Full Show Notes
More and more kids are being diagnosed with chronic illnesses these days–anything from allergies to severe depression. You may have experienced this with your own teen, whether it’s constant trips to the psychiatrist for changes in anxiety meds, or endless food sensitivities that seem to come out of nowhere. In 2018, research revealed that 54% of kids are chronically ill, up from 15% a few years before. This means that chronic illness is growing among young people at a rapid rate…but why?
The answer lies in our guts. We might view our digestive system as having one function–food in, waste out–but the truth is a lot more complicated. Our guts contain the mechanisms that monitor our immune system, regulate our bloodstream and even control our mind’s function! The food we put into our gut doesn’t just affect our digestion…it shapes our long term physical and mental health!
This week, we’re talking to Dana Kay, author of Thriving With ADHD: A Guide to Naturally Reducing ADHD Symptoms in Your Child and founder of the ADHD Thrive Institute. Dana is a holistic health expert who focuses on educating parents about gut health. She helps families understand that a better diet can relieve symptoms for a myriad of health issues among children–including ADHD and other mental disorders. She’s worked with over one thousand families to create better overall health for chronically ill kids!
In our interview, Dana breaks down the function of the gut within the body, and why so many kids suffer from conditions that result from poor gut health. We’re also discussing what dietary changes can be made to heal our guts, and how we can convince our kids to change their diets for the better.
Why We Should Rethink Our Diet
Although we don’t always think about our digestive tract as central to our body’s long term health, it’s actually immensely critical to our physical and mental wellbeing. It contains 80% of our body’s immune system, billions of nerve cells and trillions of bacteria! It controls what enters our bloodstream–and therefore our entire body. Plus, it has a direct channel of communication with the brain. 90-95% of the body’s serotonin and 50% of the body’s dopamine are produced in the gut, meaning that our guts manage our moods, emotions, and cognitive function, says Dana.
Dana explains that the typical American diet is full of substances that are pretty harmful to our guts. Packaged, processed, and convenience foods are chock full of artificial preservatives and chemicals that aren’t a natural part of our diet, and therefore damage our bodies. These foods break down the lining of the gut, which regulates the bloodstream, says Dana. As this lining breaks down, it no longer restricts toxins from flowing through our bodies, and doesn’t retain water and other important nutrients that are essential to the body’s function.
When these toxins enter the bloodstream, our body tries to reject them, leading to inflammation. This causes a multitude of issues, including stomach aches, allergies, inattention, poor emotional regulation, brain fog, constipation–the list goes on. This means that when kids are suffering from serious anxiety or depression, diet can ultimately be the cause of the issue, as well as the solution, Dana explains. If we can focus on helping kids create a better daily diet, we can stop these chronic mental and physical health issues and get kids back on the right track.
So what changes can teens and parents make to our diets to create a healthy mind and body? Dana and I are giving you a dietary breakdown on how to heal your bodies and minds.
How To Have a Healthy Gut
It turns out that lots of the food we eat on an everyday basis is actually pretty terrible for our gut health, says Dana. The worst three? Gluten, dairy, and soy. Dana explains that gluten is the most harmful, as it destroys the lining of our guts most severely and causes intestinal leaking. Dairy is central to the American diet, but awful for our gut. And while soy seems easy to cut out, Dana explains that there are a surprising amount of food products that list soy as an ingredient. In our interview, we talk more about how soy mimics estrogen production and can be really harmful for growing teens.
Sugar is also not the best for our gut health, Dana explains. Sugary foods tend to be very artificial and refined, which is damaging to the intestinal lining. If the gut is in poor health and fails to deliver dopamine and serotonin to the brain, kids will seek these chemicals out anyway they can–including eating sugar. They can quickly get caught in a cycle of eating sugary foods every time they need stimulation or a pick-me-up, which can even lead to a serious sugar addiction, especially for kids with ADHD, says Dana.
Instead, Dana recommends kids eat fruits and veggies, grass-fed animal proteins and healthy fats. These foods don’t cause damage to the intestinal lining, and can even help it regrow! Dana also recommends only drinking natural spring water, and replacing artificial sweeteners with natural ones like honey, maple syrup and dates. Although it might be outside your family’s comfort zone, making these substitutions in the family diet can totally transform your quality of life, Dana says.
But even if we’re ready to make a change, it doesn’t mean our families are. Plus, eating healthy comes with other obstacles…and how do we even know what exactly our kids need? Dana and I are covering all of these challenges as well.
