This summer we are diving back into an intense healing protocol for my daughter, 11, who has a brain injury. After doing the intense GAPS protocol when she was a toddler and preschooler, I had to take a few years off to calm family life down again.
As you know, we have eaten mostly grain-free at this time, but I’ve kept pretty much the same supplements for her (see what she’s taken for the last few years here).
The kids are older, actually helping out around the house, and are consistently sleeping through the night. I have some time to play with healing protocols right now. As always I’m motivated to help my daughter, and my entire family, as much as I can.
This is long, so I’ve provided page jumps so that you can skip around.
If you’re overwhelmed, click here and I’ll email you a one-page checklist for the 20% of changes that I’ve found make 80% of the difference in nearly everyone.
Heal Your Body, Heal Your Brain
- How does autism relate to TBI? What is brain injury?
- How does TBI relate to PTSD?
- The brain is plastic
- The positive feedback loop, and why progress snowballs
- Keto for brain health
- The inflammation-brain function connection
- The microbiome-brain function connection
- The metabolism-brain function connection
- The hormone-brain function connection
- The toxin-brain function connection
- Amino acids for brain health
- Cholesterol, hormones, and your brain
- The sleep-brain connection
- The Emotion connection</li
- The Body-Brain Connection
- What We’re Doing to Heal Brain Injury This Summer
Why do I share?
Because I want to help :) I constantly question whether I should be more private in my life, especially with my children. But as the emails come in sometimes daily about how YOU are using what I’ve learned to make lasting changes in your family, I’m encouraged to continue sharing. There are some things that I am intentionally vague about (No, I will not scan and upload my daughter’s medical reports, as has been demanded by angry commenters in the past. Ahem.), but I do try to give as many details as possible about what works for us.
And I will always only share things that I, myself, feel comfortable trying for my own family. As a rule, anything that I try for my daughter, I try on myself first. This has had some pretty cool effects- I was able to eliminate a dairy allergy, and I’ve found that my body LOVES being on the ketogenic diet.
This is in no way pressure to do exactly what I do. I’m SO aware that we can’t do everything all the time, and there is a time and place for everything. If all you can do is avoid a handful of food allergies and park your kids in front of the TV for this season of life, be assured that I’ve been there too.
I’m cheering for you
And finally, you need someone on your side! It’s isolating and exhausting trying to navigate this by yourself.
Well-meaning professionals assume we can pay thousands of dollars a year for specialized services and have ample time and organization to come to weekly or even daily appointments.
We have Negative Nancies who insist we are harming our children yet continue to blame us for their problems or illness.
And there are even parents in similar situations, who usually due to defensiveness on their parts, insist on tearing us down when we are doing our best.
As Brene Brown says in her book Rising Strong,
If you’re not in the arena also getting your ass kicked, I’m not interested in your feedback.
And this goes for me too, if you have a pit in your stomach (or blinding rage!) reading this far, please X out this tab and go on to something else. It is never my intention to make you feel judged. I don’t know your life situation, and I don’t know you or your child as well as you do.
I am not a medical doctor, or any kind of medical professional. This is opinion in nature and cannot be a substitute for medical advice. This article is not intended to diagnose, treat, or cure any disease or disorder. If you have questions about your health or child’s development, please contact a qualified healthcare professional.
Some links within this article are affiliate links. This means that if a purchase is made through a link in this article I may receive a small commission that allows me to continue blogging at no extra cost to you. Thank you for your support!
Is it too late for my child?
No! Never! I actually have an uncle, who was born with a severe disability and didn’t learn to walk or talk until he was 16 years old! As an adult, he now lives semi-independently. Even as recently as when I was in high school (class of 2001) we were taught that the brain cannot re-grow (don’t huff paint, kids!) or heal itself. But huge developments have been made since then, and what most of us learned in school is being challenged and changed. Still, though, don’t huff paint please ?
Adults with ‘incurable’ brain diseases are regaining function. Stroke victims are learning and re-wiring their brain. (source) People with severe ‘permanent’ mental health conditions are reversing these diseases with diet and supplement changes.
When we refer to brain plasticity, we refer to the brain’s ability to change even in adulthood and after injury.
[There is] evidence that brain development and function is influenced by different environmental events such as sensory stimuli, psychoactive drugs, gonadal hormones, parental-child relationships, peer relationships, early stress, intestinal flora, and diet. (source)
Should I wait to start?
It’s tempting to want to wait until children can ‘reason’ so that you can explain the logic behind the dietary changes and supplements to them, and have their cooperation with the changes. In my experience, this does not happen on a particular schedule.
Children’s brains are developing (if they are typically developing! This could take longer if they are delayed) until they are 25. Children tend to not be able to fully reason until adulthood, so as parents, we have to be the reason and direction in their lives.
If you have a toddler or child under 5 that you suspect has developmental disabilities, brain injury, or digestive trouble, I would really push to try to start now.
First, they develop so rapidly during the 0-5 age that everything you can do during this stage to help them develop normally will pay off 10 fold as they become older.
Second, the more control you have over their diets, the easier it is to start. Young children need constant supervision anyway, so the food-related supervision isn’t that much of a stretch.
So, no, it’s never too late, but it can be easier on everyone involved the earlier you start.
How does autism relate to TBI? What is brain injury?
Brain injury is anything that disrupts the brain. This can be from physical trauma (concussions, falls, being knocked in the head, etc) or from psychological trauma that altered the brain chemistry. You see, the brain sits in fluid, and in that fluid hormones and chemicals exist. They exist to affect and support the brain. If any of these hormones or chemicals are off, the brain will behave differently. And the person associated with this brain will behave differently.
