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Lyme disease is on the rise not only in adults but in children as well. While often overlooked, nutrition is an essential tool for supporting Lyme recovery in children. It has critical impacts on immune system function, gut health, inflammation regulation, and neurocognitive processes, including mood and behavior. Read on to learn how to use strategic nutrition changes to support Lyme recovery in children.
Remove Gluten & (Possibly) Dairy
Many children with Lyme disease suffer from some degree of increased intestinal permeability (“leaky gut”) due to food sensitivities or allergies, medication usage, stress, and inflammation triggered by chronic infection, along with gut microbiota imbalances. Gluten and dairy sensitivities can perpetuate gut imbalances and prevent the immune system and detoxification pathways from working properly. For these reasons, it is crucial, in my opinion, to address potential food sensitivities.
In my clinical experience, I have found that most children with Lyme disease benefit from removing gluten from their diets. Gluten and dairy proteins often cross-react, so these children may also need to remove dairy or consume only certain types of dairy products. Before recommending that a child goes on a gluten-free and dairy-free diet, I prefer to screen for celiac disease risk (with a celiac panel) and test for non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS) and dairy sensitivities first. These tests let me know how strict a child may need to be with gluten and dairy avoidance. I typically go with LabCorp’s celiac antibodies profile and the celiac HLA DQ association to screen for genetic risk for celiac disease. If any of these markers come back positive, I will refer clients to a gastroenterologist for the next step in celiac testing, which is a small intestinal biopsy. For NCGS and dairy sensitivities, I am currently using the Vibrant Wheat Zoomer and Dairy Zoomer.
Why remove gluten from a child’s diet if they have Lyme disease? Gluten has multiple adverse effects on the gut that may be particularly detrimental for children with Lyme disease:
In susceptible children, gluten increases intestinal permeability, allowing food antigens and toxins to escape the gut into the systemic circulation, exacerbating chronic inflammation and distracting the immune system from clearing Lyme bacteria.
Gluten is broken down into peptides (smaller protein molecules) with opioid-like properties. These molecules are called “gliadorphins.” Gliadorphins can impair gut motility, causing issues such as chronic constipation, and can trigger behavioral problems through their impact on opioid receptors. (1) These influences disrupt gut health and may exacerbate the mood and cognitive dysfunction triggered by Lyme disease.
Gluten-containing foods tend to be addictive and displace healthier, nutrient-dense, healing foods in a child’s diet. We need to focus more on these nutrient-dense healing foods to support Lyme recovery.
Why remove dairy from a child’s diet if they have Lyme disease?
Like gluten, dairy proteins can be broken down into peptides with opioid-like properties. These molecules are called “casomorphins.” (2)
In susceptible individuals, dairy proteins can also increase intestinal permeability, precipitating systemic inflammation and inhibiting robust immune function.
Dairy consumption can raise histamine in children, worsening allergies, rashes, and behavioral issues mediated by histamine.
Consider Food Sensitivity & Food Allergy Testing
Beyond gluten and dairy sensitivities, a child with Lyme disease may present with other food sensitivities that can manifest as symptoms such as:
These are not symptoms that a child (or anyone!) should have to experience. Food sensitivity testing can help us determine which foods are a good fit for your child currently and which ones may need to be avoided for some time to enable gut healing.
Avoid Added Sugars & Refined Flours
Sugar compromises immune function. High sugar intakes skew the composition of the gut microbiota towards pro-inflammatory bacteria and depreciate immune function. (3) Remember that ~70-80% of the immune system resides in the gut, so factors that harm the gut tend to damage the immune system. Refined sugars and starches also increase the abundance of intestinal bacteria that promote a leaky gut.
Furthermore, high blood sugar levels (which more and more children are experiencing in the modern-day industrialized world) significantly reduce the capacity of white blood cells to target and destroy harmful microbes. So what factors tend to raise blood sugar the most? High intakes of refined sugars and starches.
I recommend that you create an eating environment for your child that limits or avoids the following added sugars and starchy foods as much as possible:
Dehydrated cane juice
Evaporated cane juice
Refined Starchy Foods:
Gluten-free grain-based pasta (such as brown rice and corn pasta)
Gluten-free bread and other baked goods
If you are baking a gluten-free treat for your child, use organic maple syrup, local raw honey, or whole pitted dates (rather than date sugar) to impart the baked item with sweetness. Small occasional amounts of coconut sugar are alright too.
