The Milk Addicted Kid: Your Kid’s Brain On Dairy

Posted by on Apr 13, 2014

raw-milkAn all too common picture in my practice is meeting a young child who is growing weakly or even presenting with failure to thrive (unable to grow above 5th percentiles), developing at a questionably slow pace, and behaving fiercely at the drop of a hat (tantrums). There may be reflux and constipation, possibly medication dependent. Worst case scenario, the child has required tube feeding, or perhaps even lost a section of intestine to tissue damage or inflammation. Parents are weary and have been around the block: Specialists in GI disorders, developmental pediatrics, feeding therapy, and perhaps a neurologist or speech and language pathologist have all had their go’s at the child, but – improvements – if any – are meek, and dependent on pharmaceuticals or weekly therapies.

Maybe your child isn’t this bad. Perhaps they just like a lot of dairy food. Even in that case, you might be surprised at how differently your child behaves, grows, sleeps, or interacts, once that dairy protein (casein) is no longer a major feature in their day. There’s absolutely nothing magical about dairy. Many other foods can deliver protein, better healthy fats and oils, and more minerals, including calcium.

What’s going on here? This mechanism is not an allergy (though allergy or sensitivity may be present at the same time – that’s a different reaction altogether). In this case, a chemistry has evolved in which your kid is literally addicted to milk. You can measure this with a urine test. This is not a standard-of-care test, and your pediatrician will likely never have heard of it. Called urine polypeptide test, it screens for the protein fragments  (“peptides”) leftover when dairy protein (casein) is poorly digested. It also screens for same from wheat protein (gluten). These over-sized peptides exist to a tiny, insignificant degree, after a healthy gut with good digestive function takes apart a wheat or dairy meal. But with weak digestion, an overly permissive gut wall (that is, a gut that lets these too-big peptides pass through to circulation), and the wrong gut bacteria (that worsen rather than lessen the impact of these peptides), these peptides will show up in urine in larger than expected amounts.

If they’re in urine, they are circulating widely, and can also be in your child’s brain. Why is this bad? Because these peptides mimic opiates – so much, that they are named after morphine: Casomorphin and gluteomorphin (also called gliadorphin) act like opiates in the brain. They bind the same receptors as drugs like morphine.. and yes, heroin. They are indeed potently addictive. Children who adamantly refuse foods other than just wheat, just dairy, or both may have this addiction active in their brains.

This is your kid's brain on dairy or wheat overload

This is your kid’s brain on dairy or wheat overload. Source

Not only does this deny a child other more nutritious foods needed for their brains and bodies to grow and thrive, it can cause  constipation (ever needed a morphine drip or opiate-based painkiller?), and disrupt behavior, learning, social skills, and language development. In my experience, the more diet-sourced opiate measured in urine, the less verbal and more developmentally delayed the child will be. In fact, clinical trials with naltrexone, a drug used to treat opiate addiction, have shown better behavior in children with autism and increased verbal ability.The more functional the child is, the less likely that casomorphin will fall out of range – but if symptoms are active for constipation, hyperactivity, difficulty socializing, rageful reactivity, slow language progress, or dilated pupils, then I will look at eliminating the dairy anyway.

Most every child in my practice, whether they have an autism or sensory processing disorder diagnosis or no diagnosis at all, presents with nutrition challenges that can be addressed for better learning, growing, and being. Your child doesn’t have to be “special needs” to have a problem with dairy – see if the info below applies in your house.

Organic Yogurt Squeeze Tube

If your kid really likes these and eats 3 or 4 per day.. uh oh

What’s A Milk Addicted Kid?

