Guest Expert

Taking an Integrative Approach to Raising Complex Kids

Note: There is not yet enough evidence-based research on any “natural” or “alternative” approaches to treating complex kids for the medical community to replace prescription medication and behavioral interventions (like parent training and management) as primary recommendations for treatment. However, with our parents' growing interest in learning more about alternative treatments, we've invited functional medicine practitioner, Chantell Reagan, to write a series of articles to catch us all up on this burgeoning arena. This is the first of five articles to help you understand some essentials of “alternative” approaches to managing your child's complex issues. Please consult your child's physician to explore these ideas further. View Chantell's second article: “The Gut-Brain Connection in Complex Kids” and
part three: “Do Food Sensitivities & Allergies Connect with ADHD?” ~Elaine & Diane

Chronic childhood conditions impact a significant portion of the population. For example, approximately 11% of children in the US are diagnosed with ADHD, which is the second most common childhood diagnosis after Asthma. According to the CDC, many children with ADHD take prescription medication to manage their condition. When effective, these medications can be extremely helpful, especially in tandem with recommended behavioral interventions.

But unwanted side effects and other challenges with medication prompt parents to seek alternative treatments for their children's challenges. In fact, as many as 80% of people who use herbals and other natural preparations for managing ADHD claim to use them as their primary ADHD treatment.

In this series of articles, I will discuss an integrative approach to managing complex kids, including defining integrative medicine, the gut-brain connection, food allergies and sensitivities, top vitamin and mineral deficiencies and the role of essential oils.

The Western Medical Approach

The Western medical approach to treatment of any disease focuses on individual systems of the body. We see a gastroenterologist for stomach problems or a cardiologist for heart disease. For example, when patients are first diagnosed with ADHD or Anxiety, a drug is typically prescribed to help alleviate the symptoms.

Treatment is generally provided by a medical doctor or psychiatrist who is guided by recommendations of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) or the Amer Psychiatric Association (APA).

The Integrative (Functional) Medicine Approach

In an integrative approach, instead of treating symptoms, all body systems are evaluated together to determine the root cause of disease. An integrative practitioner can be a doctor, nurse, nurse practitioner, pharmacist, chiropractor or other provider who studies these principles. In this model, the patient is part of the care team and empowered to take control of his or her own health.

Integrative medicine offers a way to address some root causes of your child's many symptoms, instead of just treating those on the surface.

What's Underneath the Symptoms?

There are three key places an integrative practitioner might look to evaluate what metabolic factors might be contributing to or exacerbating your child's challenges.

  1. Inflammation. Many in the world of functional medicine believe that inflammation in the gut, otherwise known as a “leaky gut,” is the root cause of most disease. For patients with ADHD or Anxiety, for example, an integrative practitioner might evaluate things that could contribute to “leaky gut,” including overgrowth of bacteria or yeast, which can disrupt the gut balance.
  1. Food Allergies and Sensitivities. Food allergies and sensitivities can contribute to classic symptoms of complex children, like hyperactivity, lack of concentration and fatigue. The most common food allergies and sensitivities include wheat, gluten, corn, soy and eggs, which can also cause inflammation in the gut.

Hippocrates famously said thousands of years ago

“Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.”

Elimination diets have been shown to be helpful for some patients with these challenges. Similar variations like an elemental or specific carbohydrate diet, or a gluten or dairy free diet, might also be suggested by a practitioner.

  1. Environmental Allergens. Environmental allergies can also play a role in contributing to complex symptoms. Things like skin, hair and cleaning products, mold, dust mites, pets, and grass/trees can contribute to a myriad of symptoms such as rash, congestion, fatigue, hyperactivity, joint pain, etc. and should be evaluated. The practitioner can also use blood tests to screen for vitamin, mineral, amino acid or fatty acid deficiencies or thyroid imbalance, where supplementation could be especially helpful.

Getting Support from a Integrative Approach

Before you begin to significantly alter your child's diet or environment, I encourage you to do your homework and find out more. You may want to consider an integrative practitioner if you are looking for a new doctor, or even in addition to your current doctor or treatment plan.

Depending on the practitioner, some services (like office visits) may be covered under health care insurance. Other services, like lab testing, may not be covered. You should always check your policy and provider coverage.

A search for “integrative or functional medicine” can help you locate practitioners in your area.Try the Institute of Functional Medicine (, or search the American Academy of Pediatric's practitioners and select “Complimentary, Integrative, and Alternative Medicine” as a specialty (

Want to learn more about this integrative approach? Gut health is critical to all diseases, particularly those involving the brain. The next article in this series will explain why it's so important, and what easy steps you can do to improve the state of your (or your child's) gut.


Esparham A et. Al. Pediatric Integrative Medicine Approaches to Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Children 2014, 1(2), 186-207; doi:10.3390/children1020186. Accessed on January 31, 2016 at:

Lake J. Integrative Management of ADHD: What the Evidence Suggest; Psychiatric Times. July 2010. Accessed on January 31, 2016 at:

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