Most health issues can be helped with nutritional and lifestyle support, but it’s essential to start in the right place, or a lot of effort can be wasted. So, where do we start? We always start by calming cortisol and reducing your child’s stress first and foremost.
Cortisol is known as our ‘stress hormone’ and is produced by our adrenals, small glands that sit on top of our kidneys. Cortisol is essential and mainly helps regulate the stress response, although it influences almost every bodily function, including:
Sleep and wake cycle
When our body is stressed, it is in the ‘sympathetic’ or ‘fight or flight’ stage and makes us ready to take on danger. However, in this state, it puts all other non-essential functions on hold and will wait until it’s calm again to rest, recover, and heal. The nervous system needs to be in the ‘parasympathetic’ state, otherwise known as ‘rest and digest’, to do essential repairs and healing.
This is why we always give children support for their adrenal glands and cortisol response first. Without this foundation, all other interventions will not work as well.
If you don’t do this important work first, you may find yourself stuck in a ‘boom–bust’ cycle where a child’s health will improve a bit but then crash again. If your child’s body is at its limit with stress and you add in a detox protocol or extra supplements, it may not be able to handle it. This is why so many times kids get worse when put on nutritional protocols – their bodies are maxed out already, and they cannot handle anything else, even if it’s supposed to help their system.
Our aim is to support the child’s stress response and keep them in a good place until they are strong enough to handle the next steps in their health plan.
It has been well researched that children with ASD, PANDAS or PANS are much more reactive to stress and levels of cortisol remain in their blood for longer than in control subjects. For instance, if a child is frighted by a dog barking, the stress response will flood the body with cortisol. This will cause the child to feel hyper-aroused, and they may cry, shake, stim, or cling to their carer for comfort or other behaviours.
As the cortisol stops being produced and clears from their system, they can calm down and re-regulate to their baseline. Now, one child may be able to do all this within the space of 20 minutes. For some children with ASD, PANDAS or PANS, a stress response can literally last the whole day. This continuous, high level of cortisol will stop functions necessary for better health and have an impact on their immune system, digestion, sleep and more.
In our experience, most children with long-term underlying health concerns will suffer from stress and an imbalance of cortisol. Parents should look out for the following symptoms that indicate the child may have problems with stress and cortisol regulation:
If you notice your child is suffering from the above more than usual, it may be time to put some things in place to help calm their systems down.
Every child is different, and parents soon learn what helps calm their child down after a stressful situation, whether it’s singing to them or distracting them with a toy or game. Here we’ve listed the main ways we help support a child’s ‘rest and digest’ state.
Avoid stress triggers
Learn your child’s main triggers and try to avoid them as much as possible. This is not ‘giving in’ to the child, although it can often feel like they are ruling the situation. There will be a time and place to help them adjust to the triggers, but not until they are stronger and have more resilience overall. So, if your child has meltdowns every time you go to the grocery store, try to find a way to avoid this situation. Of course, some triggers (like going to school) may be unavoidable so just do your best to manage the situation using as many strategies as you can.
Every child will use different self-soothing techniques to recover from stress. Learn what they like to use the best and support that. Many parents don’t like their child stimming as a stress response because it calls attention to the fact that they are autistic. However, this may be an essential way for them to calm down, so please don’t discourage them. The only behaviour you should discourage is if they are in danger of hurting themselves or others. I sometimes encourage parents to try a bit of stimming themselves next time they feel stressed – it can feel really good! Other stress-reducing techniques may involve singing, music, watching a video, jumping, or a favourite activity e.g. counting or playing with toys. Do whatever it takes to help your child reset their nervous system as quickly as possible, and you will start to see the benefits.
Occupational therapists have long known that the right sensory experience can help regulate a child’s moods and stress levels. Today, there are literally thousands of products on the market to help children with autism and their sensory needs, including fidget toys, chew toys, and weighted blankets. If you work with an occupational therapist, you can ask them what they recommend for your child. We’ve found the website www.sensorydirect.com that has a huge range and is well organised. This should give you an idea of what’s out there. They seem to be a reputable company but feel free to shop around for the best price and quality. We have no affiliation or experience with them.
Balance blood sugar
Foods high in sugar or refined carbohydrates will cause a quick spike and then drop in blood sugar, which will then cause the body to release cortisol. Be mindful of this and if your child is having something sweet or high in carbs, make sure you combine it with healthy fat and protein. Avoid fizzy drinks and fruit juices as much as possible – these are liquid sugar and very hard to offset even with protein and fat added. We’d like to stress that all caffeinated beverages and artificial sweeteners should be avoided too.
