When my son Jack was 4½ he complained about his belly hurting on and off for a few months. As a first time parent, I didn’t think much of it. The nondescript, “My belly hurts” for a 4½-year-old could easily be mistaken for hunger, eating too much, or needing to pee. Instead of being overly cautious (I definitely have neurotic tendencies), I watched and waited. I might add that we are talking about a kid who has an above average healthy diet so I felt fairly okay with my choice. But once I started noticing soft, red-gray circles under Jack’s eyes, I knew I had to put on my detective’s hat!
Clue One—one and off complaining of belly aches
Clue Two—gas, frequent yet irregular bowel movements (sorry for the graphics here)
Clue Three—soft, red-gray circles under eyes
In instances like this, conventional medicine typically prescribes unnecessary poking and “pills” as the first course of action. But for me, it was clear that food measures were a must! It was the only thing I could control. So I tapped into my resources before anything else. He had the belly blues, and I wanted to make it better.
The first step to solving the problem was identifying potential trigger foods and removing them from the diet—the typical seven are wheat, gluten, dairy, corn, soy, eggs and nuts. It was highly unlikely that he was reacting to all of them so I started with what I thought the culprits were—wheat and diary.
- Identify the possible culprit(s)—in Jack’s case, wheat and dairy
- Explain to your child what’s going on and what you intend to do
- Remove all of the culprit(s) from the diet for three weeks
- Rebuild the gut with Aloe Vera and pro-biotics (both healing and restorative) making sure to confirm supplemental gut support with a healthcare provider (in my case, a close colleague and brilliant integrative clinical nutritionist—Mary Beth Augustine, RD, CDN)
- Keep a diary noting symptoms (or hopefully lack thereof) throughout this elimination/add in period
- At the end of three weeks, add the first culprit back into the diet and watch for the return of symptoms over the course of five days. If present, whether immediately or a few days in, avoid that food. If no symptoms appear, then consider the food safe
- Repeat with other culprits
If you opt to try this elimination plan on your own and your child is not getting well, without hesitation, seek the care of a qualified medical professional.
So, back to the “explain to your child” suggestion—this was the exchange between me and my little dude:
Me: “You know mommy wants your belly to feel better?”
Me: He gave me a nod. “And you know that I want to do whatever I can to help you feel better, right?” Another nod. “I think that foods that contain wheat, like breads, pasta, pretzels, cookies, and cakes are making your belly hurt.”
Jack: “I don’t want to eat those foods anymore, Mom.”
Me: “This is the deal, you can still have all of those foods but they will be special foods with different ingredients. Mommy will do it with you.”
Jack: With a slight smile, “It’s like our special adventure, right Mom?”
And that it was. I took him to Whole Foods (they have the widest variety of wheat and dairy free alternatives) to pick out all the wheat-free products that he wanted to try. Although challenging at times (what do you expect?), we left without too many breakdowns. I must add that my extreme side wanted to start with the removal of gluten, but my practical side said, “Stef, you may not need to go there, so start simple and if you need to take it a step further you can.” I find that talking to myself often helps, even if out loud in public places!
Anyway, as it turns out, Jack’s symptoms did not improve with the removal of just wheat and dairy so I did have to go there, removing gluten as the next step (made sense as I am sensitive to both gluten and diary). And, once gluten and diary free for roughly three months, the belly blues went bye bye and so did the red grey circles under his eyes. It never ceases to amaze me how our health can be manipulated through the foods we choose!
Jack is no longer gluten and diary free but if he eats too much of both, he is back to the belly blues, funny looking eyes and now eczema. So we monitor his diet and over time he has learned to self-regulate. Sometimes a body gets overloaded with triggers (they are different for everyone) and the perfect storm ensues.
As my dear colleague and fabulous integrative pediatrician, Dr. Stephen Cowan always says, “Your health begins with your gut.”
Obstacles are put in our way for a reason (although sometimes I am not totally convinced of that). The belly blues are solvable and manageable. Just take a step back, create an elimination game plan with the right practitioner, and follow the plan. I would love to tell you it is easy, but it is not! Clear goals, objectives, communication and support will help you and your child get from A to Z as smoothly as possible.