Articles on adoption, foster care, & pediatrics

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Probiotics and Prebiotics

Getting Friendly with Your Gut Bacteria ...

, or the use of beneficial bacteria, are an exciting concept in the prevention and treatment of various childhood conditions. Definitive evidence on efficacy and safety is somewhat lacking, but there have been several good studies looking at probiotics like lactobacillus and active-culture yogurts in the prevention and treatment of diarrhea. The weight of the current evidence supports the use of probiotics in acute-onset childhood diarrhea, and their use with antibiotics to prevent antibiotic-associated diarrhea. In addition, the use of probiotic formulas (available in Europe for awhile, and now in the US) may reduce the number of diarrheal illnesses for children in day-care settings. Some small studies suggest that probiotics may also help prevent colds, colic, thrush, yeasty diaper rashes, non-specific tummy aches, and urinary tract infections.

What's especially interesting is the idea that establishing a healthy gut bacterial ecosystem early in infancy may steer the development of the immune system away from hyper-reactive "atopic" conditions like eczema, asthma, and seasonal allergies; this could be very useful in families where there's a family history of these conditions. The research here is early and somewhat conflicting, but this is an area to watch.

The bacteria that colonize your intestines set up shop early on, and the bacteria found in hospital environments don't seem to be the healthiest to be colonized with. It may prove to be wise for pregnant women to consume active-culture yogurt, kefir, or probiotics, and to supplement babies with these healthy bacteria. It should be emphasized that the research on this topic is in its infancy, and that definitive safety and efficacy information is not available.  Furthermore, research has not defined what strains of probiotics work best (or at all!) for various conditions. But so far, we have not seen serious side effects except in significantly immuno-suppressed children.

As far as yogurts are concerned, not all are created equal. In kids from 8mo-2yo and in malnourished adoptees, full fat is the way to go. And check the label for sugar content - some of those brands are sugar bombs. For promotion and maintenance of healthy gut bacteria, serving yogurt daily is a safe, time-tested, granny-approved, and easy-to-find way to go. But for treatment purposes or early in infancy, you might consider probiotic supplements, which can deliver many more of these healthy bacteria than a container of yogurt.

Like any unregulated "nutriceutical", it can be hard to find reliable, standardized products, and even harder to get them covered by your insurance. Probiotics, in particular, do not always contain healthy, viable strains of bacteria. 

Culturelle supplements use Lactobacillus GG, one of the most studied strains, and are easy to find over-the-counter in most drugstores. Lactinex packets are available by prescription in some pharmacies. Nature's Way is another easy-to-find brand that sells a blend of probiotic strains, included lactobacillus reuteri, which was used in the recent infant colic study. The Biogaia drops used in that study are now available in many drugstores as well. Another excellent brand of probiotic supplements that's available locally in Seattle is the Pharmax HLC line

You'll also want to think about prebiotics - foods and supplements that help these healthy bacteria thrive. These can be found naturally in breast milk, honey (not for use <1yo), garlic, onions, leeks, wheat, bananas, asparagus, artichokes, and chicory root. Supplements of fructo-oligosaccharides (FOS) are also available, and Pharmax includes them in many of their probiotic formulations.

What's fun about this topic from the adoption medicine perspective is that the Eastern European docs love probiotics. "Dysbacteriosis" is a frequently seen diagnosis, often treated with "ferments and enzymes", and while you'll still want to rule out parasites like giardia and other malabsoptive causes of funny poops, I am convinced that children raised in hospitals and institutions have less healthy gut bacteria. In Russia, you can even get yogurt fortified with the power of Cosmonaut intestinal bacteria! Cosmonauts being the pinnacle of Russian health and fortitude, I suppose. Best not to think about how they collect said bacteria ...

Updated 2/13

Home Biofeedback

True confessions - both Dr Bledsoe and I have something at home called "Journey to Wild Divine". It's a home biofeedback system and "Myst-style" computer game that uses the same biofeedback technology (finger sensors measuring heart rate variability and skin conductance) that our local hospital's adolescent clinic uses to help with headaches, pain syndromes, self-regulation, and chronic stress.

We think it's an engaging and remarkably effective way to learn self-calming, better emotional control, and alertness, and have been recommending it to our older school-age patients with low frustration tolerance, poor self-regulation, ADHD, anxiety, and stress-related issues like headaches and chronic abdominal pain. The sensors measure signs of your nervous system's balance between sympathetic tone (energized, agitated, "fight-or-flight") and parasympathetic tone (calm, relaxed, "rest-and-digest"). Children who've experienced early stress and neglect tend to be chock-full of the former, with precious little of the latter. With practice, you and your kids can learn to calm yourselves much more quickly and effectively.