These are kids who still rely on fluid milk as a major protein and calorie source, well past the age of twelve months, when weaning off breast or formula – as the bulk of daily calories and protein – is typically under way. They are drinking forty to sixty ounces of milk a day (about five to eight cups), and displacing solid calories because of milk intake. This lowers intake of other foods that kids need by age two or three. Milk addicts refuse other foods. They are often oral tactile defensive – that is, they hate varied textures in foods, hate to eat or chew, perhaps have delayed chewing skills (which is why some stick to the bottle in the first place), or still rely on suckling a bottle, thumb, or pacifier to calm themselves. Oral tactile issues or oral motor delays may keep this child drinking from a bottle beyond age three or four. When they accept foods, it’s often dairy items only – sweet yogurt, cheese, ice cream. A few random solids might be in the diet, but on balance, their diets lack vegetables, meats, fruits, or foods rich in essential minerals, vitamins, and healthy brain fats. There is often pallor, allergic shiners, white dots on fingernails, and a blank countenance. Growth failure or a weak growth pattern is common in this scenario too. Parents in this predicament are often told by their doctors and feeding therapists to turn to high-calorie milk-based drinks like Pediasure, Peptamen Junior, Carnation Instant Breakfast, or Boost, in hopes of providing a few micronutrients and extra calories. This won’t work, because it leaves the child addicted to opiates formed from casein, the protein source in these drinks. For non-dairy nutrition boosting options, click here.

SNKER-Cover-167x250

These children often have neurological and sensory challenges that make a cold-turkey switch off of milk a sure fail. If bottle feeding is still in the picture, the cold turkey approach can really backfire, entrenching your child’s dependence on the bottle or milk, and fear of losing these, even more deeply. In this scenario, you need a nutritious milk replacement, minerals replenishment, correction for imbalanced gut microbes, and a sensory integration plan to replace the neurological organization that sucking on the bottle gives the child.

Developmentally, milk addicts (especially those with an autism diagnosis) who eat a lot of dairy seem to show the more profound language delays. When they are on the younger end, say age three or four years, they may speak more like a one to two year old, or be non-verbal. If they are school age, say six or so, they may have expressive language praxis issues, meaning that they can talk but not in a typical way. They may use echolalic language (repeating what they hear), misuse pronouns or refer to themselves in the third person, or misunderstand social context. This is often the first area of functioning that shifts when dietary opiates begin to disengage:  Your child may begin to use language in a new, more typical way; make eye contact; or comply more typically with your requests.. within 2-3 weeks of being dairy free.

What To Do About Milk Addiction

1 – Talk to your child’s occupational therapist, if you have one, about what can replace the bottle in terms of its sensory benefit. Children with sensory integration disorder using a bottle at a late age may legitimately need this oral activity for self-calming, which they might not have mastered in other ways. Suddenly removing it with no alternative may trigger more setback than progress. A few inches of surgical tubing can be knotted for a child to suck, chew, and pull. Teething rings as for infants may work too. If your child craves and actually eats non food items, this is another problem called pica. It needs assessment and treatment, as it too can impair IQ, learning, or development. Read about pica here.

2 – Replace any gluten foods first. Since gluten is not the opiate of choice for a milk-addicted child, it’s easier to remove it first. In my experience, kids don’t usually notice that the cookies, pasta, bagels, microwave macaroni and cheese, frozen pizza and so on are being replaced with gluten-free versions, as long as they still have their dairy fix. But gluten still has to go, because gluten can trigger the same opiate effect on the brain that milk protein does. Same goes for soy – so, don’t turn to soy milk, soy tofu, soy frozen treats, soy cheese substitutes, edamame, soy yogurt, and so on. Swap in the widely available gluten free versions first, with zero fanfare – and zero explanation, unless your child is functional enough to ask a few questions. Do not expect your child’s approval or even recruit their opinion at this point.

