Speech Delay – How Diet and Supplements May Help

Mum and son talking

Wanting to hear the sound of your child’s voice is an intense and almost urgent need for a parent. The reasons for speech delay can be multifactorial and we have found that besides the functional medicine approach having input from other specialists such as OTs and SLTS as well as working on primitive reflex can make a big difference to the outcome of a preverbal or speech delayed child.

In this article, I have focused on the functional medicine approach to support the development of speech and have shared with you the key areas of investigation when we start working with pre-verbal children and the types of interventions we have found helpful.

Essential Fatty Acids (EFA) – Omega 3 and 6

This is probably the first thing we need to get right. The EFA you might be most familiar with is Omega 3 fatty acid. Multiple studies have shown the link between low EFAs and poor development, ADHD, speech delay, poor focus and concentration, asthma and eczema. A child does not grow out of this. If your child is eating a lot of processed foods or foods containing inflammatory vegetable oils such sunflower and safflower oils (almost universally used in processed foods) then the healthy omega 3 fats can be depleted very easily and very quickly, giving rise to a multitude of symptoms one of which is a delay in speech development.

In infants, low omega 3 fatty acid has been linked to:

  • Extreme restlessness
  • Poor sleep patterns
  • Difficulties in feeding
  • Constant thirst
  • Frequent tantrums
  • Headbanging
  • Rocking

In older children, low omega 3 fatty acid has been linked to:

  • Physical and mental restlessness
  • Poor concentration and brief attention span
  • Increased activity – always on the go
  • Impulsiveness
  • No sense of danger
  • Easily distracted
  • Difficulty doing tasks alone
  • Poor co-ordination
  • Weak short-term memory
  • Inflexible personality – uncooperative, defiant and disobedient
  • Problems with making friends
  • Lack of self-esteem
  • Sleep issues
  • Poor or excessive appetite
  • Normal or high IQ but under-performance at school
  • Unpredictable behaviour

Testing for Essential Fatty Acid balance

There are a number of laboratories offering tests either as a venous blood draw or finger prick test. This test is notoriously hard to test to get right and we have found Biolab and Body Bio as the two laboratories where the testing has proved to be the most accurate.

Type of Omega 3 fatty acid to take

Fish oil is the most readily absorbable Omega 3 fatty for the body but is also high in histamine, which can be problematic for some children. My article published in the Autism Eye Magazine on this subject may help you ascertain whether your child is likely to be suffering from non-allergic mast cell activation, most likely in response to environmental and stress triggers, which in turn contributes to inflammation. If using fish oils you have to make sure you find an excellent supplier that can prove its filtration process otherwise you can end up with a dose of toxic metal like mercury as well. We like the oils from Bare Biology* where there is strong evidence of extensive quality control. If fish oils are not an option due to the clinical picture we like using algae-based oils from Lipolife*. There are other vegan oils we can use which will depend on the clinical picture of the child.


One of the most important things we do with children who are preverbal is to get the diet absolutely spot on. Identifying and eliminating food sensitives has been life-changing for some children not only in helping them sleep better and learn easier and focus more but also in developing speech and language skills. We all know that processed foods are not good for us but what you may not know is that processed foods contain a huge amount of glutamate which can cause an imbalance in a neurotransmitter called GABA responsible for speech. Neurotransmitters are brain chemicals that communicate information throughout the brain and body.

Imbalances occur when one side or the other becomes overactive. The goal is to keep them in balance.

For children with autism, the “seesaw” we’re concerned about is the one between glutamate, an excitatory neurotransmitter, and GABA, a calming neurotransmitter essential for speech. Too much glutamate causes excitation leading to stimulatory behaviour, called “stims”, and excess nerve firing and nerve damage. Not enough GABA and calming neurotransmission lead to lack of speech.

When the glutamate/GABA seesaw tips too far over to glutamate, reducing glutamate intake helps to restore balance and correct the health symptoms. While we all need low levels of glutamate, avoiding excessive intake will help stop the inflammatory process that glutamate and other excitotoxins trigger.