Making the Change
As the mom of a child with ADHD, Dana wanted to change her family’s habits to improve her son’s health…but found herself struggling when she tried to do it all in one day. She recommends that parents make these dietary changes slowly or increments, to warm kids up to the idea of giving up gluten, dairy and certain sugars! Teenagers aren’t likely to listen if you try to force them to adopt this new diet, says Dana, so you’ll have to get them to buy into it. Once they realize that this healthier diet makes them more social and focused, they’ll likely want to eat healthier all the time.
Dana recognized that eating healthy isn’t cheap–even though we wish it was! However, she explains in the episode that spending the extra money on healthier foods is likely to save parents a lot of time and energy in the long run. When kids are feeling better both mentally and physically, they’ll need much less medical care–and won’t have tantrums and meltdowns on a regular basis, says Dana. Plus, there are other things we can do to lighten the costs, like meal planning and buying in bulk. Dana and I get into these cost-savers further in the episode.
If you’re not sure where to start, Dana recommends taking some tests. Functional lab testing can help teens locate weak points and stressors in their bodies, whether that’s in the immune, digestive or nervous system. It can also be helpful for kids to complete a food sensitivity panel to discover what foods irritate their body–this helps doctors target inflammation and even diagnose certain mental issues like ADHD or anxiety. In our interview, Dana and I talk about even more tests kids can take to start them on a journey to better gut health.
In The Episode…
Dana shares a lot of fascinating facts about how essential gut health is to our overall well being! On top of the topics discussed above, we also talk about:
- What we should know about GMOs
- Why school cafeteria food needs to change
- What pharmaceutical companies don’t want you to know
- Why we should monitor kids’ zinc levels
If you enjoyed listening, you can find more from Dana at adhdthriveinstitute.com or on Instagram @adhdthriveinstitiute. Thanks for listening and don’t forget to share and subscribe![/restrict]
Complete Interview Transcript
Andy: I’m really excited about this. You’ve written a few books here. We have a book here on mastering your emotions. I can’t even believe how many books you’ve written on all kinds of topic
Andy: This is such an important topic, I’m really curious to hear about your journey to getting interested in this and developing expertise.
Dana: Yeah, no, definitely. Interestingly, believe it or not, I used to be completely removed from the health and wellness space and I was actually in accounting. No, I’m sorry, I probably would have still been in that area if my concerns over my son’s health really hadn’t have grown as much as they did. He was diagnosed with ADHD at the age of four, and his tantrums and his meltdowns became so severe that his teachers started noticing difference as well because at first they didn’t.
Dana: When he was first diagnosed, I was relieved. I was like, “Okay, this is not all in my head.”
Andy: Yeah, right.
Dana: The doctor handed us a prescription medication straight away with no other explanation of what I should do other than go take that prescription medication to the pharmacy, and I did.
Dana: It was a relief. It was. I was actually really excited about what this medication could do. I was excited that I finally had a pill that could help me. That pill that’s going to fix that ill, as they say. And so, at first, everything was okay, but then as his dosage increased, side effects became a big problem and they became worse and worse. His doctor prescribed him another prescription medication to counteract the side effects of the first one, and this continued until my young son was on three strong medications. I think at that age he was five. So when the doctor suggested a fourth medication to counteract the new side effects that had just come up, that’s when I said, “Hmm, maybe this is not the right way,” and really just questioned the path that we were on and it changed my complete career path.
Dana: I went back to school. I did my holistic health degree, multiple specific certifications in this particular area, and really learned how things, other than medication, like food and other natural solutions, can affect so many aspects of our lives. I began to learn that ADHD symptoms can be reduced naturally. Now, my son is just about to become a teenager, so I’m glad that I’m talking with you on this podcast today. He’s thriving and he hasn’t been on meds for years. He’s in middle school and he’s a straight-A student. But, most importantly, he’s happy, and my family is happy, and we really now have peace and calm in our house. I will say, he’s still a teenager and I’m sure that you’ve talked a lot about that on this podcast, but he’s a normal teenager. We have normal teenage problems, not ones that were ruling our life.
Dana: Once I learned about the importance of food and these other strategies on behavior and focus and all of this stuff that comes in relation to ADHD, I just knew I couldn’t keep this information to myself. I really didn’t want anyone else to have to go through the struggles that my family went through. And so, over the years, I’ve worked with close to a thousand other families to help them get to the same place as me so much quicker.
