Safe Detox For Kids: How To Help Your Child Detox Without The Side Effects

I hear this question a lot from parents. You know that there are so many toxins in our environment. So much plastic. So many food additives whose long-term impacts we know very little about. Lawn chemicals. Air pollution. Many of them are unavoidable. So, the question comes up, “How do I support my child to detox from all these chemicals in a way that’s safe and effective?” Let’s start with why your child’s detox is different than yours, then we’ll cover the “don’t”s before getting to my recommendations for safe, healthy, fun detox methods for your kids. 

Why Your Child’s Detox Looks Different Than Yours

Contrary to what a lot of people may believe, kids are not simply little adults. Meaning, some of the methods you might consider for yourself are, simply-put, unsafe for your child (and arguably not the best for you, either, but that’s a different article!) Here are some of the reasons why: 

#1) Children’s bodies are biochemically different than adults 

This is the reason why, for example, infants and children are more resistant to acetaminophen toxicity than adults, but conversely, they are more susceptible to valproic acid–induced toxicity than adults. (Valproic acid is found in anti-epiplectic, mania, seizure, and some migraine drugs). 

These very biochemical differences impact children’s ability to process endotoxins (internal) and exotonics (external), depending upon their age and constitutions. So when it comes to detox, strong, aggressive methods are unsafe for children because their bodies simply may not have the ability to process what is released in that kind of a detox process.

#2) Children’s livers undergo development when they’re in utero until their livers are full size! 

To make this less abstract, here’s an example. Those squishy newborns have less than 20% of the hepatocytes (one of the four types of liver cells) than full-grown adults. This is one of the reasons why, when we herbalists are deciding upon herbal remedies for babies and young children, that we often favor bodymilk/breastmilk as a delivery method as opposed to directly administering herbs to the baby by mouth. 

That way, the chestfeeding/breastfeeding parent’s mature liver is performing detoxification functions that the baby’s liver is still incapable of performing thereby decreasing the load on the infant or child’s liver. This is also wny we are very careful about which herbs we use with babies and children and which we do not. These determinations are based on the specific metabolites in a given herb as well as the age, weight, health, and constitution of the baby or child who is receiving herbal medicine.

Simply put, children’s livers aren’t full developed and therefore can’t handle what a healthy, adult liver can.

#3) Not All Kids Can Verbalize The Discomfort Associated with A Detox That Is Too Harsh or Too Fast

You know what I mean! Water or juice fasting can make you feel worse than you did before you started. How many of us have thought to ourselves amidst a “cleanse”, “Why the **** did I do this? I feel a lot worse now than before I started this stupid cleanse!”

To respect our child’s bodily autonomy and not risk undermining the trust you are continuously cultivating between your child and yourself, it’s important to not ask their body or minds to do more than they are developmentally ready for. Since we already know that one of the primary detox functions in the human body is from a kid’s still-developing liver, we understand why gentler, longer-term methods are safer (more below on that). And now when we consider that not all children can effectively verbalize how their bodies are feeling, it brings to the forefront the questionable ethics of putting their little bodies and minds through a regimen they don’t fully understand nor have a say in. Which brings me to point #4…

#4) Adult-centered Detox Methods Are Unnecessary in the Vast Majority of Pediatric Cases

First of all, if your child has had a known exposure to a serious toxin or other known medical condition, contact your doctor to discuss a medically-supervised detox. This article is designed for the vast majority of cases in which you want to help your child maximize their wellness, boost immunity, repair gut health, help regulate mood, improve concentration, and deepen or lengthen sleep, not heal from a serious toxic exposure.  

When overall wellness is the goal, we can work to maximize the body functions that promote detoxification as well as eliminate known-toxins in the home (and even school) environments. In most cases, the results of making these changes can be profound and long-lasting.

Safe Detox Methods For Kids

Now that we understand why your detox and your kids’ detox is different, let’s move on to the way to go about a safe detox for an otherwise well kid.

#1) Plenty Of Sunshine and Outdoor Play

Vitamin D is so important! And according to a 2009 study, 70% of children in the US are Vitamin D deficient. This nutrient plays an important role in growing and maintaining bones and teeth, healthy immunity, regulating blood sugar, lung and heart health, and nervous system and brain function. Our body’s most ready source of Vitamin D is through direct (non-sunblock-mediated) sun exposure.