Flavored Milks

3 – After you’ve successfully launched the transition off any gluten foods that your milk addict eats (and some eat very few, so this can be easy), approach the bigger battle: Withdraw all dairy protein (casein and whey). Begin with casein-free ingredients where they won’t be noticed. When baking, making smoothies, mixing mashed potatoes, or using a pancake mix (gluten free), sub in milks from almond, cashew, hemp, coconut (full fat canned or from carton) but not oat (contains gluten) or soy. Do not use soy milk or soy yogurt – it will trigger the same opiate chemistry. Eventually, your child will completely avoid fluid milk from any mammals (including you mom!) and products made from those milks: Butter, margarines with milk ingredients, cheeses, yogurt that is frozen, creamy, Greek, low fat, any fat, or fat free; Lactaid and lactose free milk (still has casein in it); cream soups and dressings (Ranch dressing, chowders, soups thickened with cream or milk), ice cream, sherbet, pizza or anything else with cheese, Goldfish or Cheezits or cheese puffs, and so on. Avoid foods whose labels say casein, whey, calcium caseinate, powdered dry milk, butter milk, cream, sour cream, cottage cheese, cheese, Parmesan, milk solids, or butter. “Dairy free” does not mean casein free, so read labels carefully.  

4 – Balance gut microflora as aggressively and completely as possible. This may necessitate a functional medicine stool microbiology to assess the good and bad gut bugs, plus targeted use of probiotics, antibiotics, herbal anti-microbials, or fermented foods. Long short, if none of this is working, a troublesome gut biome would be high on my suspect list – so get this part sorted out. Need help? Contact me!

5- Begin nightly Epsom salts baths to replenish magnesium and sulfur. Both minerals help liver, gut, and kidney tissue release toxins that may pile up as your child’s gut biome shifts with the new foods he’s eating. Magnesium is calming as well, while sulfur is key for many digestive and liver enzymes. Use about a cup per tub, or a half cup for a toddler weighing less than 30 lbs. Soak your kiddo for 10-20 minutes.

6 – Put in some healthy fats! Oils from nuts, olive oil, coconut oil, ghee (clarified butter), avocado, grape seed oil are all excellent and healthful choices that you can sub in for cooking, baking, and dressings. Nut butters and nuts themselves also provide healthy varied fats. Fish oil supplements are a useful boost too, since milk addicts don’t get much (if any) omega 3 fatty acids. There are some excellent kid friendly products out there.

7 – Minerals! Supplement these until interest in mineral rich foods kicks in. Minerals are abundant in leafy greens, vegetables, bone broths, meats, eggs, and herbs. But before your kid is eating that stuff daily, bridge the gap with a mineral rich supplement. It should contain at least 15 mg zinc and cover selenium, chromium, manganese, molybdenum, and boron also. What about iron? Hard to say without you being my patient and completing an assessment with me. Iron is potentially toxic and deadly if dosed incorrectly. If marginal, it creates multiple functional problems (insomnia, hyperactivity, immune compromise, depleted serotonin and more). But don’t supplement it without guidance from your doctor. Or me.

You’re Good To Go!

The first few weeks of this may feel hardest, but stick with it – for a good four months at least. Some children respond quickly, some slowly. It all depends on the child’s nutrition picture at the start, and everyone is different. But one thing that usually happens in the first one to three weeks of total casein (and gluten and soy) removal is… Fireworks! When the opiates begin to vacate endorphin receptors in his brain, your child may start to be very unhappy with this new plan. They are experiencing withdrawal symptoms and it doesn’t feel great. The may stop eating, have more tantrums, not sleep well. Brace yourself – but don’t crack now. If you’ve done all of the steps here faithfully, you will minimize or possibly even totally divert the discomfort that this new food intake may briefly create. It’s temporary, and it is prelude to much healthier eating that feeds your child so he can learn, grow, and thrive to potential.

 

21 Comments

  1. Really interesting, thanks for the information.
    T

  2. Very interesting article.

  3. So interesting! My daughter has CMPA and has been df and gf for most of her life. Def in no rush to try to re-introduce dairy after reading this! Thank you

  4. Is there a chance this addict behavior can happen to kids drinking almond milk? I googled addicted to almond milk and this article came up. I swear the symptoms are the same! I am definitely worried about my daughter!

