Functional Medicine and Children’s Health 

Childhood offers the most impactful opportunity for preventing or mitigating illness and laying down a foundation of healthy habits and attitudes that will set the course for healthy development and a lifetime of wellness.  Early intervention in children’s health and wise guidance by parents and caregivers leads to better outcomes for both the physical and emotional well-being of children and the adults they will become. 

Our goal is to lay a firm foundation of wellness and healthy relationships with food, friends, and family that will guide and strengthen them throughout their adult lives.  It is important to understand that a child’s needs will vary at different stages of growth both physically and emotionally. 

Therefore, it is important to understand where your child is at on the developmental spectrum and tailor your parental health guidance and nurturing accordingly to avoid unnecessary power struggles and anxiety for caregivers and children. For more information see Erik Erikson’s Stages of Psychosocial Development.

In Functional Medicine, we understand the central role that emotional health plays in our physical health.  Likewise, a focus on the healthy emotional development of the child cannot be stressed enough and is foundational to supporting their physical health and growth as they are progressing through developmental stages.

As caregivers, we foster emotional and psychosocial health by seeking to strike a balance between a child’s need for a sense of security and boundaries, while simultaneously fostering a sense of autonomy and self-sufficiency.  Children also need a sense of belonging and strong social connections where they know they are seen, heard, and understood. 

Some helpful strategies and guidelines include: 

  • Provide food choices for the child within your boundaries to develop a sense of ownership and autonomy around food.  For example, “Would you like an apple or an orange for your snack?”  This “shared control” is a win/win for both parent and child and helps to prevent unnecessary power struggles over food.  
  • Boundaries that are clearly communicated are essential for the child to have a sense of security and safety
  • Healthy family relationships and tension free mealtimes. 
  • Encourage the child to participate in meal planning, shopping, and assisting with age-appropriate meal preparation.  This encourages a sense of autonomy and ownership. 
  • Model a consistent healthy lifestyle before your children and with your children
  • Create family rituals to build memories and a family identity 
  • Foster emotional well-being by allowing respectful expression of feelings.  
  • Maintain a balance between organized sports and fun shared activities such as bike rides, hikes etc. as a family.  For example, participating in fund raising bike rideswalks for a particular cause would be wonderful. 
  • Limit screen time- Less than 2 hours total per day including computer, iPad, phones and tv.  Movement and activity are essential for children’s health. 

Ellen Satter is a Registered Dietitian and Psychotherapist and has devoted her life to helping families transform mealtime into joyful, healthful, struggle-free events, free from drama and conflict. 

Please visit her website for helpful resources such as her “Division of Responsibility” at mealtimes and more tips regarding healthy boundaries around eating and mealtime routines.  “Feeding is more than choosing food and getting it into a child.  It is about the connection between parent and child; about trusting, providing, and accepting.”

Children’s Health – Nutrition-Eat the Rainbow

To be healthy, kids need to eat a variety of colorful fruits and vegetables every day as well as clean protein and healthy fats.  By using a rainbow as a guide, you can ensure that children benefit from a wide range of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants.  Each color spectrum represents a different array of nutrients and an arsenal of disease fighting compounds.

That is one of the reasons why variety and diversity of foods is so essential to our children’s health.  Eating colorful fruits and vegetables helps to protect kids from cancer, chronic diseases and supports healthy detoxification pathways and growth.  As you are introducing new foods to your children keep in mind it typically takes 10-12 exposures to a new food for a child to accept the food, so do not loose heart as your children are learning to become food explorers.  

Children are already tuned into color, which is why processed foods marketed to children are loaded with artificial dyes and colors.  We just need to tap into that natural “inner rainbow” for good. 

Deanna Minich’s Rainbow Diet is an excellent foundational principle to use when planning meals and snacks for the family: Color is primary focus of her plan.  

Asking the child “What color vegetable do you want for dinner tonight?” gives them choice and eye appeal to the meal. Don’t forget color when providing healthy snack options.  This color focus will both increase healthy foods and limit junk foods at snack time. 

A wonderful family activity is to plant a garden together and grow your own vegetables.  Allowing children to pick their color vegetable/fruit at the grocery store and Farmer’s Market’s 

Children will be more inclined to try something if they have grown or selected the produce themselves. Also, allowing children to help with food preparation such as cutting vegetables with a butter knife.  Children love helping and the more vested they are in the meal the more likely they will be to eat the food.  Please see resources and a wonderful rainbow food chart to use with your children from Deanna Minich: 

Environmental Toxins and Children’s Health 

Compared to adults, children are at a higher risk for exposure to environmental toxicants and more sensitive to the potentially severe health consequences. 