I recommend a daily, 20 minute period of play without sunscreen in direct sunlight. Then, put that sunscreen on. Of course, you have to use your judgement and consider these and other factors: the time of day/strength of the sun, your child’s age, the sensitivity of your child’s skin, the amount of melanin in your child’s skin, the season, availability of water (kids’ bodies don’t regulate heat as well as adults so need to have water at the ready to cool down), and family history of skin and other cancers. 

In addition to the role of Vitamin D in health, Chinese medicine teaches us the importance of physical movement in the health of our hearts and minds (known as “shen”). Children need safe, unstructured time to play, wander, and discover without demands on their mind or (unnecessary) outside direction. This is a key component to maintaining a healthy body and mind, especially for children.

#2) Drink (More) Water!

The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) recommends 1.1-1.3 litres per day for 4-8 year olds, 1.3-1.7 litres per day for 9-13 year olds. And for 1-4 year olds, WIC Works recommends 4 cups of water (just shy of a liter). Are you surprised? Does that sound like a lot or more than your kid drinks on the daily? Kids’ bodies are composed of more water than adults’ bodies (by percentage), so they need more water than you may have realized to support healthy function.

Since the above ranges are both public health guidelines, it’s safe to assume that they are on the lower to mid range of optimal. So maybe think of them as a minimum. In a detox context, aim for more.

The key to getting that much (or more) water into your kid is to make as many aspects of the water-drinking, their choice. Let them choose their water bottle. Let them choose some fruit like strawberries, blueberries, or a slice of watermelon to add to their water bottle to make it tasty. And have the bottle around wherever you and they go. The body absorbs water more easily when taken in sips throughout the day as opposed to gulping it.

And, don’t forget that these are guidelines. Take into consideration your child’s food intake needs, body size, how much they sweat, and the dryness of the climate/season.

#4) Get Those Bowels Moving!

A lot of people don’t consider how important pooping is as a daily form of detox. But let me tell you that having consistent, well-formed poops once a day is the cornerstone of the detox process.

Because constipation is so common amongst kids, I’m going to give you my top 3 ways to prevent or alleviate constipation: 

#1) add flax seed, hemp seed, or psyllium husk (gradually) to your child’s morning oatmeal, scrambled eggs, or smoothie (and remember to INCREASE fluid intake or this will cause or worsen constipation). 

#2) introduce magnesium citrate supplementation, daily. You can get this in liquid form and “hide” it in/on food. OR, add ½-1 cup of Epsom Salts to the bath 4x/week to absorb magnesium through the skin. 

#3) circular rubbing on the lower abdomen at a fairly quick clip. Use moderate pressure and perform several times/day for a goodly 3-5 minutes. You could apply some oil to the tummy to reduce the tickle factor. This is wonderfully empowering for even young children who can do it themselves or help out. You can also use this as a tool to help your child notice if they are feeling fullness in the lower abdomen -- body awareness + self-care tool in one!

Making sure your child is consistently having 1 formed, easy-to-pass bowel movement every day (or at least every other day) is a great way to aid in daily detox.

#5) Detox Your Home

There is so much information out there about how household chemicals interrupt our bodies’ core processes. Here, I’m going to talk about the most accessible things you can do to detox your home, for good! Because what good does it do to detox if you’re re-exposing yourself again and again?

We’re going to focus on phthalates (because I think you probably know to avoid conventional bleach, drain cleaners, lawn chemicals, and of course, pesticides). You may have heard about phthalates as hormone disruptors. There is a fair bit of research about phthalates’ negative impact on fertility, and there are several studies that point to a greater incidence of allergic diseases and respiratory inflammation amongst children with even low-level phthalate exposure. There is also evidence that phthalates are anti-androgenic and may interrupt puberty onset for children assigned male at birth. There’s even some research on the connection between phthalate exposure in utero and certain pediatric behavioral problems. But what does the research tell us about the most common ways that kids are exposed to phthalates in everyday life?

Diet and dust. That’s right, through what and how we eat and good, old-fashioned dust. Let’s start with dust.

Dust is fairly easy to take care of. Simply wipe surfaces with a (non-toxic cleaner) to avoid dust accumulation, including windowsills and vacuuming and washing floors. This is a tried and true way to reduce dust and therefore phthalate exposure. Also, removing your shoes at the door reduces dust, and therefore phthalate exposure. Easy enough, right? Now let’s move to diet.