    • Hi Erica, the casein sourced opiate-like mechanism is not operational with almond milk, but there could be other reasons fueling this behavior. If you’re using sweetened almond milk (all of it is sweetened unless it says “unsweetened”) then she may be addicted to the sugars in it. This will be true for chocolate, vanilla, or regular almond milk, all of which have added sugars. In this case, your daughter probably has a fungal load in her gut flora that is driving her cravings. The solution is to kick out the fungal load with strong herbs or (prescription meds in some cases), replenish minerals, and work with high potency probiotics (25 billion CFU daily or higher).

  5. What an amazing summary of both what i have managed to glean from sources and that i have noticed with my 6year old!! After over a year both gf and df and little change, we happened to run out of soy milk (her drink of choice after going df) and resorted to my (more expensive) almond milk. What a different child!!! Happy, settled, focused, loving, emotionally stable and even her dyslexia and auditory processing issues rapidly improved overnight!! A year ago i would never had credited the impact of foods to this type of behaviour/processing/overall functioning!!

    Love the article, thank you.

  6. Thank you for this interesting article. Once dairy is removed from a chid’s diet, is it necessary to supplement with Calcium, and if so, do you have any recommendations? Our pediatrician was concerned about calcium intake as a result of being dairy/gluten free and suggested taking Tums periodically, but not sure if this is best approach or something that needs to be specifically supplemented in children – ages 8 and 11. Thank you.

    • Depends on what other foods your kids eat. Many foods are calcium-rich, and milk is no magic bullet here, especially if it is an inflammatory protein for your kids. That will disrupt absorption of all nutrients if it is. I’m not a fan of TUMS as a calcium supplement. TUMS are a buffering agent that reduces the absorption of all minerals including calcium. Check out lists of calcium-rich foods and serve your kids’ favorites daily. If you want to supplement, use calcium citrate, tri-calcium phosphate, or calcium lactate (the latter does not have milk protein in it), which are more absorbable than the calcium carbonate in TUMS. And more importantly, replace the protein and fats your kids got from milk and dairy foods. Make sure they get protein rich foods in the place of all the dairy they ate. The calcium-dairy topic is covered in my books too. Thanks for asking!

  7. Although rich in minerals, bone broth is also rich in free glutamate…

  8. Hi, I’m curious about how all or nothing this is. My son loves milk but only asks for it about once a week, we live in Asia so dairy is very rare. But it’s in bread,etc (we’re not ready to go gluten free – yet. We don’t have those convenient gluten free options as we’re not in a big Asian city.) Is it that, well if he gets a tiny bit then forget it, the project is blown; or is it, cut down as much as you can and see what happens. My son has mild SPD symptoms but has made immense progress since diagnosis last year (he’s age 7). We did a Whole 30 last March and didn’t see improvement, but there are a lot of factors and after a month we added foods back in over time, and I know things can take many months to detox. Living abroad makes it a bit tricky; on the other hand, we all eat a ton of fresh veggies daily and for super cheap!

    • Hmm – lots in the mix here. A “Whole 30” is an elimination trial – I don’t use these in practice for children past infancy, because it is simply too much time and effort. It is much faster and more accurate to do a little blood work to see exactly what foods are triggering. This can be done with finger lancet blood collection method at home if a child is terrible about venipuncture (as they pretty much all are – but can do fine in the hands of an experienced phlebotomist). And, as you’ve found, the Whole 30 didn’t really help. It’s likely that the SPD symptoms are related to nutrition factors as this is very common. Visit my home page here to download your Sensory Nutrition Checklist for free. As for the dairy, it truly depends on your kid, if a little is going to be problematic. The only way to definitively know this is to do some blood work, or, remove dairy completely even trace amounts for 4-6 months then reintroduce. A 30 day trial is in my experience not long enough. And, if there are other foods also triggering, if they are on board while the dairy is out, your results will be murky. So, do the blood work, and go from there.

