Energy Metabolism and Sensory Processing Disorder: What You Need to Know

Almost immediately after my older son was born, I sensed something was “off" - his incessant crying, trouble feeding, inability to be soothed and difficulty sleeping were my clues.

Our doctor chalked everything up to his “slightly” premature birth (he was born at 36 weeks) and a “severe case of colic” that would eventually pass and was "nothing to be concerned about."

Except it didn’t pass.

Weeks went into months and my poor little guy was still struggling; we both were. Things took a turn when we joined a mommy ‘n me class with other babies his same age.

While the other babies were pulling their toes up to their mouths, rolling side to side and happily doing tummy time, my son would scream uncontrollably the second I placed him on his back or his tummy. On the rare occasions when he didn’t scream, he would lie on his back and tighten up his body, then relax, then tighten up again and relax.

At his 5 month check-up, I brought videos of him doing floor time to show our doctor. After watching, she finally agreed that my mommy intuition was, in fact, correct and gave us a referral to a pediatric physical therapist.

Within the first 15 minutes of the physical therapy evaluation, the therapist looked up at me and said, “your son has sensory-motor issues as well as low tone.” She may as well have been speaking in tongues because I had no idea what either of those things meant!

It wasn’t until a year later when we were fortunate enough to find integrative pediatrician, Dr. Katiraei of Wholistic Kids and Families, that my son’s issues began to make sense.

After taking a thorough developmental history, conducting a physical exam and doing a blood workup, Dr. K was able to identify an underlying metabolic issue that was contributing to my son’s sensory issues and his low muscle tone. Through supplementation, we were able to help boost his energy production which helped lessen his fatigue, boost his mood and increase his willingness to move his body and engage in sensory exploration.

This issue was not unique to my son. Dr K. estimates that roughly forty percent of the children he sees have an underlying metabolic issue that is a major contributor to their sensory processing challenges.

The following are signs your child fits into this category:

  • Tires easily
  • Prefers to sit and play quietly vs. running around on the playground
  • Engages in activity (running, jumping, climbing) but then stops suddenly to rest
  • Crashes after short spans of activity (child who runs on soccer field for 5 minutes, and then stops and wants to rest)
  • Has a history of skipping motor milestones and/or had late motor milestones: rolling over, crawling, walking, running
  • Has dark circles under the eyes (also a sign of adrenal issues which goes hand in hand)
  • Wakes up tired in the morning despite a good night's rest without snoring or restless sleep (also a sign of adrenal issues)
  • Has low muscle tone accompanied by sensory processing issues

CLICK HERE for a QUIZ to help you figure out if your child has a metabolic issue.

Here’s the good news: there’s a simple, safe and effective supplemental protocol you can follow to help address your child’s energy metabolism deficiency.

But, first…

What exactly is energy metabolism?

Simply put, it’s our body’s process of generating energy from the nutrients we ingest; how we turn food into energy.

Why is energy metabolism important?

Our muscles, brain and organs all require energy in order to function. When we have good energy metabolism, when our body is able to efficiently create energy from the nutrients we ingest, our muscles, brain and organs are able to function properly.

On the flip side, if the body’s ability to convert nutrients into energy is compromised, so is the functioning of the brain, muscles and organs.

How are energy metabolism and sensory processing related?

Efficient energy metabolism is required for movement, movement is integral for sensory processing and sensory processing provides the foundation for brain development.

When an infant or child doesn't have enough energy (poor energy metabolism) to efficiently move his body (including rolling, crossing midline, sitting, crawling, creeping, walking and running), he won't be able to activate the thousands of pathways within the brain, including the proprioceptive and vestibular systems, which provide the foundation for higher-level learning and social-emotional development.

While other kids are jumping, climbing, hopping, running, taking risks on playground equipment and testing the boundaries to see what their bodies can do, kids with low energy metabolism can be found playing quietly. When they do engage in movement, they proceed with caution and move in short spurts before needing to take a break.

Low energy = lack of movement = lack of sensory play = neurodevelopmental delays

The goal is to boost their energy so their natural inclination to MOVE is restored. Fortunately there is a safe, easy and effective way to do this!

What is the supplemental protocol?

The following vitamins have been found to be helpful in increasing energy metabolism:

At the most basic level of supplementation, you can start with CoQ10 and Carnitine.

The following are high-quality options for both:

Metagenics

QNeeds

Carnitine

For a combination of the energy enhancing vitamins, there are a two excellent supplements on the market:

Spectrumneeds- a multivitamin in powder form designed specifically to address the needs of children with neurodevelopmental delays.

Agape- a multivitamin in liquid form designed specifically to address the needs of children with neurodevelopmental delays.

Disclaimer from Dr. K: With both combination multivitamins, it is best to start slow and slowly build up. The high doses of B vitamins can cause some children to become hyper. As soon as a family sees any positive change, they should stop at that dose.

If the child becomes hyper, you can stop the supplements for 3-5 days, and then resume at 50% of the dose or lower. After 2-3 weeks of regular, daily dosing, if benefits are seen, families can cut down to every 2-3 days as maintenance and monitor to see if the change stays. Families should find the lowest dose that still produces good outcomes.

If you'd like to start a supplementation protocol, Dr. K recommends seeking guidance from your pediatrician. If he or she is unwilling to help, look for a functional medicine doctor, a naturopathic doctor, a chiropractor, a nutritionist or a certified health coach in your area.

Dietary Recommendations

Along with the supplemental protocol, Dr. K recommends making some dietary changes. This can be trick for sensory kids, who often have oral aversions that cause extreme picky eating. Trust me, I get it. Getting my very picky boys to try new foods is no walk in the park!

The key is to start small: pick one thing to focus on.

According to Dr. K, the two most problematic foods for kids with neurodevelopmental challenges are gluten and dairy. Since there are tons of delicious gluten-free options on the market, removing gluten might be the easiest place to start. Here's a list of my boys' favorite gluten-free foods to get the ball rolling.

Dairy can be a little trickier - it has been for us. My younger son loves him some cheese! If he could live on cheese, he would! I've experimented with several alternative cheese options and here are his favorites:

I'm not going to lie - none of these taste as good as the real thing and my son often complains and begs me for real cheese! BUT, he does eat the alternatives and cutting out dairy has made a big difference for him.

Here are a few of his favorite dairy-free, gluten-free foods:

Annie's Mac n Cheese
Daiya Pizza
Amy's Gluten-Fee Dairy-Free Burrito

CLICK HERE for more ideas.

When you're ready to step the dietary changes up a notch, Dr. K. encourages you to take a look at Dr. Terry Wahls' Protocol and to implement as many of her guidelines as possible. Remember: one small change at a time.

Parenting Tip: When you begin a supplementation protocol and start making dietary changes, it's important to track your child's progress. Here's a tool that will help you keep track of what you're doing and the changes you see so you can measure what's working and what's not.

If you take one thing away from reading this, I hope it's a feeling of empowerment with regards to your child's development. The more we advocate for our kids and think outside the traditional western medical model, the more likely we are to find answers to their developmental challenges.

On that note, if you missed the LIVE interview with integrative pediatrician extraordinairre, Dr. K., you can watch it here.

Your child doesn't have to suffer and neither do you! Stay tuned for more interviews with Dr. K. and be sure to sign up for his newsletter.

As always, leave your comments and questions below. The Sensory Mom community and I would love to hear from you.


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Hi! I'm Cameron, mom of two incredible, "differently-wired" boys who have sensory processing challenges, wife of a nerdy surfer, mindfulness practitioner and Parenting Coach with master's degrees in education and psychology.