creative ways that school counselors could address wellness. Counselors educated on nutritional research could advocate with their school boards and county nutritionists to suggest healthy food options that would be tasty for students. According to Luise Light, the former director of dietary guidance and nutrition education research for the Department of Agriculture, the food pyramid that emerged in the early 1990s was a product of business corporations and not true science. In 2006, Light stated that all of her research was overlooked in favor of corporate interests. In her book What to Eat, she explained how this development has directly affected our society’s health and particularly our most valuable natural resource — our children. Clarifying that the food pyramid is both outdated and not based on the best scientific data could help our society understand nutrition differently.

Another opportunity for counselor advocacy is to work collaboratively with health and science teachers to design lessons that align with current research. I knew of one health teacher who taught children in an impoverished neighborhood the benefits of micronutrients by bringing in a blender and creating fruit smoothies. This exposure to practical solutions that tasted good paid off. The students couldn’t stop talking about their lessons on food and nutrition from this progressive teacher, and I even heard them discussing how they were teaching their parents about healthier food options.

With food therapy and neurocounseling working together, the future looks hopeful for children and families dealing with ADHD and ASD. Obviously, each child is his or her own unique being and will require an individualized protocol that is specific to that child. Professional counselors have been trained to offer amazing tools for improved mental health, and I believe we now have a critical missing link to add to our toolbox. We are at an exciting time in our work, with science and counseling validating the relationship between the mind and body as never before.

 

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Michelle Harrell, an educator working in the Columbia County school system, lives in Evans, Georgia. She earned her bachelor’s degree from Georgia Tech and both a Master of Arts in Teaching MichelleHarrelland a Master of Education (school counseling) degree from Augusta University. She is currently working on her specialist degree in counseling education and supervision. Michelle is also a qigong and meditation teacher in her spare time. Contact her at michelleharrellneurocounseling@gmail.com.

4 Comments

  1. Janice

    This information is so important. I’m dreaming of IEPs written with student’s nutritional needs delivered at breakfast and lunch in the same way other special services are provided…especially needed in Charter and private schools.

    Reply
    1. Michelle Harrell

      Yes, school cafeterias with alternatives to common food allergens that are lower in refined sugars can help kids that have special dietary needs on 504 plans. It is time.

  2. Victoria Sanders

    Michelle,

    This is great! So proud of your work in this area. I appreciate you sharing this with me and I will find a way to share with others. Hope all is well.

    Reply

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