To keep glutamate levels balanced, it’s best to avoid all foods (and nutritional supplements) that contain (or prompt the body to create) glutamate, glutamic acid, aspartate, and/or aspartic acid and cysteine. Once you begin to read labels, you’ll be surprised how widespread these ingredients are– even in foods your children currently eat! we often use urine organic acid tests to ascertain the balance of neurotransmitters and identify those that are out of balance.

To keep it simple, by avoiding all processed foods you can cut out almost all of the excess glutamate. Also, keep an eye on kids who are addicted to ketchup and parmesan cheese which both contain naturally high levels of glutamate. Long cooked bone broth, which is generally touted as a health food is also another significant source of glutamate.


This is a significant subject and something we tackle right from the start. Through testing, we aim to identify the source of inflammation so that we can have a targeted approach. Culprits can be varied and include high yeast load, mould, toxic load, or viral load, especially from the herpes group of viruses such as EBV, HHV-6, CMV, chickenpox, shingles and so on.

It is crucial to identify all the things that might be contributing to inflammation and eradicate them and balance the body out. This can take time and it has to be done safely and thoroughly with a close eye on replenishing nutrients and balancing gut microbiota and usually will include a host of foods and supplements that can repair the gut.

Testing is crucial and we work with a number of laboratories in the UK, Germany and United States to get an accurate picture of the contributory factors and we then set about putting a strategic protocol together to put out the inflammatory fires and restore health.

Gut Dysbiosis

To get gut health right is fundamental in every single child we see. Our gut ecosystem, also known as the “microbiome”, is made up of trillions of bacteria, yeast, viruses and even parasites keeping things in balance. This ecosystem is a bit like the Amazon Rainforest and trains and maintains our immune system,  helps digest our food, protects against other bacteria that cause disease, and produces vitamins including B vitamins B12, thiamine and riboflavin, and Vitamin K, which is needed for bone mass and for blood coagulation. Our microbiome also helps regulate our neurotransmitters and communicates with the brain via our gut enteric nervous system, also known as the second brain.

We use cutting edge stool, blood and urine tests to assess inflammation, enzyme function, level of short-chain fatty acids, blend of healthy bacteria and the levels of the unhealthy ones, as well as ascertain yeast overgrowth and parasitic infection (which is more common than you can imagine) which can all contribute to the clinical picture.

We work on removing the nasty things in the gut that are unhelpful which may be tipping the body towards poor health and heal the gut whilst replenishing it with lots of the beneficial bacteria and helpful yeast to help maintain a healthy gut ecosystem. We use a number of compounds, some totally bespoke to the child and would discuss the specifics with you in a consultation.

In terms of therapeutic foods for the gut microbiome to flourish we need to focus on PREbiotics such as fibre from fruit, vegetables, nuts and seeds and resistant starches from beans, rice, potato,  pasta (Top Tip: when cooled down the resistant starch can increase by more than sixteen times! even if it is re-heated).  Another major focus is the use of PRObiotics found in foods such as kefir, yoghurt, miso, sauerkraut etc. and in commercially available probiotics. We choose specific probiotic to use based on the child and clinical symptoms. Some of the ones we like are Customs Probiotics, GutPro, Megaspore, and Florastor from Microbiome Labs.

Oxidative Stress

This is when there is an imbalance of free radicals and antioxidants which cause tissue and cell damage and in turn increase inflammation. Eating lots of fruit and vegetables, nuts and seeds as well as healthy grass-fed meat, wild game and oily fish and avoiding processed foods, can go a very long way in maintaining a healthy balance and limiting oxidative stress.

One of the best ways to support the gut is through functional foods that are easily absorbed even if the gut is not in the best shape. Consider Making delicious smoothies with berries, avocados, nut or seed milk and some probiotic food like kefir or use a commercial probiotic instead. You can add a little bit of raw honey to sweeten things up and turbo-boost nutrition with things like bee pollen*, flaxseeds*, and dried berry powder like Antioxidant Berry Blast from Natural Traditions*.

Speech is complicated and as ever, there is no one-size-fits-all approach and we work with your child to help create a targeted and bespoke plan to get to the route cause.

*As a reader of our blog you can receive 10% off all your supplements purchased from the Natural Dispensary, by using the code SMC010 in the Promo Code at the checkout.