  9. Hi I have a son who is not yet diagnosed but received early intervention and was high risk for it. My child has been addicted to milk since he was born. I barely breastfeed but even then he was addicted to formula and now cows milk….he likes yogurt that’s all the dairy he loves. He drinks about 3 8ounce bottles daily. Yes he still will never let go of his bottle I cut cold turkey and for 2 days he was dehydrated he is terrified of sippy cups anything not a bottle with nipple…. He will even suck on his bottle if its empty he just turned 3 on April 23rd. Another major concerns he will never chew foods he can eat anything but I have to purée or blend until smooth traveling is hard and feeding him is just a battle 3x a day. Last but not least of his issues he does not talk at ALL at the age of 3, he says mama and baba but just babbles does not refer to us or know the meaning…So my question is does this sound like he is addicted to milk? And if casein and gluten diet should be tried? I don’t if he has severe sensory issues it is addicted but either way he has major issues in speech and interaction as well as all sensory. I love this article and I connected with so much of the findings with son. Thank you!

    • Yup, this is a classic scenario of milk addiction. As you found out, just trying to pull out the dairy is a sure fail. What to do? Coincidentally, starting TOMORROW Monday May 2, there is a Child Health Summit and I am one of the speakers. It’s a free on line event. I talk about this exact problem and what to do. You can also receive a free e book on busting milk addiction if you sign up and listen to my talk. Go for it! Register here, it’s free.

  10. Hi Judy, do you have a weekly food schedule of what you think toddlers should be eating. I’m going to slowly take the milk off my son over the next two weeks. He also loves bread, rice and pastas… I really want to try stay clear of all those carbs, but he refuses to eat anything else. Is there anything I can do to encourage him to eat better foods? My husband and I are very healthy eaters and it kills me that my son refuses all vegetables, meat, eggs, fish

    • Sure Kelly, this is one of the many services I provide to my clients. It’s also important to troubleshoot why kids are picky, this is done with lab assessments typically. Make an appointment any time and we can get started.

  11. Thank you so much for this article. I do not eat dairy and breastfed my son for the first year. He started on milk after age one year and started having mild SPD and language delays. He had autistic features now at age 3 years. He refused to potty train and had lots of issues with stool withholding. He does seem better when dairy-free but had not been dairy free for any extended period of time as the school or camp always seem to forget and he loves cheese and other various snacks the give like yogurt and goldfish.

    I know I have a terrible gut biome as I now can no longer tolerate gluten – makes me fatigued and depressed. I avoid gluten and dairy and take a probiotic and try to drink Komboucha.

    Should I have my gut and his tested by stool samples? What test and where to get this done?

  12. We took my son off of milk and gluten 2 weeks ago. We saw an immediate difference and Halloween came. He was given M&Ms and then we noticed he was slippijg back to old habits aka hyper, not listening, fog brain. So, we have taken away dyes too. It’s been 6 days without dyes now. But he continually is being hyper, not listening, and fogged brain. Could these be symptoms of withdrawal from gluten and Casein? If so, when does this stage pass? Is this all normal after switching? When will the first week come back of a much calmer child who listens and can focus! Ahhh lol.

    • Good for you for diving in! To answer all these questions and help you avoid pitfalls, pick up a copy of this e book. Problems solved. You can go in more depth on exactly what is happening here with this paperback too. There is more to do besides just remove gluten and casein or dyes. Your son likely has gut dysbiosis that needs correcting too as well as deficits for other nutrients, and the hyper won’t go away til you fix those.

  13. So what to do about a possibly milk/gluten addicted teen? How to change that diet? He questions when there is a simple packaging change of a preferred food, so replacements will be noticed, questioned and refused. He’s an SPD kiddo and has been to the STAR center and worked with Dr. Toomey.

    • Hi Shannah, this is what I do in my clinical practice. It’s a process, NOT a behavior project, and must be individualized for each child. Even for teens, this rigid eating pattern can change, once the underlying nutrition and gut biome deficits are corrected. The SPD features are related to this food intake. These features can shift also, once the nutrition supports are in place. If your son has eaten this way for years, expect a six to twelve month transition period into different eating and functioning. If you don’t want to work on this with clinical guidance (you are welcome to make an appointment anytime), have a look at this e book on Milk Addicted Kids.

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