In the game, you move through an idyllic landscape, performing various tasks using your developing abilities to become calmer or more alert and energized. Levitating and gently lowering rocks, juggling balls, building stairways, and other nifty activities let you hone these skills until they become effortless. This game is begging for a Star Wars version, since it's really all about the Force, and Yoda would be quite at home with the game's collection of gurus ...

It's not cheap ($159), but that's about what one biofeedback clinic session would cost, and you can do it at home whenever you want. It's actually quite a good deal compared to other home biofeedback devices like HeartMath's emWavePC, handheld emWave (excellent portable device) and StressEraser, which I also like. You will need a fairly modern PC or MAC, since it uses a lot of processing and graphics power. You will also need a modicum of tolerance for SNAG's (Sensitive New Age Guys/Gals) and "what's my mantra?" mysticalisms.

I also recommend their followup game, "Wisdom Quest", which uses the same software but has 30 new biofeedback activities, which are easy to access through a new "Guided Activity Mode". You should also download a free update for their first game that enables a similar "Chapter Tour", so that you can revisit favorite activities without having to load saved games.

Another device that we have no experience with whatsoever but is appealing to my inner geek is S.M.A.R.T. Brain Games, a home neurofeedback device that uses actual brain wave sensors (instead of heart and sweat sensors) mounted in a bike helmet to help control Playstation (or Xbox) video games with your mental states. They use the ratio of beta to theta brain waves (a measure of focussed alertness and concentration) to control your speed and progress in off-the-shelf Playstation games, especially racing and jumping games.

The cost of this "brain training system"? $600 for the helmet, neurosensors, processor, and modified Playstation controller. Yowzah! But again, possibly cost-effective if you were planning on paying out-of-pocket for actual neurofeedback clinic sessions. For folks desiring neurofeedback treatment for a specific condition (like ADHD), you'd probably be best off starting, at least, with an experienced neurofeedback provider ... EEG Spectrum is a good place to start for general information and local providers.

The research on neurobiofeedback and ADHD is quite promising, if not yet definitive; see this "Play Attention!" article for a favorable take on this particular system, and The Role of Neurofeedback in the Treatment of ADHD for a review of the latest research. My opinion is that neurofeedback may well be a useful adjunct to other medical or behavioral treatments for ADHD. My hope is that it will be more broadly helpful for my patients with anxiety, dysregulation, PTSD, and perhaps even aspects of attachment difficulties. I'll keep you posted as I learn more ...


Coughs, Congestion, and Colds

"There's only one way to treat the common cold - with contempt"

    - the esteemed Sir William Osler, MD

Ah, the common cold. Common, indeed - the average preschooler has six to 10 colds per year, with each illness lasting 10 to 14 days. And the sad truth is, Dr. Osler's 1890s-era wisdom is still largely correct. He went on to say, "... toss the pills into the ocean. So much the better for mankind, so much the worse for the fish"!

For children less than 5, there just isn't any safe, effective treatment available to treat the common cold. None of the common cold medicines can convincingly outperform sugar water, and the FDA has warned of a number of serious adverse reactions when used in children under 2 (our advice: don't risk it). But that doesn't seem to keep cold remedies from being a billion-dollar-a-year industry.

We all know what a cold looks and feels like, although we sometimes seem to forget when it comes to our own kids. Signs of something more serious like pneumonia, bronchiolitis, or asthma could be:

  • Prolonged or high fever (more than 2-3 days, or >102 degrees)
  • Breathing fast (count breaths over one full minute while quiet or asleep; infants should breathe <50-60 times per minute, toddlers <40x/min, older children <30x/min)
  • Working hard to breathe (heaving chest, visible rib movement, nasal flaring, grunting)
  • Getting dehydrated (not drinking enough, no tears/drool, less than 3 urinations/day)
  • Acting really ill or lethargic

If those are happening, please let us know - if you're travelling, we may want to start the zithromax, and possibly find someone to evaluate in person. We do have a lower threshold to start antibiotics when we can't see kids ourselves.

Other Complications:

If nasal congestion and wet cough last more than 2-3 weeks then it may be bacterial sinusitis, which can be helped by antibiotics as well; the color/consistency of the snot doesn't tell us if this is viral or bacterial, unfortunately. Ear infections can be a complication of colds, often marked by new fever and irritability when a cold seems to be running its course. Ear tugging and fiddling is not a reliable sign of ear infection in preverbal children, unfortunately.