Persistent organic pollutants (POPS) such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and dioxin are endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs) that persist in the environment and bioaccumulate in the food chain; bisphenol A (BPA) and phthalates are toxic chemicals commonly used in plastics and personal care products; pesticides and toxic heavy metals may be present in food and water sources.

Exposures to such toxicants may negatively impact a child’s growth and development, alter their immune system function, or increase their risk of chronic disease.  If your child has attention, focus, sensory or behavioral issues of any sort it is even more essential to avoid toxicants and artificial colors. 

Several studies have concluded that there IS a cause-and-effect relationship between artificial food dyes and hyperactivity or behavioral problems not just in children with ADHD, but children in general.  

We need to move away from all artificial food colors, as it is estimated that our daily consumption of artificial food colors has quadrupled in the last 50 years.  The time is now to shift our color focus to “Eating the Rainbow” of plant-based nutrients essential for detoxification-the process of eliminating toxins from our bodies.  

Other steps we can take to protect our children’s health and lower their “body burden” of toxins are: 

  • Read labels and ingredient lists of food and personal care products 
  • Avoid processed foods containing artificial additives, colorings, artificial flavors, preservatives-pretty much anything you cannot pronounce.
  • If you are unsure of what an ingredient is, google it and then decide if it is something you want to put in your child’s body.  Be ingredient list detectives! 
  • Avoid foods containing “natural flavorings.” There is no legal definition of “natural” on food labels and this term may covertly hide many chemicals. 
  • Stick to organic unprocessed whole foods as much as possible.
  • Avoid plastics 
  • Avoid shampoos, personal care products, bedding and fabrics containing parabens, fragrance, formaldehyde, aluminum, titanium, bisphenol-A (BPA), talc and flame retardants-these and many more toxins are found in products our children put on their skin every day.  

Please Visit the Environmental Working Group (EWG) for specific foods and product information to keep your diet and home as environmentally clean as possible.  The EWG also has an app for your phone with a bar code scanner to take to the store with you to “vet” products and a Guide to Food Additives. 

Pediatric Microbiome 

A healthy gut is the foundation for a healthy body, mind and immune system.  Imbalances in our gut microbiome have been linked to multiple chronic health problems in children including eczema, asthma, autoimmune illness, autism, ADHD, anxiety, depression and more.     

In our practice, we do a complete history that includes assessment of childhood events such as mode of delivery, infant and childhood feeding practices and exposures to antibiotics, as we know that these factors influence early microbial colonization of the gut microbiome and have long-term children’s health consequences.  

Eating a rainbow of phytonutrient and fiber-rich foods is also essential to support a healthy microbiome and support gut function.  Introducing children at a young age to fermented foods such as kombucha, kimchi, kefir and yogurt will help them acquire a taste for these gut-healthy foods. 

Playing outdoors is essential to overall health and the health of a child’s microbiome.  We have known for years that children raised with pets and/or on a farm have a lower incidence of allergies and asthma.  Research continues to show that children who spend adequate time outside in nature develop more diverse and healthy microbiomes and subsequently healthier immune systems. Another good reason to do a garden with your children and letting them dig in the dirt! 

All of the cautions previously discussed regarding avoiding toxins and chemicals, as well as avoiding unnecessary use of antibiotics in particular, will support the development of a healthy microbiome in our children. 

Adequate Restorative Sleep for Children’s Health

Good sleep is essential for everyone, but getting the appropriate amount of sleep is vitally important for children and yet it is estimated that almost half of the children in the United States are not getting adequate sleep.  

Poor Sleep is associated with a variety of negative health implications in children including:

  • Behavioral problems
  • Trouble concentrating or paying attention 
  • Mental children’s health issues, such as anxiety or depression
  • Lowered immune system function
  • Increased accidents or injury
  • Predisposition to children’s health conditions such as obesity or diabetes. 

The American Academy of Sleep Medicine has established guidelines that list the appropriate amount of sleep that children ages 4 months to 18 years old should have.  

  • 4 months to 12 months: 12-16 hours 
  • 1 to 2 years:  11-14 hours 
  • 3 to 5 years: 10-13 hours 
  • 6 to 12 years: 9-12 hours 
  • 13-18 years:  8-10 hours 

Since children spend much of their time sleeping, it is important to keep their bedroom as environmentally clean as possible.  You may want to consider investing in a good air purifier for your children’s bedroom.   

Last but certainly not least, stress is an increasing aspect of the world we live in.  Instituting mindfulness, relaxation and stress reduction practices in our homes will go a long way to “detox” emotionally and support wholistic children’s health and wellness.  See the Healthy Kids / Happy Kids link below for additional valuable guidance and resources. 


Functional Medicine Pediatric Providers and Resources

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