Instead, focus on the following carb sources for your child with Lyme disease:
Whole-Food Nutrient-Dense Starches:
White potatoes (Yes, white potatoes do contain nutrients! They are decent sources of potassium, B6, niacin, and manganese)
Root veggies (parsnips, carrots, rutabaga, turnips)
Gluten-free steel-cut or rolled oats (not instant oats, these have a high glycemic index)
Organic white basmati rice
Don’t go crazy with fruit. Most of the fruit we have commercially available today is exceptionally sugary; it has been bred that way to appeal to our sugar-craving brains and taste buds! Moderate fruit intake can undoubtedly be part of a nutrient-dense, whole foods diet. However, I don’t think it is ideal for children to mainline fruit all day, particularly higher-sugar fruits such as bananas, or eat fruits alone without simultaneous consumption of protein and healthy fats since isolated fruit intake can spike blood sugar. Blood sugar spikes in children are linked to hyperactivity and other behavioral problems. High intakes of sugary fruits may also contribute to gut dysbiosis in susceptible children. Therefore, I recommend that parents feed their children lower-sugar fruits, such as berries and avocados, with smaller amounts of higher-sugar fruits, like bananas and mango.
Learn the specific foods to eat (and 3 to avoid) to support your recovery from Lyme Disease.
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Optimize Protein Intake
In my clinical experience, many of the kids I work with are not eating enough protein. Insufficient protein intake depletes the body of its circulating amino acid pool; we need amino acids (the constituent building blocks of protein) to make neurotransmitters, the master antioxidant glutathione, not to mention countless other enzymes. A child’s protein needs will depend on their age, weight, placement on a growth curve, and other health conditions. I recommend working with a qualified nutritionist to determine your child’s unique, optimal protein intake.
In my professional opinion, animal proteins are crucial for growing children because they are vastly more bioavailable and less antigenic than plant proteins. Furthermore, children with Lyme often have gut imbalances that impair digestion, making prioritizing high-bioavailability animal proteins even more crucial. Here are some ideal protein options to choose from:
Grass-fed beef, bison, and other red meats
Pastured and organic poultry
Organic and grass-fed dairy products (if tolerated)
Wild-caught or sustainably farmed fish
Focus on Nutrient Density
The standard American child’s diet is low in nutrients. This is a big problem for the average child but can be devastating for a child with Lyme disease whose nutrient needs are increased due to gut imbalances, inflammation, and high demand on the immune system.
A nutrient-dense diet prioritizes foods that are minimally processed, rich in nutrients, and low in antinutrients. Antinutrients are compounds (primarily concentrated in agricultural plant foods such as grains and legumes) that inhibit nutrient absorption in the gut; examples of antinutrients include lectins and phytates/phytic acid. Nutrient-dense foods include animal foods such as meat, eggs, and fish; vegetables; fruits, nuts, and seeds; and healthy fats such as olive oil and grass-fed butter or ghee.
Healthy fats are vital not only for proper growth and development in children, but also for optimal immune function, a top priority for children with chronic infections such as Lyme disease. Saturated fats and dietary cholesterol should not be shied away from because cholesterol is necessary for us to utilize fat-soluble vitamins such as vitamins A, E, D, and K, which are all involved in immune function. Good dietary sources of saturated fats and cholesterol include egg yolks, pastured and organic full-fat dairy products (for children who tolerate them), beef and chicken liver, and grass-fed meats. Cholesterol is also necessary for the production and function of serotonin receptors in the brain; this is why low cholesterol levels can be linked to depression and aggression. Your child’s mental and emotional health require cholesterol intake through healthy, whole foods! (4)
In my clinical nutrition practice, I go through a “dietary audit” with each child I work with to determine the nutrient density of their diet and identify areas for improvement. Identifying shortfall nutrients and filling in nutritional gaps can make a huge difference in a child’s ability to recover from Lyme.
Support Gut Health
Your child with Lyme disease needs to nourish their gut daily with foods that support a resilient intestinal barrier (the layer of cells and proteins that lines the intestine, keeping food and bacteria in the gut and out of the bloodstream) and a robust gut microbiota. This is particularly important if your child has taken antibiotics for Lyme (or other infections) or is on strong herbal antimicrobials. Therefore, I strongly encourage you, parents, to feed your child with Lyme disease fermented foods as a source of probiotics daily, along with prebiotic foods that fuel the growth of beneficial gut bacteria.
Examples of probiotic foods include:
Grass-fed, organic yogurt and kefir (if your child tolerates dairy products)
Non-dairy unsweetened coconut or almond milk yogurt
Sauerkraut and other fermented veggies, such as kimchi
Low-sugar kombucha; be careful with most commercial kombuchas, which are a significant source of added sugars. Health-Ade Lemon Ginger kombucha is one lower-sugar variety.