As far as autism goes, I do believe in many instances it is a brain injury, especially with regressive autism. Vaccines can cause inflammation (source), including that of the brain. This article is not going to go into the controversy surrounding vaccinations. If you would like to learn more, I encourage you to visit The Truth About Vaccines.
In addition to vaccinations, other factors that can contribute to brain injury and brain inflammation and possible autism or other TBIs are injuries such as falls, violence against the child, accidental bumps, birth trauma; stress, environmental factors, pathogenic gut flora, preterm birth (source) and more.
There is evidence that children with autism respond more severely to stress, physical or not, than neurotypical children. (source) This increased stress can create a surge of stress hormones that, again, affect the brain and how it develops.
Autism note: When I talk about autism, I’m talking about nonverbal children who scream, self-injure, are overwhelmed by everyday surroundings, have life-impacting sensory issues, and have a lower quality of life than what we desire for our children. I am NOT talking about the high-functioning autism, with high IQ, and the ability to function well in society, albeit with some idiosyncrasies. I am talking about sick children (and adults) that need and want help.
Is it all anxiety?
There is another line of thinking that all mental disorders including autism are branches of a common ‘anxiety’ problem. Fix the anxiety and the repetitive behaviors (OCD), aggression and disassociation (PTSD), apathy and wanting to escape (depression), even overeating or under eating (eating disorders), all go away or at least are significantly reduced.
As much as I have referenced scientific journals in this writing, it really is ‘guesswork in a white coat’ as my dad calls it.
How does TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury) and PTS (Post Traumatic Syndrome) relate?
For every diagnosis, you will find someone who ‘does not believe in it’. In this case, I have heard the opinion expressed that PTS (post traumatic syndrome) is the same thing as TBI (traumatic brain injury. Depending on how you look at it, this line of thinking is not wrong. Both are brain injuries.
In studies of individuals with PTSD, or those who are ‘stuck’ in psychological trauma, patients are shown to have have elevated catecholamine secretion and higher than normal norepinephrine levels, resulting in anxiety and panic symptoms. (source) Seratonin (our feel-good hormone) has a reduced uptake in our bloodstream and amygdala (where emotions are processed). (source) (source).
Also in individuals diagnosed with PTSD, the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (how all of these glands secrete hormones) is different than the average person’s. Cortisol (the hormone that responds to stress) levels are typically lower. (source)
For more information about the biomarkers that correlate with a PTSD diagnosis, this is a good paper.
Individuals susceptible to psychological trauma
If brain injury was caused (triggered) by trauma, there probably already was an underlying chemistry or hormonal imbalance that was waiting for something to trigger the loop. Healthy people should be able to survive and process trauma.
This is why some people can be greatly affected by trauma such as car crashes, divorce, and even deployment in military service, and some people are able to push through and put it behind them.
Our brain has a protocol for what happens during trauma, protecting us from putting ourself in that situation again. But when the brain chemistry is off, rather than learn from the experience, we are stuck in the process of the experience.
This ‘stuck’ can leave us in fight or flight mode, overwhelmed, disoriented, unable to sleep, disassociated from life, nervous, hyper vigilant, and more.
Sound familiar? When you look at it this way, those with TBI, PTSD, autism, and even alzheimer’s all have quite a few similar characteristics, don’t they?
Symptoms = Diagnosis
All of the above are diagnosed based on symptoms, with the exception of a brain injury that is physical and shows up on imaging. There isn’t a ‘rapid autism test’ like you can get for a strep infection, or a ‘PTSD blood panel’ like you can get for autoimmune or thyroid disease, though we will look at some of the associated biomarkers below.
Many people will say you are just treating the symptoms, which is absolutely right.
These disorders are made up and diagnosed by a collection of symptoms. (source) Get rid of the symptoms, and you’re good to go.
Yes, you will probably always be more susceptible to having these symptoms pop back up, but if they do you know what to do.
The positive feedback loop, and why progress snowballs
The positive feedback snowball is the exciting part of this!
Any change in the right direction is a change that can help everything improve over time. The idea of healing brain trauma is overwhelming, but we can make significant improvements with, even if everything described here is not implemented perfectly.
And that’s a good thing, because as much as I try, my daughter will be kicked out of ketosis on occasion, I’ll forget supplements or run out, and our home isn’t the calm haven that I’d prefer it to be 100% of the time.
Progress can snowball in this way:
Reduction in inflammation allows the gut to absorb more nutrients from the food your eat. From these nutrients, hormones and chemicals that make their way to the brain are better processed and distributed. Reduction in inflammation of the brain both allows these chemicals to be better absorbed, and shows behavior and physical changes such as less aggression and less headaches and better sleep.
When sleep is better, the whole body has time and energy to heal itself, which further reduces inflammation, increases energy, and provides a positive feedback loop of better mood – more likely to stick with a healing program – more ‘feel good chemicals’ in the brain – more exercise – better sleep.
If you’re overwhelmed, click here and I’ll email you a one-page checklist for the 20% of changes that I’ve found make 80% of the difference in nearly everyone.
