As many of you would know Dr Leila Masson has made a huge impact on the success we have had with helping Grace get back on track and improving her overall gut health, so I’m very excited to share this interview with you all.
Dr Masson is a paediatrician with a Masters of Public Health from Harvard and has extensive training in nutrition and environmental health. Dr Masson has a special interest in biomedical treatments for children on the autistic spectrum, a holistic approach to behaviour and learning challenges, as well as assessment and treatment of children with allergies and other paediatric health problems, she also lectures around the world on children’s health.
You’ve recently relocated back to Berlin (unfortunately for us!), what are you currently working on?
I am writing a book on anxiety in children to help parents figure out the cause and find effective, natural treatments. I have also given lectures on nutrition in children, in particular the benefits (and risks) of a wholefood plant based diet. Berlin is the vegan capital of the world right now – with lots of research going on about plant based nutrition. It is very healthy if done right – but there are still some families that eat a so-called vegan pudding-diet high in processed grains and sugar, which of course is not healthy.
I will return to Sydney in December as the medical director of the National Institute of Integrative Medicine’s Kids Clinic in Bondi Junction. So keep an eye out for an announcement on my FaceBook page and my newsletter (you can sign up for it at drleilamasson.com) on how to book an appointment.
As an Integrative Paediatrician how would you describe the main difference in how you treat patients compared to mainstream paediatricians?
My approach to children’s health, developmental and behaviour problems is to look for a treatable cause – so for example if a child with a diagnosis of ADHD spends hours a day on a screen and does not get enough outdoor exercise I would address the child’s lifestyle first. Another big focus is nutrition – children who eat an unprocessed wholefood diet with plenty of vegetables, little sugar and no artificial additives are generally healthier compared to children who eat a standard Australian diet which is high in fats, sugar and processed foods.
What are your top three tips that parents can adapt to assist with good gut health in their children?
My top tips for gut health are: minimise sugar and processed flours like white bread and white rice; eat plenty of vegetables as the fibre is a prebiotic which feeds the good gut bacteria; and offer a little bit of fermented food every day – such as kefir, yoghurt, sauerkraut, kimchi – these foods provide probiotics, which are beneficial bacteria for the gut.
What are the main deficiencies you come across in children and what can we do about them?
The main nutritional deficiencies I find in children are:
- Low iron – which can be caused by not eating enough iron rich foods (meat provides iron, but so do green leafy vegetables and you can increase the absorption by adding vitamin C, for example a bit of lemon juice or tomato).
- Low zinc – the soils in Australia are quite low in zinc and therefore foods grown in Australia may not provide enough zinc for a growing child. We need more zinc when we grow, so especially children and teenagers are at risk of low zinc which can cause symptoms such as irritability, frequent infections and acne in teenagers.
- Not enough vegetables – very few children get the recommended 5+ servings of vegetables per day. A serving is the size of the person’s fist – so a child should eat at least the equivalent amount of 5 times the size of their fist. Just doing this could prevent a lot of constipation, improve the gut flora and in the long term reduce the risk of bowel cancer.
Sleep or lack of it has been an ongoing issue in our house, what steps can parents take to encourage a good nights sleep for their children?
Turn off all screens at least 2 hours before bedtime as the blue colour from digital screens interfere with melatonin production and will make it difficult to go to sleep. Do not eat sugary foods for dinner, as they may wake up the child. It is ok to lie down with your child – don’t be scared of a cuddle. I have a whole chapter on sleep in my book Children’s Health A-Z which is available as an e-book on amazon and as a printed book on fishpond.com – this will give you lots of tips on how to help your child to settle to sleep and have a good night’s sleep.
What’s Leaky Gut Syndrome and why is it becoming more common for children to suffer from it and how do we heal it?
Due to processed foods and an unhealthy gut flora some people’s gut lining becomes inflamed and leaky. There is increased permeability of the intestines. Food that are meant to be fully digested are absorbed only partly digested and can cause reactions, such as tummy aches, diarrhoea, and irritable behaviour. The first step is to clean up the diet (another chapter in my book!), work on the gut flora and correct any deficiencies, such as low zinc which is needed to heal the lining of the gut.
What advice would you give parents who suspect their child has food intolerances?
Keep a food diary and write down everything your child ate each time he or she has a reaction. This way you can figure out what foods are causing the reaction. Avoid those foods just while you are cleaning up the diet, improve the gut flora and heal a leaky gut if that is part of the problem (it often is).
In your opinion what do you think is causing the prevalence of food allergies and intolerances in children in today’s society?
Some of the risk factors start very early in life: being born by C section affects the gut flora. Instead of a flora that resembles the mother’s gut flora the baby’s gut flora will be closer to the skin flora of the hospital staff that attended the birth. That is why many doctors recommend to give babies born via C section a probiotic with bifidobacter. The next big influence on the gut flora is what goes into it. Babies who are breastfed exclusively have predominantly bifidobacter which do not cause inflammation. Even just one bottle changes that and it can take weeks to repair. There is controversy of when to introduce high allergenic foods such as peanuts. WHO and Unicef recommend to breastfeed exclusively for 6 months and to introduce solids from around 6 months, as this appears to be the best protection against allergies. Breastfeeding should be continued until 2 years of age as it modulates the immune system and reduces the risk of allergies.
The average diet of children in Australia lacks nutrients, fibre and is filled with sugar and processed flours and artificial additives which can all affect health in general, and gut health and immune health in particular. So if you would like to prevent allergies and sensitivities in your child clean up the diet and improve the gut flora.
Dr Masson has also written a book, Children’s Health A to Z for New Zealand Parents. I have it, it’s a fabulous book and a must for every parent if you’re interested in natural health for children!! It covers all the common health problems children and families encounter as well as how parents can support their children’s health and wellbeing through a healthy home, sleep, nutrition and outdoor play.
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