New alarming studies show the dramatic rise of chronic disease in children—from allergies and ADHD to mental illnesses and obesity. A traditionally trained pediatric neurologist and a parent herself, Dr. Maya encountered the limits of conventional medicine when her son suffered a severe episode of asthma on his first birthday and began a backward slide in his development. Treatments failed to reverse his condition, so Dr. Maya embarked on a scientific investigation, discovering that food was at the root of her son’s illness, affecting his digestive system, immune system, and brain. The solution was shockingly simple: Heal the food, heal the gut, heal the brain...and heal the child.
Recent changes in growing and processing food harm kids’ gut microbiomes, immune systems, and brains, contributing to chronic disease. Dr. Maya’s plan started with the soil, using fresh foods and nature to heal her son from the inside out and the outside in. Since then, she’s successfully helped chronically ill patients from around the world. Revealing the profound connections between food, nature, and children’s health, Dr. Maya explains how food is constantly changing kids’ bodies, brains, and even genes—for better or for worse. She also shares success stories from her practice and tips as a working mother of three on stocking healing foods (from veggies to chocolate!), reading labels, and getting even picky eaters into the new menu. This paradigm-shifting book empowers you to transform your child’s health through food and ensure the long-term wellbeing of your kids and the entire family.
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Look deep into nature, and then
you will understand everything better.
It’s a particularly nerve-racking time to be a parent. With every new study, we’re reminded that the number of children with diseases and behavioral disorders like ADHD, autism, learning disabilities, anxiety, depression, epilepsy, bipolar disorder, and Tourette’s syndrome are through the roof. During the last decade in the United States, children ages 3 to 17 with developmental disabilities increased by double digits. The incidence of conditions like autism increased by as much as 78 percent. 1 Starting as young as two, 11 percent of school-aged kids and 20 percent of teens carry diagnoses of ADHD—a 41 percent rise over the past decade. During that same period, the number of children medicated with stimulants or antipsychotics more than tripled.2 A recent study showed that in the United States, one out of every five children has been diagnosed with mental illness, costing us $247 billion a year.3
As if that’s not enough to swear off procreating altogether, we’re also seeing an unprecedented rise in cases of food allergies, eczema, asthma, inflammatory bowel disease, and other autoimmune conditions, 4,5,6 particularly in the United States. For several years type 1 diabetes diagnoses have increased 6.3 percent annually in children five years and younger.7 And so-called normal maladies like colic, chronic ear infections, poor sleep, and constipation have become all too common. (When did pooping once a week become normal?!) But most of all, why is it that no matter how educated and wealthy our society, how medically advanced, how successful at eradicating infectious diseases, our kids are only getting sicker?
As a pediatric neurologist, I think about these alarming statistics on a daily basis because I care for these children in my private practice. For many of my patients, I’m what you could call a “last stop.” Most of the families who come to my office—often having traveled a great distance—arrive after struggling down a long road of unsuccessful treatments by traditional methods. Like many patients, they’ve been given conventional medications for their symptoms, suffered side effects, and taken more medication to manage the first medication’s side effects. Worst of all, they’ve been told that their children are simply untreatable. That they are going to be chronically sick for life.
I don’t see their situations as helpless or hopeless. Then again, I’m not your typical doctor. And that’s partly because I was once one of those panicked parents without answers.
On my youngest son’s first birthday, seemingly out of nowhere, he had his first episode of wheezing. It lasted a week, and it continued on and off for the next ten months. Despite numerous prescriptions from his pediatrician—antibiotics, steroids, and nebulizers—his symptoms would improve for only a few days. Then his nose would start running again and his breathing difficulties resumed. He perpetually erupted in mysterious itchy rashes. Simultaneously, his cognitive development plateaued. Though he had said his first words early at eight months, he stopped acquiring language the moment he began to have trouble breathing. He tripped frequently and no longer held out his hands to catch himself; his face and head hit the ground more times than we could count. Most frightening, no doctor could offer any approach that might reverse his course. If I—a doctor myself—wasn’t getting answers from physicians, then who was?
Over the course of these ten terrifying months, I began to do my own research, asking those questions that no one else seemed to be asking: How had my son’s body become so sick? We learned early on that dairy made him gassy, so he had been drinking soy milk instead. Could changing his diet again be the key to helping him?
