The Gut-Brain Connection in Complex Kids

Note: Prescription medication and Behavior Management (i.e. Parent Training) are first line treatments for kids with ADHD and related challenges. However, parents are always asking us about “natural”approaches. So we've invited functional medicine practitioner, Chantell Reagan, to write a series of articles to bring us all up to speed on “alternative” approaches to managing your child's complex issues. Please consult your child's physician to explore these ideas further. This is the second of five articles. You may want to start with the first article in the series, “Taking an Integrative Approach to Raising Complex Kids Click here to view the third article,"Do Food Sensitivities & Allergies Connect with ADHD? ”~Elaine & Diane

Nearly 2000 years ago, Hippocrates noted that virtually all disease begins in the gut. Now, the concept of “gut health” is making a resurgence. Our understanding of the relationship between the brain and gut is constantly evolving.

The Connection Between the Gut and the Brain

The gut and the brain are part of the enteric nervous system (ENS). They form the “gut-brain axis,” which is a meshwork of nerve fibers that exist through the gastrointestinal tract, pancreas and gall bladder.

The ENS reports to the brain in a two-way communication about many mechanical and chemical reactions in the body, including the secretion of over 40 neurotransmitters.

In fact, 95% of the body's serotonin can be found in the gut, which is why it's often referred to as the “second brain” or “gut brain.” The gut houses between 70% of the body's immune cells, so it's incredibly important to keep us healthy.

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When The Gut is Leaking (permeable)

When the junctions in the digestive tract become too wide, they can “leak” toxins into the bloodstream, which can cause:

  • Allergies
  • Fatigue
  • Bloating
  • Diarrhea
  • Hyperactivity
  • joint inflammation/pain
  • “brain fog”
  • other autoimmunity

This process is often referred to as “leaky gut” and is also known as “intestinal permeability” or “hyperpermeability.”

Good-Gut / Bad-Gut

The gut also houses over 1000 different species of bacteria. Known as the “gut microbiome,” each individual's bacterial makeup is different. We need diverse bacteria for health to flourish - a combination of both “good” and “bad” bugs in our gut is ideal.  If that balance is out of alignment, we are more prone to certain diseases like obesity, anxiety, depression and even cancer. Many chronic diseases we face today can also be traced back to our gut health. Sympoms of ADHD may be exacerbated, as well.

Happy Gut = Happy Brain

Since it's clear that a happy gut = a happy brain, here are my tips for maximizing your gut health:

  1. Chew your food SLOWLY.  We've all heard of “you are what you eat;” but really, you are what you absorb.  Try to maximize digestion by being in a relaxed state while eating, taking small bites and thoroughly chewing your food.
  1. Identify any inflammatory triggers like medications or foods that could contribute to inflammation. Chronic medication use with antibiotics, antacids and steroids can disrupt the gut permeability. Additionally, inflammatory foods can also cause damage to the gut. The most common allergenic foods include corn, wheat, soy, dairy (casein), eggs, nuts and fish.  If this seems too overwhelming, consider food allergy/sensitivity testing or contact a practitioner to help you address.
  1. Consider probiotic foods and/or taking a quality probiotic supplement.  Incorporate a tablespoon of a fermented food like raw sauerkraut or kimchi into your diet. Consider adding a probiotic to your daily regimen.  Quality is essential here, so speak with a doctor or practitioner to choose a quality brand.
  1. Minimize stress. Say what?  Stress is a MAJOR contributor to inflammation and gut health.  Whenever you're feeling stressed, try this simple 6-7-8 breathing technique.  I'm also a fan of a quick meditation.  Check out the Headspace app (for 10 days of free meditations).
Further Reading:

Cure Your Child with Food (Book) by Kelly Dorfman

Serotonin: Facts, What Does Serotonin Do?

Allergy and the Gastrointestinal System

Signs of Serotonin Deficiency

Center of Development.  The Gut-Brain Connection.  Accessed on February 9, 2016 at:

Whiteman, H.  The gut microbiome: how does it affect our health? Medical News Today; March 2015.   Accesed on February 10, 2016 at:

Petra AI, Panagiotidou S, Hatziagelaki E et al. Gut-Microbiota-Brain Axis and Its Effect on Neuropsychiatric Disorders With Suspected Immune Dysregulation. Clin Ther. 2015 May 1;37(5):984-95. doi: 10.1016/j.clinthera.2015.04.002. Accessed on February 9, 2016 at:


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