They say ignorance is bliss, well if I'm going to be really pedantic it was the English poet Thomas Gray who said it in his Ode - On a Distant Prospect of Eton College... but I'm digressing here. My ignorance was more towards the symptoms of an autoimmune disease being the tiny tip of a bigger iceberg that affects the digestive system, in our case our one year old son, Levi.
We recently found out that our son has what is commonly known as Leaky Gut Syndrome. In simple layman's terms, leaky gut syndrome is a condition also referred to as increased intestinal permeability where the “net” in your digestive tract gets damaged which allows proteins (like gluten), bad bacteria, and undigested particles to pass into your blood stream. To further simplify that, it basically means, your digestive tract has holes in it like Swiss cheese, maybe not as big as the holes in Swiss cheese but still big enough to cause some serious damage in your body.
But I'm getting ahead of myself here, you see we didn't really know the full extent of his condition until we were told and educated ourselves on what it is. My son has always had severe eczema since about 6 weeks old, when we brought this to our doctor's attention we were told that it's common in a family that has a history of asthma (insert my mugshot here) to have eczema in the children. So from 6 weeks old, Levi has been on a steady prescription of steroid creams, paint-stripper strength moisturisers & bath solutions . The eczema was so bad that even a day of not using any of the prescribed emollients and the steroid cream would result in his skin flaring up and becoming very raw. We didn't realise it then that his skin had become dependant on the creams and the bath solutions that it didn't like us trying to wean him off it.
It wasn't until after his last doctors appointment around June to get a renewal on his prescriptions that I started to really question whether there was more to the eczema and whether we were only trying to cure the symptoms and not really tackle the issue of what the cause was. The cause that was resulting in our then 14 month old baby to have such a bad case of eczema on top of always being so bloated and in turn being quite a clingy and whingey baby, and also just not being able to gain weight even though he ate quite voraciously when it came to meals. We realised that as quick as food was being consumed, it was also coming out of him quicker and nothing was really being retained by his body to nourish it and help in his overall development. This was essentially the turning point for us as it meant being confident enough to question the treatment that he was being prescribed and daring to ask and do something different.
The exact cause of eczema is unknown, but it's thought to be linked to an overactive response by the body's immune system to an irritant, in our case, Levi's not so great digestive tract encourages these irritants to be introduced into the body. It is this response that causes the symptoms of eczema. Since many people with eczema also suffer from allergies, we decided to do elimination diet tests for allergens to help us determine possible irritants or triggers. So far we have found that food that is high in starch and processed dairy is one of the biggest contributors. So on top of dealing with the symptoms that we can physically see i.e. his eczema we are also having to help his body heal on the inside by ensuring that has a very strict no grain and no processed dairy diet. Enter the Gut & Psychology Syndrome Diet otherwise known as the GAPS Diet. The GAPS diet has been made popular by Dr Natasha Campbell-McBride who tailored it from the Specific Carbohydrate Diet (SCD) created by Dr. Sidney Valentine Haas to naturally treat chronic inflammatory conditions in the digestive tract as a result of a damaged gut lining. It focuses on removing foods that are difficult to digest and damaging to gut flora and replacing them with nutrient-dense foods to give the intestinal lining a chance to heal and seal, in our Levi's case this has meant for us to make his diet completely grain free and processed dairy free. Now whilst I think it's great that a medically qualified professional has managed to streamline the diet, I don't necessarily use it strictly as it is, I tend to use it as a guideline for my Levi's meals as I personally feel that living with allergies and coping with intolerance are not one size fits all, that each parent is the best judge when it comes to their own children.
Before finding out about Levi's condition and educating ourselves on what it meant for us to help him heal, we never really thought twice about giving him processed food, i.e. baby food jars and baby formula milk. I was that type of parent who thought that since it's obviously been made under the guidance of nutritionists it must be good for babies to have. It wasn't until learning about what leaky gut syndrome actually means and how someone as young as Levi would struggle to digest most of what other babies could easily do that my husband and I are now more aware of ingredients on packages for anything he eats and drinks. When I say that we've cut out processed dairy I am referring to his formula milk and the ultra high temperature treated milk available in retail outlets. Not sure if you have ever looked at the ingredients list on a baby's formula milk, but take it from the uninitiated, how long that list is was enough to have me chuck out all 3 packs that I had in the cupboards straightaway.
In addition to chucking out the entire contents of our pantry and cupboards I've also had to learn about the different nutrients that different types of foods provide and plan his meals accordingly so that he has a balanced diet that is not only easy on his digestive system but also heals him. A simple method of kick-starting his healing journey was ensuring that he had meat broths with every meal, now for me that seemed simple enough until I realised how much broth it takes to actually feed a 14 month old for every meal, 7 days a week. I kid you not I was cooking meat broths every second day for the first week and quite frankly ready to throw the pot of stock at anyone who dared ask me what I was doing standing over a simmering pot of free range chicken pieces and what felt like all the vegetables from the fresh food aisle of Aldi. I've learnt to cook enough to last at least 4 days so it gives me a break from being the soup kitchen lady.
Its only been three weeks since we started Levi on the GAPS diet but we have already started to see changes. I decided to go on the diet with him as he is at that stage where he will only eat what I eat so for obvious reasons I'm now his ride-or-die GAPS diet buddy. First week was hard as I had to slowly starve the bad bacteria in his gut from all the starch and sugars that his previous food fed it, so he was on meat broth soups. As expected he hated every spoonful, but children when they're hungry will eat whatever you put infront of them and boy did he slurp that broth. Second week we started adding vegetables into his diet and non-grain porridge which has really helped with making his meals a little more filling. Third week means that he is now on raw milk (oh no, I'm the baddie that gives her son raw milk! Call the bacteria police!) which will help his gut as it introduces probiotics, antibodies and vitamins into his immune system. We have also taken him off all the prescribed creams and bath solutions and only use coconut oil to moisturise his skin and Epsom salts in his baths to help draw out the toxins from his body. It just made more sense to do this as we felt it was counterproductive to continue to use them especially when the healing diet is about eliminating the toxins in his body and adding anything on top of that would just have all our efforts wasted.
To say that it's been an overwhelmingly tiring week is an understatement. I've learnt so much about allergies and what I can give my son. For parents who might think that they have similar symptoms I'd highly recommend that you go seek advice from a medical professional first and push to have your children tested for allergies. For me even the fact that it took us almost 14 months to realise what the true cause of his symptoms are was 14 months too late and I feel so bad that we even allowed him to experience all that pain throughout it. Ignorance has been bliss indeed but now we are better prepared for what the future has instore for Levi and how to help him heal.