Whole foods, healthy foods
To help repair adrenals and balance cortisol, you need lots of healthy fats from foods like extra virgin olive oil, ghee, avocados and coconut oil. You also need healthy sources of protein e.g. pasture-raised meat, free-range chicken, and clean sources of fish. If you use beans or pulses for protein, be sure to soak them properly to make them easier to digest. Slow-release carbs like sweet potatoes, pumpkin, and carrots will also help keep things in balance. Dark leafy greens will add in adrenal supporting magnesium and b vitamins. Whole grain oats and brown rice are also good carb options if you make sure they are organic and soak them overnight for ease of digestion. A wide range of fruits and vegetables is important to feed the microbiome. Stick to low-sugar fruits like berries, cherries, nectarines, plums, apples, and pears. These are just suggestions, and we always give parents a comprehensive food plan with lots of recipes to help.
Sometimes, we need to give supplements for extra support and the ones we see the most success with include Adrenal cortex, magnesium, taurine, L theanine, GABA, tryptophan and herbs like ashwagandha, lemon balm, and chamomile. Please always use supplements under the direction of a health professional as many can be very powerful and need to be given carefully.
Studies show that people who enjoy gentle to moderate exercise have a better cortisol response than those who are more sedentary. There are studies that have linked overtraining or high-intensity exercise to an increase in cortisol levels, so it’s important to figure out what type of exercise helps your child the most as we don’t want them ‘over-exercising’. They may love bouncing up and down on a trampoline for ages, but this high-energy workout may do more harm than good. You will need to be the judge of this. Do they seem more ‘revved up’ after their favourite exercise or nicely tired? If they seem to get more hyper after a favourite activity, try to change it for a calmer one or reduce the amount of time. A gentle walk in nature is one of the most calming exercises available. Fun dance parties with a bit of laughing are also a great way to exercise without pushing too hard. Laughter is a great cortisol regulator as well!
When a child is stressed, they may have a hard time relaxing enough to open their bowels. The whole gut can get ‘paralysed’ from too much stress as cortisol impacts serotonin, our happy hormone, which is needed for peristalsis to move food through our system. The build-up of toxins due to constipation puts more stress on the system creating a vicious cycle. Add in constipation-relieving foods such as a bit of prune juice, ground flaxseed, and high fibre veg and be sure they are well hydrated. Try not to rely on laxatives that doctors often prescribe for children with constipation as they are short-term solutions and can have long-term damaging effects.
Probiotics and prebiotics
Studies have shown certain probiotics can help balance cortisol release and improve the stress response. Starting probiotic supplements should be done slowly and carefully as we don’t want to overload their system with too much too soon. There are many different strains of probiotics, so you should consult with a healthcare provider to choose the right supplement for your child. Feeding the ‘good bugs’ in the gut after supplementation is important, so make sure they have a lot of prebiotics to feed them. Prebiotics are found in fresh fruit and vegetables. If your child has a restricted diet and doesn’t eat vegetables yet, think about supplementing with a good greens powder, ground flaxseed, or an inulin supplement. Just be careful and introduce it slowly as we don’t want to overload the system with too much too soon.
Good sleep should be a result of putting the above into practice as the body needs adequate nutrients and the right amount of movement for a healthy sleep cycle. The other thing that affects sleep quality is exposure to artificial light – especially from screens. So don’t forget to stop screen time at least 2 hrs before bed and keep a very strict bedtime routine. Reading books, puzzles, a warm bath with Epsom salts, and gentle music can all be incorporated into a nice sleep routine to help your child settle. Even before the screens are off, it’s best to block as much blue light as possible, using blue light blocking glasses if they are tolerated or other techniques.
This hands-on therapy uses a light touch to very gently release the tension that builds up in the soft tissue around the brain and spinal cord. The cerebrospinal fluid that bathes our nervous system is then able to circulate more freely, improving overall function and often giving the patient a very warm, relaxed feeling after sessions. Search for cranial osteopaths near you who specialise in children with ASD, PANDAS or PANS, as it’s important they have experience in working with children with sensory needs.
Usually, it takes at least two or three months of targeted support before the child starts to consistently self-regulate and is more resilient to stress. Be patient and understand that pushing things too quickly can unravel a lot of good work you’ve put in so far. Once a child is sleeping well, digesting well (at least one healthy bowel movement a day), and seems calmer and happier, you can move on to the next step in healing your child. This could mean anything from adding in more targeted supplements to starting a gentle detox protocol. Whatever the next steps, know that you’ll need to keep up all the good work managing stress throughout all phases. That’s why we say work on calming cortisol – first and always! This of course, goes for parents too – you can’t pour from an empty cup, so be sure to support your own stress too.
If you’d like to work with one of our practitioners to help with balancing their cortisol and stress response, please click here to request a callback.