Andy: Is there a rise in ADHD? I’ve heard people talking about numbers trending up, up, up over the past decades. Is that just because it’s being diagnosed more? Is that like there’s really an increase in the actual incidences of ADHD in our children? Or, what’s going on?
Dana: That’s a really, really great question, and I’ll give you some of those statistics. So, currently, there’s about six million children impacted by ADHD just in the USA alone. Aside from ADHD, it’s estimated that 54% of American children have been diagnosed with a chronic illness in 2018, but this figure was only 15% a couple of years ago. So look at that increase, 15% to 54%. So one in two have anxiety, asthma, Type I, Type II diabetes, epilepsy, cystic fibrosis, heart problems. I mean, I could go on and on, learning difficulties, sinus infections. One in five have allergies. One in six have developmental delays, and 1 in 68 have autism. And so, why do you think that this rise has occurred so rapidly? You’re probably asking me the question, aren’t you? You’re probably wanting to know.
Andy: That I always was so curious about, yeah. Is it social media? Is it a diet? Yeah.
Dana: Yeah, it could be. Definitely. The answer is simple. It all begins in the gut and that’s a big part of what we do. 80% of the body’s entire immune system is within the gut walls, along with billions of nerve cells and extensive amount of gut bacteria. And all of our children’s health is literally quite connected to everything that occurs in the gut. When we bring in all of these terrible foods, when we bring in outside factors like environmental toxins, things that are going on in the environment, they break down the lining of the gut. There’s this huge rise because food, if we have a look back so many years ago, there were no packaged foods. There were no chemicals in those packaged foods. Those foods were from the land. When I talked to families on the phone and asked them about their diet, they’re like, “Oh, well, just a normal kid diet. Pretty healthy. You know, chicken nuggets and fries.”
Dana: And, yeah, pizza, exactly. The typical American diet. And so we look at that and we think that’s why there’s a rise. The increasing convenient food packages, toxins chemicals. Some of the packages that you turn around, you look at, you can’t even pronounce some of the ingredients.
Andy: Yeah, it leads to all kinds of different things that then we treat with medications instead of just looking at what’s really causing it or getting to the root of what’s going on.
Dana: Exactly. And when you get a breakdown of that lining of the gut. Gut is connected to the brain, and there is a two-way communication system between the two of them. And the main part that talks to the gut is the frontal lobe and the frontal lobe related to focus and attention and executive function and planning. So you see where I’m going with this?
Dana: You break down the gut that affects the connection with the frontal lobe, the frontal lobe gets affected, and that is AKA ADHD.
Andy: Sounds like, yeah.
Dana: Yeah, exactly. But also, 90% to 95% of the body’s serotonin and 50% of the body’s dopamine is produced in the gut and these neurotransmitters are the ones that help us manage our emotions, balance our mood, help our cognitive function, and emotional dysregulation is a really common symptom of ADHD. But many caregivers don’t realize that this emotional dysregulation actually starts in the gut where serotonin and dopamine are made. And it’s not only just ADHD. Teens these days are suffering with huge increase in anxiety, in depression, and it really comes back to the gut. Let’s feed the gut what it needs so the body can produce these wonderful neurotransmitters that these teens need to feel good, to be calm, to feel happy, to have that really good cognitive function.
Andy: Why have so many of us not heard about this before? We think about ADHD, we think, “Oh, Ritalin, Adderall,” the way to fix it is taking medications. I mean, are there studies that show that food can have these kind of benefits? And why do you think we haven’t heard about it?
Dana: Yeah. Look, that’s a really, really great question, and I could take this answer in many different ways and I’ll probably try not to be too political with answering unless you want me to be. I have run into so many non-believers in my time and, I’ll tell you, my husband used to be one of those. And I always throw him under the bus on these podcasts. But, honestly, it was the science that first made me rethink the direction we were traveling in with my son. Why don’t we hear about it? I could list off a couple of things. Pharmaceutical companies drive the industry.
Dana: The insurance companies drive the industry. Most traditional doctors only received one hour of nutrition training in their whole degree, so they just don’t have the knowledge. But when there’s healthy people, pharmaceutical companies aren’t making money. Insurance companies are not making money. So, unfortunately, the way the industry is created or driven is very much focused on that quick fix. “Here, take this pill and you will get better.”
Dana: I was skeptic. I was like, “Yeah, give me the pill. I want the pill.”
Andy: Totally, yeah.