Let's review the common medications and treatments for the common cold:

  • Decongestants (pseudephedrine, etc) - Somewhat effective for daytime relief in adults and school-age kids, but they just don't work in young kids. Besides, does putting your ill, sleepless child on over-the-counter speed seem like a good idea?
  • Decongestant Nasal Sprays (Afrin, Dristan, etc) - These work for short-term congestion emergencies (less than 2 days at a time) but can be nasally addictive, causing "rebound congestion" when you stop using them. Not routinely recommended, and not for infants/toddlers.
  • Antihistamines (Benadryl, etc) - A good treatment for allergies, but colds are caused by a viruses; useful only for their sedative effect in desperate sleepless situations. Beware - 1 in 5 kids gets LOOPY on benadryl.
  • Cough Suppressants (dextromethorphan, codeine, etc) - It sure is tricky suppressing that cough reflex without putting your child in a coma. Safe doses of codeine and it's synthetic cousin, dextromethorphan, don't seem to be that effective at suppressing this vital reflex. Codeine is also just not safe enough to use in kids anymore, especially in Ethiopian adoptees. That said, in older children with a lingering, nagging, non-productive cough, you might try some Delsym (long-acting dextromethorphan).
  • Expectorants (guaifenesin) - These don't work in young children, who don't need any help making copious secretions. In older kids and adults, they may make phlegm thinner, but so does drinking lots of fluids. Mucinex is a single-ingredient, extended release form of this for older kids and adults.
  • Tylenol or Ibuprofen - IF your child is uncomfortable from fever, or in pain, these can help. Otherwise you may be suppressing the body's immune response.
  • Antibiotics - No. Nyet. Bu.
  • Zinc - Yuck. Zinc lozenges and zinc up the nose have not shown to be effective in kids. But zinc deficiency is associated with poor immune function (and many adoptees are zinc deficient). There's lots of zinc in high-protein foods like meats, seafood, milk, and fortified breakfast cereals. A "complete" multivitamin with minerals can also help.
  • Vitamin C - Controversial. Large doses may shorten symptoms in adults, but megadoses are not clearly safe in kids, and can cause diarrhea. Like zinc, let's just make sure you're getting enough, and some extra at the first signs of a cold may help.
  • Echinacea - Recent study done here found no clear benefit at reducing symptoms in kids. Bummer.
  • Probiotics - Lactobacillus milks, active culture yogurts, and probiotic supplements are emerging as a good thing, although definitive studies are still pending, and it's not at all clear that they treat colds. They may be effective at preventing colds, allergies, and diarrhea, with a host of other potential benefits.
  • Andrographis (Kan Jang) - Herbal remedy that's all the rage in Scandinavia. Some smaller studies showing benefit in colds and flu. Promising, but larger studies may sink this ship as well.
  • Umcka drops - Ancient Zulu Homeopathic Geranium-ness. Germans love this stuff, available here through Nature's Way. Some promise for sinus, throat, and bronchial infections, large high-quality studies are lacking, so who knows, really? If you enjoy taking the latest natural sounding probable placebos, give it a try.
  • The Stuff That Teacher Invented Who Never Ever Got Another Cold (Airborne) - It was on Oprah, so it must work. This contains Lonicera, Forsythia, Schizonepeta, Ginger, Chinese Vitex, Isatis Root, Echinacea, along with vitamins, zinc and magnesium. Phew. Feels a bit faddish to me, with a few too many ingredients.
  • Whiskey - Dr. Osler's preferred cold remedy: "hang your hat on the bedpost, get into bed, start drinking whisky. When you see two hats stop!" Not an option for the kids, but what you do with the colds they give us is entirely up to you.
  • Humidification - Unclear benefit from humidifiers and vaporizers, but they feel good for many, and may keep nasal secretions easier to clear. If you use these, clean them obsessively, as they are effective at aerosolizing molds and bacteria.
  • Menthol, Eucalyptus, VapoRub - Studies show that people think these are working even if they aren't. You can put them in the vaporizer, plug a gizmo into a wall outlet, or rub them onto your child. That may be the key ... with the massage, you get the healing power of relaxation and parental tender loving care.
  • Chicken Soup - Yup, small studies and grandmothers actually agree on this one.
  • Nasal Saline Drops/Sprays and Bulb Suction - This really can help infants and toddlers, who can't effectively blow their nose. Infants, in particular, have tiny nasal passages that they depend on for sleeping and eating. You can buy nasal saline or make it with 1/2 tsp salt in 1 cup warm water. Put 1-2 drops in each nostril before suctioning to help clear dry nasal secretions. A bulb syringe is most effective if you squeeze it, put the tip in one nostril, and pinch the nose to get a good seal on the side you're suctioning and close off the side you're not, and SLUUURP. Don't go too crazy with this, as you don't want to overly irritate the nasal mucous membranes.
  • Plenty of Rest and Plenty of Fluids - Yes. Da. Shi.
  • and finally ... Tincture of Time - The ONLY cure for the common cold. Support the immune system in its good work with rest, fluids, love, and attention, and otherwise stay out of the way.

Updated 8/07