Though our team of doctors discouraged us from pursuing this path, by then I recognized I was on my own in this journey. After tracking down an allergist willing to test him and not dismiss the possibility that his symptoms could be connected to food, we determined through both skin and blood testing that my son was severely allergic to soy. Within one week of entirely eliminating soy—including the ubiquitous soy oil found in pretzels and other snack foods, and in almost everything cooked in restaurants—my son’s constant running noses, coughing, and wheezing disappeared. More amazing still, his language promptly began to improve after being stalled for months.
I know it’s hard to believe. I could hardly believe it myself. My son’s sick body had led to a sick brain; and as his body became healthier, so did his brain.
Meanwhile, I felt terribly guilty. I had been feeding my son what I thought was a pretty healthy diet, and it turned out that his food had been making him sick. The hardest part was not that no one believed that his food was affecting his health. It was that no one seemed to think he was sick at all. It was “just some asthma,” and “developmental delay.” But what about those is normal?
Somehow, when no one was paying attention, chronic illness became the new “normal” for children. Instead of catching the occasional bug with clear onset and recovery, many children get sick, get a little better, and get sick again. And the illnesses evolve. These kids—maybe even your own kids—go from colic at six weeks to eczema at six months to chronic ear infections at one year to tubes or a tonsillectomy at three years to an ADD diagnosis at six. Many kids have medication lists that would rival those of senior citizens: steroid cream for eczema; H2 blockers for gastric reflux; antihistamines for allergies; anti-inflammatories for migraines; Miralax for constipation; stimulants for ADHD and learning disabilities; SSRIs for depression; mood stabilizers for anxiety . . . sometimes all prescribed at the same time! And more and more kids take insulin for type 1 diabetes or metformin for type 2 diabetes; thyroid medication for hypothyroidism; antiepileptics for seizures; antipsychotics for explosive behavior or anxiety; and steroids or other immune modulators like chemotherapeutics for a wide range of autoimmune diseases that have become shockingly common in children.
Meanwhile, we live in a world of hand sanitizers, antibiotics, and steroids, as well as pesticides, chemical fertilizers, and GMOs. These advances were supposed to solve society’s ills, yet even as lives have been saved, somehow children have become sicker than ever before. We’ve been told dirt is bad, germs are bad, bugs are bad, and weeds are bad. And we’ve taken all the necessary precautions against these interlopers. We bleach away germs, we inoculate our kids against microbes, we treat infections with antibiotics and Tylenol, we poison household and garden pests, and spray weed killer to achieve perfect lawns and crops. We’ve done everything “right.”
Still, our children are struggling. Could we be missing something? Consider: The latest research shows that children exposed to bleach actually have more, not fewer infections—including a 20 percent higher risk of coming down with the flu.8 Hand sanitizers contain triclosan, which disrupts endocrine function and increases risk of eczema, allergies, and asthma,9 even cancer.10 Research also shows that good old soap does as good a job as sanitizers anyway.11 And study after study shows that repeated courses of antibiotics—especially in children—have detrimental impact on future health, from obesity to allergies to autoimmune disease.12 We’re starting to understand that short-term gains from technology may not be the best solutions to complex problems posed by nature.
As conservationist John Muir said, “When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world.” Each technological and industrial advance has set off unintended consequences that have negatively affected our children’s health and development in unforeseen ways.
Simply put, we have overlooked that the most fundamental ingredients kids need to be healthy and happy come from nature. Our bodies evolved with the natural world; we recognize all of the elements on a cellular level. And nutrient-dense food—infused with sunshine, fresh air, and clean water, rich with vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals, and beneficial bacteria all derived from the soil—provides integral building blocks from nature critical for children’s bodies and brains.
Remember the adage “You are what you eat”? Well, it should really be “You are what your food eats.” We eat plants and animals. Animals eat plants. And what do plants “eat”? Sunshine, air, water . . . and dirt. Yes, dirt, that stuff we got yelled at for rolling around in as kids. If we are what our food eats, we are only as healthy as the soil our food is grown in. Food is a direct manifestation of soil fertility: the many minerals that come from the rocks, animal scat, bacteria, bugs, worms, and fungi that work together to feed our soil. So it stands to reason that just as we are in a direct, dynamic relationship with our food, we are simultaneously in relationship also with soil and the natural world. And unless we take care of soil and the natural world, soil and the natural world can’t take care of us by providing dense nutrients.
It turns out that all the things that are messy and dirty in the world, the very things we thought we needed to control or even eliminate to stay alive, are actually the very elements necessary for robust health. Research says that bacteria, fungi, parasites, insects, weeds—and living, nutrient-dense soil full of all of those elements— play direct and critical roles in the health of our food, and by extension, the health of our children. Instead of developing new antibiotics, doctors are beginning to treat chronic disease using the opposite approach: bacteria, parasites, soil, even—wait for it!—stool.