Dana: But honestly, it didn’t turn out well for us and it was the science that really made me sort of rethink the direction and it was the science that convinced me that these natural methods were worth a shot. There was a study in 2015, that concluded that 64% of children that are diagnosed with ADHD were actually experiencing a hypersensitivity to food. That’s 64%. That’s a lot of that study. I wonder what might happen if these children change their diets and remove the foods that they were sensitive to. Is it possible these ADHD symptoms would disappear or at least become more manageable? I believe it is. Anyway, there was another study that showed that 56% of ADHD kids tested positive for food allergies compared to less than 8% of kids in the general population.
Andy: Oh, interesting.
Dana: 8% in the general population, but 56% of kids with ADHD, and that tells me, there is a clear correlation between ADHD and food allergies.
Andy: Yeah, right.
Dana: There was another study in 2017, that concluded that the addition of micronutrients in the diet improved overall function, reduced impairments, improved attention, emotional regulation, and aggression. Clearly, from all of these, medication is not the only way to help children with ADHD. Some of those articles really show, all those studies really show that there is a huge connection that’s not been talked about and I really am here to tell families that there are other options out there. And if medication is working for you, that is great.
Andy: Sure, yeah.
Dana: I’m not against medication, but to be constantly increasing the dose and adding new medications to fight symptoms from the old medications, that’s not okay in my opinion,
Andy: You mentioned a number of specific foods in there, the chicken nuggets. And what’s the overview of the worst things or the things that are most driving the poor gut health and leading to a lot of the problems that we’re talking about, including ADHD?
Dana: The top three foods that I recommend all families remove are gluten, dairy, and soy. These are really the top three culprits that are driving inflammation in the body and driving inflammation in the gut. They actually also can lead to an immune response and increased leaky gut. So leaky gut is when that breakdown of the lining of the gut starts to happen. But I also recommend families of children with ADHD and other mental disorders like anxiety and depression, avoid things like artificial flavors and colors and excess sugar. Yep.
Dana: Kids with ADHD, in particular, are more likely to have compromised immune systems so the effects of these substances tend to have a great effect on the whole body. That’s where we start, and I know that seems hard, but I definitely believe, especially with teens.
Andy: Cut out all happiness, cut out all fun.
Dana: Yeah. There is lots of other good alternatives that are much better for you and better for our kids, and they can still have fun and still enjoy the food that they’re eating. We’ve been on this journey for years and we’ve been gluten-, dairy-, soy-free for years. And, honestly, my children don’t miss out. They get just as good things, but you know what, their gut and their brain are happy and then they’re happy. So I used to suffer from anxiety as well many years ago and I used to be on an SSRI and it wasn’t until I changed my diet and I healed my gut that I was able to get off that SSRI as well.
Andy: So, it is the big three that you mentioned here: the gluten, the dairy, the soy. What is it about those foods in particular that are creating problems or leading to this imbalance?
Dana: Yep. Okay, so I’m going to go a little bit deep here. I think that’s a good question and I think I’ll tackle the biggest one and that’s really gluten. That’s like the number one food I recommend all children with ADHD cut out of their diets. It’s so inflammatory that pretty much everyone, even those without ADHD or a known gluten intolerance should stop eating it. That’s my belief, plain and simple; gluten is harmful for everyone. And that’s because gluten triggers intestinal permeability in everyone, which means that leaky gut that I was mentioning earlier even if they don’t show an allergic response to it. And when the gut breaks down, those walls break down, the walls of the intestine form a barrier allowing water and nutrients to pass through the gut, but blocking the other not so nice things from entering the bloodstream. And so when a person has that leaky gut, it basically means those tight junctions in the gut that are supposed to control what passes through the lining of the intestines aren’t doing their job effectively.
Dana: Now, they’re allowing toxins, harmful substances to enter the bloodstream that aren’t supposed to be there. So what do you imagine happens when these toxic substances enter the bloodstream?
Andy: That does not sound good.
Dana: No, but the body fights them off and tries to get rid of them. So when something enters the bloodstream that’s not there, it triggers an inflammatory response as the body seeks to try and rectify it, and gluten leads to increased intestinal permeability, which leads to leaky gut, which leads to inflammation, which leads to additional symptoms like brain fog, inattention, stomachaches, constipation, reflux, hyperactivity, anger issues, wheezing, asthma or allergies, even all of that sort of stuff. And a lot of those symptoms that I mentioned, obviously tie in with ADHD, but other things as well.