Keto for brain health
My daughter and I did keto for brain health back when ‘the brain needed carbs or it wouldn’t work’ ;) That statement is tongue-in-cheek, but the research and acceptance of the ketogenic diet for neurological conditions has boomed in the last decade and I’m glad! We did a ketogenic version of the GAPS diet (see the microbiome section for more about GAPS)
In reality, the ketogenic diet has been used for neurological conditions (primarily epilepsy, especially drug-resistant epilepsy) for over 80 years. (source)
In addition to epilepsy, the ketogenic diet has been shown to be beneficial in those with Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, TBI, and stroke. (source)
Both cognitive and motor function have been shown to be improved in those with TBI when on the ketogenic diet. (source) Read below (the Body-Brain Connection) for why motor function is so important even if we are only focusing on healing the brain.
Studies show that ketone bodies, which is what the brain runs on when glucose or other carbohydrates are not consumed, protects the brain cells against a wide variety of damage. Though there isn’t exact evidence of the ‘how’ it is thought that the ketogenic diet is beneficial to brain cells through reduced inflammation and antioxidant effects in addition to the ketone bodies. (source)
How strict does keto need to be?
Strict, but maybe not as strict as doctors have been thinking it needed to be. When we talk about the ketogenic diet with the medical community, what has been studied primarily is a very high fat diet with 4 grams of fat per 1 gram of protein or carbohydrate, with limited liquids and calories.
This 4:1 diet is very hard to stay compliant on, as it is nearly all fat. Parents who are doing this with their children typically end up feeding them sticks of butter, and heavy whipping cream by the cup full.
There is evidence that most people respond to a ‘very low carbohydrate, moderate protein, high fat’ diet, which is easier to be consistent with. (source)
The modified Adkins diet with 10 grams or less of carbohydrate but unrestricted calories, protein, and fluids was shown to have a higher compliance rate and be sufficiently effective in seizure control when studied. (source)
To go even further and show that we may not need to be as strict, a 50%+ reduction in seizure activity has been shown when carbohydrates are restricted to 40-60 g/day and only low glycemic foods are consumed. (source)
What is needed for ketosis?
The ketogenic diet is something that you may be able to experiment with to find out what amount of carbs are needed to keep you in ketosis. In general, it is recommended that you start strictly measuring your food and make sure you are under 20 g of carbohydrates for the first month. You will be solidly in ketosis by then, and probably can feel the difference (or see it, if you’re doing it for your child) when you get ‘kicked out’ of ketosis.
Symptoms of no longer being in ketosis can be different for different people, but in general they include:
- Recurrence of sugar and carb cravings.
- Decreased energy (or for people prone to ADHD symptoms, return of those symptoms)
- Water retention (the scale will jump up 3+ pounds)
- And, most notably, recurrence of whatever symptom you were controlling with ketosis (depression, anxiety, seizures, etc)
A note about growth retardation and kidney stones:
In literature about the ketogenic diet, when a ketogenic diet is referred to they nearly always are talking about the classic 4:1 diet, which restricts protein, calories, and liquids. We talk more about the 4:1 diet down below.
On the 4:1 ketogenic diet there is evidence that growth is slowed and there is a higher rate of kidney stones for children who are adhering to it (source), which makes sense with the reduction in protein and calories and liquids below a child’s typical requirements. Adequate liquids are now encouraged to prevent dehydration, kidney stones, and constipation, though some of the data showing increased risk of kidney stones may not reflect children who were on this current recommendation.
The diet that I’m calling ‘keto’ here, and is designed to put the person in ketosis (where we’re getting the ‘keto’ from), is called the ‘Modified Atkins Diet’ in medical literature. In the Modified Atkins Diet (MAD) the benefits of ketosis are seen, and it is thought that the unrestricted protein will prevent the children’s growth from being stunted. (source)
New data recommends (again, talking about the MAD) a minimum of 1.5 g/protein per 100 calories to prevent growth retardation, as this has shown to be correlated with on-track growth in children on the MAD diet long term. (source)
Our experience with Keto, Mental Health, and Metabolism
For my daughter, she was on the ketogenic diet from age 3-5 and continued to grow and have plenty of energy as expected during this time. She learned to swim, became verbal, and toilet trained during this time. I do not feel like lack of carbs caused problems. In fact, when she returned to eating carbs her learning and development slowed*.
Keto is right for me, but if you feel tired, brain foggy, etc, on it it may not be right for you. Metabolism is an important aspect in feeling good, which we’ll cover in the Metabolism Section.
*If she did so well on the ketogenic diet, why didn’t I keep her on it? Because I found it nearly impossible to get anyone but me and a few select (expensive!) babysitters to follow the ketogenic diet for her. She wanted fruit, and would ask for it, and people would give it to her. Or they would assume that keto was the same as ‘gluten free’ and give her gluten-free food.
I needed to put my daughter in public school so that I could work, and so I had to accept that she would be getting food that I didn’t approve of.
It’s a trade off. The teachers at her school are highly trained in how to teach a child with learning disabilities, and they have the time and resources to be able to teach her. For us, this was the right choice for the school years.
The Inflammation connection
Inflammation of the body can happen anywhere. In a healthy body, inflammation allows increased nutrients to get to damaged tissue for faster repair, and quickly removes what shouldn’t be there (viruses, foreign bodies, damaged tissue, etc).
In a body with chronic inflammation, the body is trying to repair itself, but it’s not working out right. This can result in tissue death, as the arteries pump more and more blood into the tissue. It also can cause problems in connective tissue, and even brain tissue. (source)
When the brain has inflammation, it can trigger all sorts of mental health issues. It is shown that people with depression have 30% more brain inflammation than people without. (source) Mothers exposed to viruses and bacterial infections while pregnant, which produced an inflammatory response, show that their babies have an increased risk of mental health issues including mental retardation and schizophrenia. (source)
The cure? Reduce, or stop, what is causing the chronic inflammation in the first place.
