Cerebral Palsy and Nutrition Therapy
This article has been fact checked by a Board Certified Pediatric Nurse Practitioner. Sources of information for the article are listed at the bottom.
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Many children with cerebral palsy have digestive difficulties and feeding problems. Some of these issues can start as early as infancy and continue throughout childhood. In turn, a specialized diet and nutritional counseling/ therapy can help parents learn what foods help digestion, what supplements their child may need, how to conquer feeding problems, and much more.
What is Nutritional and Dietary Counseling?
Everyone needs good nutrition, but for children with cerebral palsy, dietary needs are often not met due to associated conditions of the disorder. For instance, around 86% of children with cerebral palsy have an oral-motor dysfunction, while over 70% have issues with gastrointestinal reflux (GERD) and constipation. These are just a few of the issues that present themselves and can greatly affect the child’s nutrition and dietary needs. Other issues that can impact dietary needs include sensory problems, frequent infections, and poor appetite due to medication side effects.
A diet and/or nutritional counselor/therapist evaluates, organizes, and implements specific diet and nutrition plans for each child. Nutritional counselors always take a number of things into consideration when planning an individualized diet, including a child’s environment, cultural factors, skinfold measurements, allergies, intolerance, and all other existing health issues.
A nutrition therapist or counselor also provides education and awareness to parents and caregivers, which helps them implement the child’s nutritional needs at home and school. Monitoring, evaluations, and assessments are important parts of making sure each child is successful with their nutritional goals.
Nutrition counselors and dietary therapists can be found in a variety of professional settings. If you need assistance for your child, consider inquiring at the following places:
- Private practices
- Government agencies
- Diet and nutrition-related businesses
- School programs
- Healthcare facilities
- Research programs
Children with cerebral palsy often have a team of medical providers to ensure that all of their needs are met. Medical providers may include a nutritional counselor/therapist, pediatrician, dentist, neurologist, physical therapist, and occupational therapist.
The Ketogenic Diet for Children with Cerebral Palsy
There are a few diet plans that have proven to be beneficial to children with cerebral palsy. Details in each diet may be customized to fit the child’s specific needs.
The ketogenic diet has been proven beneficial for children with cerebral palsy who experience frequent seizures. It consists of low-carb and high-fat foods. The high-fat foods causes ketosis, a condition where the ketones in the body increase. When this occurs, seizure activity decreases.
According to Dr. Adam Hartman, an assistant professor of neurology and pediatrics at Johns Hopkins University, it is unclear how the ketogenic diet helps children with cerebral palsy and epilepsy, but he surmises that multiple factors come into play.
“No one knows for certain how the diet works. It probably has multiple mechanisms of action—those that affect neurotransmission, or communication between brain cells. In addition, it may have various effects on the mitochondria, the energy powerhouses of the cell, and alter the metabolic function of the neurons and their supporting cells…..There is a growing body of literature looking at the use of dietary therapy for other disorders affecting the brain, such as Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, cancer, and many others, which is very exciting.”
Before starting your child on the ketogenic diet, it’s extremely important to not only work with the child’s primary health care provider, but also with a nutritional therapist/counselor or a dietitian. The Epilepsy Foundation reports that some children experience harsh side effects after trying the diet, including:
- Kidney stones
- Bone fractures
- Slowed growth
Types of Nutrients Children With Cerebral Palsy Need, But May Lack
From medications, associated conditions, and lifestyle, a number of children with cerebral palsy tend to lack the correct amount of nutrients needed to sustain health. Common nutrient deficiencies include:
Around 99% of calcium is contained in the skeletal system. The rest of it has the important duty of controlling blood pressure, soft tissue function, and muscle movement. Calcium helps secrete hormones and control blood flow constriction and relaxation. It is also necessary for muscle contraction. Many children and adults with cerebral palsy are diagnosed with osteopenia, a medical condition marked by fragile and weak bones due to a decrease in calcium.
Magnesium plays the important role of producing energy, assisting in cell communication, synthesizing molecules, and helping children build strong bones. Most people are low in magnesium, but research suggests the people with cerebral palsy often more at risk for having low magnesium levels.
Many children with cerebral palsy suffer from mood swings, depression, and anxiety. It is possible that they may lack enough vitamin C to synthesize the norepinephrine neurotransmitter in the brain. Adequate amounts of vitamin C also helps children battle common illnesses.
Copper is an important trace mineral found in the brain, heart, kidneys, skeletal muscles, and liver. It helps increase iron absorption, maintain collagen, and ward off infections. Children with cerebral palsy are often low in copper, as well as manganese, a chemical often found in minerals with iron. Low copper and manganese levels can cause weak bones, neurological function issues, growth problems, and increase a child’s risk for infection.
Good Nutrition Month
Each year, the month of November marks “Good Nutrition Month.” The goal of this month is to encourage people to learn more about good nutrition and make the necessary diet changes needed to live a healthier life. Getting your child to eliminate at least one “unhealthy” food is a positive way to teach good eating habits for life. For example, in November, eliminate any sugar-filled snacks and replace them green leafy vegetables, fruits, whole grains, etc.
Keep Track of Your Child’s Diet
Consider keeping a food diary to track your child’s daily food and drink intake. It can help a nutrition therapist understand your child’s eating patterns prior to an assessment. This can then be used to assist the therapist in creating the best diet plan to follow. If you have any concerns or questions regarding nutrition and diet for children with cerebral palsy, feel free to contact us for assistance.