Dana: So, by cutting out gluten, parents of children with ADHD are removing one food that significantly contributes to inflammation in the body and in the brain. And in my experience, when we remove gluten along with those other two highly inflammatory foods, like dairy and soy, and really focus on feeding the body the right ways, families find that ADHD symptoms significantly reduce and sometimes even disappear completely because we are allowing that gut to heal and repair.
Andy: You talk about feeding the body the right way. We’re going to get rid of these big three foods that we talked about. Now, what are we going to replace them with? Are there certain foods that like are really important to try and increase or to eat more of, or?
Dana: A thousand percent, yes. I will tell families that gluten, dairy, and soy doesn’t necessarily mean it’s healthy. And so it’s really important not what just to take out, but also what to put back into the body. As far as what food to eat, my best tip is to focus on those whole nutritious, fresh fruits and veggies, grass-fed animal protein like meat and poultry, seafood, eggs, and also plenty of healthy fats. Fats aren’t bad, but avocado oil, coconut oil, olive oil, they all feed the brain, which is really important for our kids, especially those that are compromised.
Dana: So along with that, drinking plenty of spring water, because you’re avoiding harmful chemicals that you would be surprised are in so many waters. Like if you test the water in your house and every state’s so different, but there are really harmful chemicals in it. So drinking spring water is a better alternative, but also water really helps detox the body and remove the toxins that are already there. And so all of these foods and the water really provide our body with the nutrients it needs so that it can function at its best. So, as I said earlier, when you look at some of these packets on the back, you can’t even pronounce them. So really my rule of thumb is avoid anything that you can’t pronounce.
Andy: What about sugar? How come that’s not one of the big three. And, also, can you explain soy a little more? I thought soy was healthy. Tofu and the hippies are eating and it’s singing kumbaya, eating tofu, isn’t that …?
Dana: Yeah, totally. It’s a good question and a lot of people don’t realize how many products have actual soy in it. And they think that soy is going to …
Andy: Yeah, it’s everywhere.
Dana: … soy is going to be the easiest one to take out of their diet. It actually turns out to be one of the hardest one. And that’s because 95% of the soy crops in the America are genetically modified. And genetically modified, the jury is still out on that. But, basically, they’re taking food and genetically modifying it to make more crops. They’re obviously all sprayed with glyphosate, which is a harmful chemical that is being fed into our bodies and toxin overload in our body. And so when there’s non-GMO organic soy, that is better.
Dana: But also, it mimics estrogen production as well. And so we are finding that a lot of women in particular have something called estrogen dominance, which causes a lot of symptoms, not just of ADHD, but of other things as well, and that’s a topic for another day. But especially with kids going through their teen years and they’re going through all those hormonal changes, feeding the body with something that’s going to mimic estrogen production is not going to be good for their hormones, especially girls. And so there are those multiple reasons why soy is one of those top inflammatory foods, in particular, that it’s genetically modified.
Dana: Now, you mentioned sugar. I just prefer to focus on natural sugars like honey, maple syrup, dates, because sugar is so highly refined. It’s got lots of artificial chemicals in it and it’s in everything. And sugar, basically, especially with kids with ADHD, they have a lack of dopamine being created in their body. And so when they start eating sugar, it becomes like this vicious cycle and the more sugar they eat, the more they need to get that dopamine hit.
Dana: So, they’re searching for anything that’s going to give them that dopamine hit, and one of those things is sugar. But also video games, and I’m sure you’ve talked about video games a lot on the podcast. But a lot of kids with ADHD are searching for that dopamine hit because they’re lacking it in their brain and it becomes addictive. And the more that they have it, the more they need it. So couple of different reasons on the sugar. I always say to reduce, to remove artificial sugars, replace it with natural sweeteners, and reduce the amount that they’re having on a daily basis.[/restrict]
About Dana Kay
Dana Kay is the author of Thriving With ADHD.
Dana is a Board Certified Holistic Health and Nutrition Practitioner. She helps families who have children with ADHD through nutrition and functional lab testing and holistic healing methods. She holds a Bachelors in Holistic Health Science from the International Quantum University of Integrative Medicine, as well as multiple certifications and advanced training in nutrition and health. She is a board Certified Holistic Health Coach by the American Association of Drugless Practitioners and a member of the International Institute of Complementary Therapies.
Before working in health, Dana spent 15 years working in accounting. She changed career paths after her son was diagnosed with ADHD and struggled to find effective remedies.