What causes inflammation?
- Stress, including social rejection or major life events, cause pro-inflammatory cytokines. (source)
- Omega 3:6 ratio is off, with too many omega 6 fatty acids being consumed and not enough omega 3 fatty acids.
- Consumption of grains, especially refined grains, is linked to chronic inflammation, both because of the omega 3:6 ratio, but also because most people are often sensitive to grains, which produces an inflammatory response.
- Consumption of sugar, especially in combination with fat is shown to cause inflammation. (source)
What can we do to reduce inflammation?
Stress reduction is part of a holistic program that is so important. It will look different for different people.
Some moms may need to take more time for self care.
Some families may need to provide a strict routine for children with autism or other developmental disorders.
Emotions may need to be processed, and relationships repaired.
Exercise can lower chronic stress, and is thought to normalize the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, which is strongly linked to anxiety and other stress-related conditions. (source) Though exercise is encouraged, and does reduce stress, still make sure you are not doing too much.
If joining a gym and going to workout classes or meeting with a personal trainer 3 times a week is stressful for you, choose something else! Something is better than nothing, so start with a walk around the block, a hike, a 10-minute yoga video from Youtube, or pick up a sport that you enjoyed as a child. The key is to push yourself, but do it gently.
Balance Your Fatty Acids
High in omega 6 (avoid or limit these foods): Vegetable oils including canola, grapeseed, corn oil. Olive oil is high in omega 6s, though has more omega 3s than other vegetable oils. Grain-fed meat is higher in omega 6 fatty acids than it’s grass-fed counterpart. Grains, which make up the bulk of most people’s diet (bread, cereal, even if they are ‘whole grain’ etc) are very high in omega 6 fatty acids and contain nearly no omega 3 fatty acids.
High in omega 3 (include more of these foods): Fish and seafood including salmon, tuna, scallops etc; fish oil, red meat and tallow from grassfed cows,
Though vegetables typically do not have much fat at all, squash, spinach, and most green leafy vegetables have more omega 3 fatty acids than omega 6.
What is the correct ratio? Well, we’re not completely sure what is needed. But since a diet high in omega 6 fatty acids, and low in omega 3 fatty acids has been shown to be inflammatory, we’re pretty sure that the standard American diet of a 15:1 or even 20:1 (omega 6: omega3) ratio isn’t working for us. As you eat more grassfed meat and wild-caught fish and less grain and vegetable oils, you naturally will bring that ratio down to 5:1 or even 3:1, and chronic inflammation will be reduced.
Both the ketogenic diet (as we talked about above) and GAPS diet will lower inflammation by eliminating grains and gluten, and increasing healthy fats in the way of coconut oil, grassfed meat, and fish.
What about coconut oil?
Coconut oil contains neither omega 3 or omega 6 fatty acids, but rather medium-chain fatty acids that are easily absorbed into the body. Coconut oil consumption is not linked to inflammation, and is a great way to get healthy fats and needed calories without having to worry about the omega 3:6 ratio. It has shown to have mild anti-inflammatory properties. (source)
Where to buy:
Ditch the Grains to reduce inflammation
Grains, especially when combined with high omega-6 vegetable oils, produce an inflammatory response. When the diet is mostly made up of grains (as indicated by the food pyramid), there is not much room for antiinflammatory foods.
While whole grains may be tolerated without an inflammatory response in some people, in people with damaged guts (see next section), an inflammatory and/or allergic response is common.
Still, whole grains should not displace foods high in omega 3 fatty acids such as fish and grassfed meat. Typically, the American diet is full of refined grains. Chips are refined corn or white potatoes fried in corn or canola oil and then dipped in a vegetable oil-based dip, white bread slathered with canola oil in the form of commercial mayonnaise, crackers are often made with refined wheat flour, and vegetable oils, even if they are ‘baked, not fried’ and contain some whole grains.
The microbiome & leaky gut connection
For those of you who have long-time followers of Health Home and Happiness, you know microbiome is my jam ;)
I really believe that once your gut has healed and sealed and is doing its job to digest nutrients, eliminate toxins, provide immunity, and your gut flora isn’t pathogenic and causing you to be sick, your path to healing is all down hill.
For a quick recap of why your gut is so important to start with:
- Your gut contains your ‘second brain’ that produces hormones and chemicals to stabilize mood. When your gut isn’t healthy, it’s not making these ‘feel good’ chemicals and you don’t feel good!
- Your gut is where digestion happens! It doesn’t matter how much good food you’re eating if your gut isn’t doing its job to extract the nutrients from it.
- Inflamed gut = nutrients are passing right through without being absorbed.
- Leaky gut = undigested food is passing through your gut walls and your body is attacking these foreign particles. This presents as food allergies and also triggers an inflammatory response, which further damages the gut.
- Pathogenic bacteria can take over in your gut, which feed on the food you eat, and then ‘poop out’ chemicals that cause brain fog, anxiety, depression, and more. Balancing the microbiome with ‘friendly’ bacteria will keep these bad bacteria from taking over.
- Cells in your gut secrete antibiodies and make up a huge part of your immune system. (source)
To fix your microbiome and leaky gut, see my Gut-Healing Starter Pack.