If your child is intolerant of fermented foods, they may need to work on gut health first. Intestinal bacterial overgrowth and histamine intolerance are common reasons why a child can’t tolerate fermented foods.
Examples of prebiotic foods include:
I also recommend incorporating bone broth and grass-fed gelatin and collagen as sources of the amino acids glutamine, glycine, and proline, which support intestinal barrier repair.
Cooking with children is a great time to get creative! Find ways to integrate more vegetables into your child’s diet, such as in egg “muffins” (essentially, egg batter with veggies mixed in and poured into muffin tins for baking) or smoothies. In addition, try incorporating nutrient-dense foods such as grass-fed beef or pastured chicken liver mixed into burger patties or Bolognese sauce. There are countless ways to get creative in the kitchen; you’ll find many ideas in my book, The Lyme Disease 30-Day Meal Plan.
Thoughts on Restrictive Diets for Kids with Lyme
Let’s be honest; the average diet consumed by children in the Westernized world is far from healthy. This type of diet may be “normal,” but it certainly isn’t conducive to optimal health in an otherwise healthy child, let alone a child with Lyme disease or another tickborne infection. A shocking new study recently published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) found that a whopping 67 percent of the foods consumed by American children is junk food! As I’ve discussed already, the types of ingredients in junk food (gluten, added sugars, refined flours) are not conducive to a healthy body. Junk food will hinder proper immune function, impairing clearance of harmful microbes, including those involved in Lyme disease. This recent statistic is thus not something we can conveniently ignore. (5)
That being said, there is a fine line between helping your child eat well and becoming a “diet dictator” in your child’s life. We need to strike a healthy balance with children’s diets to optimize their health without triggering an eating disorder or subclinical disordered eating behaviors. Here is one potential solution: The “90/10 rule.” The 90/10 rule suggests that, 90 percent of the time, your child with Lyme disease should be eating a whole foods-based, anti-inflammatory, nutrient-dense diet personalized to suit their unique nutritional needs. The remaining 10 percent of the time, which should primarily encompass situations you cannot control, such as other children’s birthday parties, your child may consume foods that are not usually a part of their healthy diet. In clinical practice, I find that the 90/10 rule is helpful for parents and gives children some autonomy.
It is also crucial to model healthy eating for your child at home. The sooner you can start this modeling behavior in your child’s life and establish the norms of healthy eating in your household, the better! By setting your own nutritional standards, a healthy way of eating overall should not ultimately feel restrictive to your child.
Furthermore, I feel that I need to emphasize the following: “Special” diets, such as low-FODMAP, low-histamine, and low-salicylate diets, etc., should NOT become long-term dietary strategies for your child. While these diets can improve symptoms and, in some cases, address underlying dysfunctional biochemical pathways, each diet excludes nutrient-dense, wholesome foods and reduces dietary diversity. Reductions in nutrient-dense foods in the diet and low dietary diversity may set your child up for nutrient deficiencies and gut microbiota imbalances.
Yes, Your Kids Can Eat A Whole Foods Diet
The concept of “kid food” is essentially an invention created by the food industry – the same food industry that has given us high-calorie, additive-laden, nutrient-depleted junk food. For nearly all of human evolutionary history, children ate the same foods that their parents, grandparents, and other adult relations did. While I believe that kids should ultimately be able to eat the same whole foods that their parents eat, without having to doctor up the food to make it more kid-like (think: turning organic chicken breast into chicken nuggets), I understand that having kid-friendly versions of “adult foods” can be helpful. These “kid-friendly” versions of food are constructive if you’re just transitioning your child onto a whole foods diet. Consider working with me if you need help figuring out how to feed your child whole foods in a kid-friendly, approachable way. I can create a nutrient-dense nutrition plan and meal plan for your child, including nourishing, healing foods in a kid-friendly format.
Overall, nutrition is essential for recovery from Lyme disease in children. Optimal nutrition creates a healthy gut, which is essentially the foundation of the immune system. It supplies nutrients for supporting critical immune cells, a balanced inflammatory response, and healthy brain function.
Does your child have Lyme disease? Are you struggling with figuring out what to feed your child? Consider working with me! I am currently accepting new clients in my clinical nutrition practice. If you’re interested in diving deep into improving your child’s nutrition and health by working one-on-one with me, reach out to me here to schedule your discovery call. The discovery call will allow us to meet and talk together to decide if my nutrition services are the right fit for your child’s needs. I look forward to connecting with you!