You don’t have to be a scientist to know that spending a few hours outside exploring does wonders for any child. We all know that kids thrive when they are connected in all ways to good, old-fashioned dirt. Research supports this: Kids who take walks in parks or play in green playgrounds have improved attention spans and better test performance—and are happier and calmer—than their peers who spend their time in less natural environments. Spending time in the forest boosts children’s immune system function measurably.13 Dirt and nature reach into children’s bodies and minds through their food and play.
So what did this mean I needed to do for my son? To remedy the damage caused by the steroids and antibiotics he had been prescribed—which had thrown the healthy critters in his gut out of balance and dysregulated his immune system—he ate fresh produce directly from our garden, rinsed but with traces of soil still clinging to it. I gave him fermented probiotic foods like pickles, yogurt, kefir, and ruby red sauerkraut to repopulate his microbiota. I made him healing bone marrow broths infused with shiitake and maitake mushrooms, astragalus, and ginger to rebuild his gut, restore his immune system, and help him absorb nutrients. I added immune-regulating spices to his diet, such as turmeric and black cumin seeds. I included brain-enhancing foods like broccoli and Brussels sprouts grown in our vegetable garden, egg yolks from our pastured backyard chickens, omega-3-rich sardines and anchovies, and occasionally, rich, balancing dark chocolate. He spent tons of time outdoors, playing in parks, walking in the woods, and getting messy exploring nature.
As his body healed with these foods, my son quickly reached milestones that had been delayed for the better part of a year. He gained new words, became steadier on his feet, and was much happier. His transformation awakened me to just how powerful the connection is between nutrient-dense foods and children’s physical and emotional health.
Now I want to show you how you can help your own children.
In the biblical story of creation, Adam is built from dirt. People may say it’s figurative, but science is telling us that same story in a different way: We are only as good as the dirt our food is grown in and our kids play in. In The Dirt Cure we’ll explore the science about nutrient-dense foods that can heal kids’ ills—from eczema to ear infections to anxiety to ADHD—and keep your healthy kids (really, truly) well. We’ll talk about what destroys soil fertility, how to avoid foods grown that way, and how to find the most abundantly nutritious food from the best sources. And then I’ll help you develop a plan for the most wholesome diet possible for your child, including tips for how to prepare foods deliciously so that he or she will eat and reap the benefits. By the end, you’ll see that your children’s health really does come straight from the soil.
Table of Contents
Part I Welcome to the Dirt Cure
Chapter 1 Where True Health Begins 9
Chapter 2 Learning to Listen to the Body: What Symptoms Tell You 25
Chapter 3 Healthy Body Healthy Brain 33
Chapter 4 Time to Clean Up 49
Part II Step One: Heal
Chapter 5 Food Allergens and Sensitivities: How "Healthy" Foods Can Hurt 63
Chapter 6 Artificial Food: Flavorings, Dyes, Preservatives, and Other Toxic Additives 91
Chapter 7 Sickly Sweet Food: Sugars and Sweeteners 111
Part III Step Two: Nourish
Chapter 8 So/7 Power: Organic Fruits, Vegetables, and Plants 137
Chapter 9 Unlocking Seeds: Nutritional Powerhouses 159
Chapter 10 Meet Your Meat 181
Chapter 11 Milk: Pasture-ization over Pasteurization 195
Chapter 12 Knowing the Chicken Before the Egg 213
Chapter 13 Fish: From the Water 223
Chapter 14 Water: What We Drink 233
Chapter 15 Simple Pleasures: Healthy Sweets, Fats, and Umami 249
Part IV Step Three: Put it all Together
Chapter 16 Healing from the inside Out: Cooking Better Food 273
Chapter 17 Healing from the Outside In 297
What People are Saying About This
If you are a parent, or planning to be one, The Dirt Cure is your nutritional bible. Under the wise guidance of Dr. Shetreat-Klein, you can save your kids from a vast array of physical/emotional chronic illnesses, not only now when they're still young but for the rest of their (longer and healthier) lives. --Dr. David Edelberg, author of The Triple Whammy Cure
The Dirt Cure is a game-changer when it comes to children's health. Carefully researched and compellingly written… A must read! --Mark Hyman, MD Director, Cleveland Clinic Center for Functional Medicine, author #1 New York Times bestseller The Blood Sugar Solution