The metabolism connection
There was a blogger that rocked the nutrition blog world a few years ago, advocating that people eat tons of carbs and sugar to the tune of 3500+ calories a day to ‘restore their metabolism’. His theory was that we mess up our metabolism with constant dieting, especially limiting carbs, and by increasing carbs and food intake we could heal our bodies through increased metabolism.
While I don’t agree with his methods, and I personally have not seen it work among people who I saw try it, there absolutely is a correlation between metabolism and health.
When your metabolism is going quickly (your resting metabolic rate is high), as it is when we are pregnant, or exercise often AND provide our body with the food it needs, or have increased the amount of muscle on our body, we are ‘running hot’ and our body functions super well.
While eating a bunch of sugar will indeed raise your metabolic rate as you digest it, I don’t think that it quite has the same effect of building muscle, getting adequate exercise, and reducing stress.
Some things that raise metabolism (how many calories your body burns at rest):
- Increased muscle mass.
- Growing, as children are doing anyway.
- Increasing body fat does also increase your resting metabolic rate (my body at rest would burn more calories if I was 100 pounds overweight) but this comes with many health conditions that I do not feel contribute to the overall health of an individual. There are many who disagree with me, so your mileage may vary.
There is some controversy with the ketogenic diet and reducing metabolism, so I encourage you to do what feels right for you. Personally, I have way more energy on the ketogenic diet, think more clearly, my skin issues clear up, and I’m able to increase my endurance in sports easily on keto.
The Hormone-Cholesterol connection
Cholesterol is needed for hormone production, and has been adamantly opposed in the last generation or two due to heart disease concerns. This reduction in dietary cholesterol may be one of the major players in why our current generation has a skyrocketing rate of autism and other mental health disorders, and why we are having a hard time processing trauma.
Yes, your body can make cholesterol, but dietary cholesterol is also important for hormone development.
Cholesterol is known as two different forms, HDL and LDL. These terms refer more to the outer protein around the cholesterol (since cholesterol is fatty and does not dissolve into blood easily the protein carries it). HDL brings excess cholesterol back to the liver for reprocessing or excretion, and LDL sends cholesterol out into the body, either from the liver (made in the body) or from the food we eat.
LDL gets a bad reputation because it also is what most of the plaque buildup in arteries, such as in heart disease, is made up of. LDL is good when it’s doing it’s job of bringing cholesterol out to make cell membranes, hormones, and such, but bad when it is oxidized and stuck to arteries.
Eggs, which also have a higher omega 3 fatty acid profile (as we talked about in the Inflammation section) if they are ‘barn eggs’ or the chickens are supplemented with omega 3 fatty acids through flax or fish oil, contain healthy cholesterol that is needed for healthy hormones. (source)
The toxin connection
Healthy people can detoxify well. When our bodies are overloaded with stress, and/or our gut isn’t in good shape, our detoxification system may not work as well as it should. In addition, some people are exposed to excess toxins through their work, environment, or in utero. This is called your toxic load.
Excess everyday toxins can alter gut flora and hormones, which in turn affect the brain. Reduce the toxins, and lighten the load on your brain, liver, and digestive tract especially.
What is a toxin?
“Toxin” is a vague term. It can encompass everything that your body is not using. You have a detoxification system throughout your body – in your liver, gut, and even skin. These filters help send the stuff you don’t need out of the body, and keep what you do need.
There is no reason to be alarmed that something is toxic – even the air we breathe contains parts that we don’t need. Too much of those parts would be ‘toxic’ but in general, our body is equipped to pull out what we need and send the rest back out.
When we have toxin overload, our body can’t handle toxins well at all. This might show up as sensitivities to detergents, grass, and other products on our skin. It might present as skin rashes. It might even present as brain fog or mood disorders!
If this is your situation, you may benefit from choosing as many natural alternatives as you can.
You can reduce your toxic load by:
- Natural, natural, natural – switch to natural soaps, detergents, shampoos, and more.
- Swap polyester (even fleece!) for cotton when it goes against the skin especially.
- Ditch the synthetic perfumes and colognes.
- Switch to a natural deodorant. And while you’re at it, go for natural lotions, sunscreens, etc.
- Spend as much time in the fresh outdoor air as possible! If you exercise, and therefore are breathing more into your body, especially try to do this outdoors.
- Hotsprings and natural swimming over chlorinated pools will help.
- Make sure the air in your home is pure. Salt lamps help purify air, but it’s especially important to stop burning candles made with artificial scents and petroleum-based waxes. Ditch the plug in air fresheners as well!
- Water is a biggie as well – purchase a carbon filter to filter out the chlorine and other impurities in your tap water.
You probably already know, but protein is made up of different kinds of amino acids. There are 8 amino acids that are called ‘essential amino acids’. They are called this because the body cannot produce them on its own. (source)
In addition to these 8 essential amino acids, when we are dealing with brain injury or trauma, there are some more amino acids that often are depleted faster than the body makes them, or because of the stress on the brain, more amino acids are needed during these times than the human body needs in normal circumstances.
Because amino acids are used by the the brain to produce a calm or excited response of neurotransmitters, the specific amino acids in and around the brain affect behaviors, thoughts, and feelings. (source)
Acute brain trauma alters the specific amino acids in the fluid surrounding the brain. (source)
Stress also alters the kind of amino acids that are concentrated around the brain.
In addition to trauma and stress, common medications used to treat psychiatric conditions change the amino acids around the brain. They can deplete certain amino acids, leaving certain neurotransmitters ‘starved’ of the amino acids that they need to function. This, quite literally, is how you can be well-fed but have a starved brain.
The book The Mood Cure goes into detail and many more amino acids than I talk about here. Because amino acids are just protein, they are one of the less risky supplements to take. They also are fairly inexpensive!
Some amino acids and their role in trauma and brain function:
Tyrosine: Adequate tyrosine levels correlate with a brain that is resistant to stress (source). This may suggest that some people may be less resistant to stress due to a nutritional deficiency. Tyrosine is the precursor (required to make) both adrenaline and dopamine.
The trauma cycle can deplete tyrosine by quickly running through supplies in the middle of trauma when adrenaline is made (fight or flight response). When the threat has passed, the body doesn’t have enough tyrosine to make enough dopamine because all the adrenaline depleted it. Dopamine is correlated with positive feelings such as pleasure, motivation, and desire. (source) For symptoms such as lack of motivation and inability to feel pleasure (depression), tyrosine may be helpful.
GABA is reduced after traumatic brain injury, and is important for providing a sense of ‘calm’ in the brain. (source)
L-Carnosine has been studied specifically in children with autism and is thought to be essential for gut health. As we have talked about, we also have neurotransmitters in the gut (source), which may explain why this amino acid correlates with increased speech and a lower rating on the autism scale. It is also thought to be helpful with seizure disorders. (source)
The sleep connection
When sleep works well, we enjoy the time of rest and wake up without an alarm feeling refreshed and ready to start the day. Unfortunately, that is not the case for many people with brain injury and history of trauma.
Not being able to sleep causes frustration at night, impaired cognitive function, hyper alertness, cardiological and neurological decrease in function and mortality, mental health issues (source) immune system hinderance (source), obesity (source), and more. In our children lack of enough sleep can have harmful effects on mood, behavior, performance, social function, and physical health. (source)
When we can sleep better, our body can repair itself, including brain function.
We just talked about the 3-step sleep solution here, and though it is aimed at children, it will help anyone be able to get to sleep and stay asleep.
The Emotion connection
We cannot talk about psychiatric issues without addressing the emotional component. As much as our current culture would like to deny it in the name of being self suffcient, we all have emotional needs to be understood, connected, accepted, and loved.
Many people who experienced trauma were put in a ‘sink or swim’ situation. This intense pressure is what alters our brain chemistry and hormones, as we talked about in the “How do PTS and TBI relate” section.
There is a yin and yang to everything, and we cannot be strong all the time without sometimes being weak. Attempting to be strong nonstop will result in involuntary moments of weakness – terrifying dreams, flashbacks, disassociations, anxiety cycles, etc.
Processing and acknowledging our emotions and learning how to be weak in the correct context brings balance and healing to our lives.
EMDR Therapy for Trauma and Negative Life Experiences
EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. It is a therapy that distracts you with sounds, lights, and other stimuli and then lets you talk about and deal with trauma with the help of a qualified therapist.
EMDR is different than talk therapy in that it is guided and works with both the body and memories to address and process the memories of trauma without having to talk about it too much or do homework.
In studies, EMDR is shown to be both faster and more effective than other types of trauma therapy. It also is shown to be effective in treating somatic complaints (pain such as headaches as a result from psychological trauma, not physical injury) (source)
Once you re-bring up the trauma, you feel the trauma in your body (feel your feelings) and your brain is able to desensitize (it’s no longer the hidden secret you refuse to talk about and try not to think about) and, most importantly, reprocess it and turn it into a distant memory rather than something that bubbles up daily or more often.
For my children, and learning how to parent with empathy but still strong boundaries, attachment theory (which is different than attachment parenting*) has been helpful in our home. Providing a strong attachment in young children lowers their stress levels. By lowering their stress levels, they are less susceptible to injury and more likely for their brain to be able to develop as it needs to.
To do this, we need to understand how children attach. My favorite resource for attachment theory is Gordon Neufeld.
The reason why I put Attachment Theory in this article is because so much of our culture denies that we need interpersonal relationships and that it’s healthy for children to be attached. Busting this myth, and seeing healthy ways to encourage attachment with our children and other people is health-giving to our emotional selves.
*This is also very different than the ‘attachment parenting’ philosophy that has been out for the past couple decades. Gordon’s method of parenting through attachment theory is a parent-led approach and focuses on how the children can only relax and connect when they have a rock-solid knowledge that their parents are in charge. It’s not punitive, it’s not permissive, and it doesn’t require elaborate charts or consequences.
It’s a really nice method that may reduce your household stress level if you are struggling.
Connecting With Children with Autism
One of the most heartbreaking parts of having a child with autism is that we have such a hard time connecting with them. They can feel like (demanding!) strangers in our own homes. With the lack of eye contact, frequent meltdowns, and little-to-no speech or interest in communicating, parenting a child with autism is emotionally hard.
With typically-developing children there are hard days, but a spontaneous bouquet of dandelions and an ‘I love you mommy’ as they put their head on your shoulder seem to erase the hardness of dishes, laundry, and temper tantrums.
The SonRise Program is a method of building connection and breaking in (gently and invited!) into the child’s world. Their methods work well with the attachment-theory that we just talked about above. They have quite a few free videos and their book is great.
If your heart is sad because you are missing the connection with your child, they probably feel the same way. Give the SonRise method a try. I used their method quite a bit when my daughter was a young toddler and preschooler, and I still use bits and pieces to connect not only with her, but also with other children in the middle of a meltdown or otherwise stressed.
If you understand that you need to be more in touch with your emotions and feelings, but don’t really know where to start, Brene Brown is my favorite ‘feelings person’ right now. She provides an analytical approach to feelings, which is less on the ‘woo’ and more on the data. I appreciate the research that she shares, and her own personal stories as she implements her findings into her life.
As she will tell you, she’s more of a speaker than a writer. For this reason, I feel like her books lend themselves to audiobooks more than print books, but they are available in both formats. I’ve listened to the following but will be making my way through all her books.
The Body-Brain Connection
Finally, we can use the physical body to help neurons connect and parts of the brain grow and develop. This doesn’t need to be something intense, but can be worked easily into every day life.
Having your child evaluated by a physical therapist and then going to treatments is one way to do this. We use physical therapy during the school year (at school) and then I get recommendations from him from time to time on what she could work on. In my child’s case, her core needs to be strengthened, she needs to use her calf muscles more, and her quads need to be activated more.
Get the neurons and muscles working together
Dry brushing, massage, and tactile activities are all ways to get the body to start connecting “hey! I do have a muscle here” and start using those muscles more, which in turn can help a complementary part of the brain start ‘waking up’ or developing more.
A physical therapist or chiropractor should be able to let you know which muscles your child is not recruiting, and then via YouTube you can probably find some fun foam rolling, stretching, yoga, or even light weightlifting (we’re on a kettlebell kick right now) moves that can loosen what’s tight, and activate and challenge what needs to be strengthened.
When seeking evaluations and treatment, keep this in mind. Our PT told me when I was peppering him with questions earlier this year, ‘you can probably ask 20 different professionals about this and get 20 different answers, so you need to do what works for you.’
Improving posture and muscle firing can help with brain development in the same way that a baby crawling correlates and encourages learning (source). The growth of motor-sensory areas of the brain correlates and connects with growth of the speech and language part of the brain later, around age 4-7 as well. (source)
Being physically fit and engaging in rewarding physical activities helps brain development both from the physical aspect of muscles firing, but also from the self esteem aspect of wanting to do something, working hard to complete it, and then having the satisfaction of that experience.
Alternative medicine agrees as well. When our posture is correct, chi (energy) is able to distribute naturally around the body. This encourages healing, life force, and nutrient distribution. (source) (source)
All of the above connects for healing:
By now you have seen some things pop up in multiple categories of brain healing.
Many of the foods that are high in omega 3s needed to prevent or counteract inflammation also contain contain healthy amounts of cholesterol to support hormone health and essential amino acids to help repair the gut lining and other tissues. Foods allowed on the ketogenic diet not only provide the brain with the ketones for better brain function, but they also support the rest of the body to do it’s job. Oh, and they taste great also!
Exercise and movement not only increases metabolism, but it also reduces stress, which reduces inflammation, and even encourages the body to connect neural pathways in the brain. It is a great way to reduce your toxic load by spending more time outdoors, increase sleep quality, and provide meaningful interactions with teammates and fellow healthy people.
This is the success snowball that we want!
What we’re doing this summer
Why we’re choosing this
This is going to look like I’m doing a ton this summer, but it’s really only a handful of supplements and a diet change that I’m already comfortable with (so no extra thinking for me).
What I’m not doing is extra appointments. For example, neurofeedback is something that I want to try, but I find going to appointments intrusive and exhausting more than dietary changes.
As I’ve talked about before, I tend to not waste time or money with lab tests. On the surface, they do seem promising. Run blood work, stool samples, and then find out what the problems are so you can add supplements or medications to correct them! But in reality, I have seen little to no improvement from these tests and the expensive printouts that they provide.
Your mileage may vary. The one lab test I’m curious about, and we will do this summer after I try all the supplements listed below, is the hair mineral analysis.
I’m not doing camps for any of my kids this summer, and instead I’m trading the driving time (seriously, it’s no joke driving 3 kids in 3 different directions!) for outdoor activities that we all enjoy. Also, I’ll be in control of their diets so I’m not left wondering if they are reacting to a certain supplement or food, or if they neglected to say no to a cupcake filled with blue food dye and that’s the cause of their behavior change ;)
I chose what we’re doing this summer based first on how effective studies have shown it to be, and second, how much money it will take. We’re beyond the point of being able to allocate $500-800+/month to try to heal our child (and for years I had budgeted to spend that much each month).
Different life seasons will have different priorities. When I saw my daughter turn from stimming/no eye contact/screaming/not sleeping to happy/compliant/starting to speak/making eye contact in 3 days after a change in her diet (see our story here) I KNEW there was hope, and I threw everything possible at her.
Eventually that caught up with me. We couldn’t live in a 1 bedroom apartment forever, and the finances involved with private therapies, alternative medicines, and nannies caught up with me. So we’re on a much lower budget with our treatments this summer.
Keto for all 4 of us costs about $100/month extra. But then we don’t eat out at all, and I’m on top of meal prepping so we don’t waste food either. Both of those things mean a little bit more work for me, but overall it doesn’t impact our finances.
These supplements each cost about $10-$20 for a full month’s or more supply. I don’t anticipate them all working and being necessary to continue. They add up, especially when you have to buy multiple things at once (Amazon Subscribe and Save helps in this case!) but they’re loads cheaper than appointments, private therapies, or even summer camps.
Ketogenic version of the GAPS Diet
I am in the process of writing out meal plans and meal prep instructions to help us on the GAPS/Keto diet. I will be sharing these with you :) Sign up for my newsletter to be alerted when the meal plans with prep instructions, nutrition data, and recipes are ready.
- Keep net carbs under 30 grams. We’ll experiment going up to 50. I’ll probably track their symptoms and carbs the first couple weeks and then see where we fall.
- Provide lots of healthy fats.
- Avoid fake sweeteners (we will continue with stevia) and all traces of starches and grains, even if they don’t bump the carbs over 30 grams.
- Include broth or collagen daily.
- Include probiotic foods at least twice a day.
For supplements, we are already using these:
- BioKult is a high-powered probiotic that our family thrives on.
- CBD Oil (see below)
- Methyl B9 and B12 (those who are sensitive to brain trauma also often have difficulty synthesizing B vitamins from common sources)
- L-Carnosine is a gut-healing amino acid that is helpful for many ‘spectrumy’ kids.
- Cod Liver Oil contains high amounts of omega 3 fatty acids, as well as ‘activator x’, which is now known as K2.
- D3, which we will discontinue as long as the weather stays sunny
- Collagen is an easy-to-dissolve hypoallergenic protein powder. It supports healing leaky gut and the entire body, really.
- Epsom Salt baths for both magnesium and sulfur to help detoxification pathways
- Melatonin (sleep)
About CBD oil:
I had heard about CBD, or hemp oil, as a cure all for everything and for a long time I wrote it off as hearsay among potheads. I tend to not be a fan of ‘pothead culture’, and growing up in northern California, I have been exposed to plenty of it.
But, since I am up for trying lots of different things, I eventually did my own research and tried it with my daughter. To be clear, CBD does not contain THC and has no ‘high’ associated with it.
First I tried Charlotte’s Web brand/strain (the specific product we used was discontinued), which is used the most well-known strain that is used for seizure control, so I thought it would be a good place to start for neurological conditions. We used a topical application that was meant to be absorbed through the skin on the wrist and into the bloodstream that way. I noticed some difference, but not a ton.
Next, I tried highly absorbable (Lipsomal) CBD, which was way overkill and set off a huge healing crisis reaction in my daughter. Finally we settled on a more mellow and full spectrum hemp oil, which I linked to above.
I’ve noticed less sensory overwhelm, less anxiety, and more receptiveness to trying new things when she takes CBD oil.
Not a whole lot. We’ll work sensory play and we are going to do 1 activity to support neural pathways being formed and a stretching/body weight activity to improve posture a day.
As a family, we already love the outdoors and spend hours a day outside.
We keep a strict schedule, which is important for my sanity and my daughter’s stress level especially. I get bored with our schedule at times, I’ll admit, but it puts the kids on autopilot and makes everything run smoothly. I can either deal with some boredom on my part or anarchy on their part, and I choose boredom.
And we will add one every 10 days, continuing or removing the previous one if I see a difference or not. Many people say to give supplements 30 or 60 days, but if anyone has convinced a child to swallow pills, you know that it’s easier to said than done ;) I see a difference in 10 days for many things, so we’ll continue.
If you’re following the GAPS version of the Ketogenic Diet, watch for brown rice (Not GAPS Legal) in all these supplements. I’ve done my best to link to ones that do not contain GAPS-illegal ingredients, but sometimes formulas change, so double-check extra ingredients before ordering.
just in case it’s not being absorbed well enough from epsom salt baths, we will try Optimal Magnesium. Magnesium is a ‘magic bullet’ that many are deficient in. It provides neuroprotective factors. (source) and people with brain injury are more likely to be deficient than most. (source)
Note: I did a pre-trial with some of these supplements with her, and she won’t swallow the Optimal Magnesium capsule and it tastes gross to chew. So we’ve switched to Natural Calm, which she likes in water. You can add a little stevia water enhancer to sweeten too, if you’d like.
I thought this was just for bodybuilders, but there are studies on creatine’s ability to help with brain function.
There is growing evidence that creatine may be of value in the treatment of a number of neurological conditions, including congenital creatine deficiency syndromes, age-related cognitive decline (e.g., Alzheimer’s disease), and neurodegenerative diseases (e.g., Parkinson’s disease, Huntington’s disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), all of which are linked to dysfunctional energy metabolism (Andres et al., 2008; Gualano et al., 2010). Creatine supplementation is also beginning to attract attention as a complementary strategy in the treatment of psychiatric disorders (e.g., depression, posttraumatic stress disorder, and schizophrenia) (Source)
Creatine supplementation has been shown to improve working memory in a placebo-controlled randomized study. (source)
Improvements in depression, post traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury, and more are seen with creatine supplementation. (source)
Lions Mane Mushroom is shown to have neuro-regenerative properties. (source).
Found in small amounts in broccoli and carrots among other vegetables, alpha-lipoic acid (ALA) is a powerful antioxidant and antiinflammatory that is promising for repairing the brain and increasing brain function. (source)
Approximately 10% of the body’s zinc is in the brain. If zinc is off, the brain function goes down. (source) We haven’t tried supplementing with zinc yet, so that’s why it’s on the list. Typically zinc deficiency is correlated with loss of the sense of smell and taste, which I don’t suspect my daughter has because she happily eats everything put in front of her. Still, since it is such an important mineral for the brain, we will try it.
We have tried this before, which is why it’s at the end of the list. L-Carnitine is helpful for children with low muscle tone (which my daughter has). (source)
I get a handful of people each year who wish to donate so that I can continue research like this. I try to share everything for free that I can, so that you can learn from what worked for us and help yourself and your families.
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