You can reduce phthalate exposure in your family’s diet by minimizing your use of household plastics. In practice, this means refraining from processed foods packaged in plastic, replacing plastic containers and food wrap with glass containers and beeswax food wrappers, and never-ever heating food in plastic!

When it comes to purchasing food that doesn’t come in plastic containers -- this can be a challenge. Do your best. The key here is to make sustainable choices that you can afford to -- in terms of time, energy, and $ -- and that you’ll be able to integrate into how you operate over the long-haul. These kinds of changes -- the ones you can sustain -- will have the most positive, long-term benefits for you and your children.

#6) Eat Whole Foods And Help Your Kids Participate In The Growth and Harvesting Process

In Chinese medicine, the gastrointestinal system (more or less) is called the “Spleen”. We learn that the Spleen likes cooked, warm, seasonal, whole foods. Meaning, eating foods that are (lightly) cooked, warm in temperature, and as close to the state they were in when they came off the tree or vine or out of the ground. If we eat this way, we’re setting up our Spleen in the strongest position to assimilate nutrients, repair tissue, heal the gut, and support detox.

We also know that the Spleen in Chinese medicine is all about the process(ing) of things. In fact, the Spleen is both “concerned with” the process of assimilating and transporting nutrients as well as the process by which those nutrients came into being (thank you to acupuncturist Moshe Heller for clarifying this for me). Practically speaking, this suggests that a primary way to support healthy digestion (and healthy detox for kids!) is to involve them in the growing, tending, harvesting, and preparing the food they’re about to eat. Now, I get it, not all of us live on farms. Or have green thumbs. That’s cool, you don’t need to.

How profound for a child to participate in growing some herbs in a window (box), from seed? Watering, watching, connecting, and then cutting some basil, parsley, oregano, thyme, or cilantro for their meal? The wonder and curiosity that can be found in this simple activity not only grows their connection to the Earth, but also quite literally tonifies their digestive powers and their innate ability to detox.

#7) Avoid the foods you know don’t agree with you + processed sugar

I know, I know, no one wants to hear, “Processed sugar. Don’t give it to your kids.” And there are very few contexts in which I’ll say it quite that strongly. AND, it just so happens, that a discussion about detox is one of them.

Processed sugar is a known inflammatory. Whereas inflammation isn’t all “bad” -- in fact it’s a key part of the healing process in the case of injury -- it’s not our friend during a detox. Increasing inflammation from a known irritant like, say, processed sugar for everyone, or other foods, like cow dairy, soy, gluten, or nightshades for others, impedes the body’s ability to detox. That's because, the body spends needed energy responding to an inflammatory process to something it detects as foreign or dangerous as opposed to thoroughly and completely digesting our food or healing deeper, underlying imbalances. In other words, it's "busy" dealing with the inflammation caused by an irritating food or processed sugar.

So especially if you’re looking to help your kiddo to heal digestive issues, it’s super important to avoid things that you know give them heartburn, gas, bloating, diarrhea, constipation or any kind of discomfort. And, of course, lay off the sugar.

#8) Start on a high-quality probiotic or incorporate a variety of fermented foods into your kid’s diet every day

When it comes to kids, a “high-quality probiotic” is a slightly different affair than for adults. First off, the highest quality probiotic is one that…. they actually take! So if you kid won’t go near a pill, try a chewable gummy. If they won’t notice something sprinkled into their food, try a powder or liquid. Second, look for one that has the widest variety of strains. And switch them up. Taking the same probiotic over a long period of time can actually create dysbiosis as opposed to healing it in the first place.

If your kid is a fermented foods fan, I’d recommend this route. Not only is this a great way to get vegetables in, but also it’s a process they can participate in! (remember #6?). Making sauerkraut is so easy, and really fun, and something that kids can participate in with the slightest bit of structure. What also is great about this route is that you’re getting a wider variety of probiotic strains than in any probiotic, which is best for your kid’s gut.

#9) Boost Glutathione With Acu-Phototherapy

Glutathione is what’s referred to as a “master antioxidant” which is a fancy way of saying a super-duper-important-component-of-the-detox-and-immunity-puzzle. Glutathione plays a major role in a robust immune system and supports many (and complex) biochemical processes in the body having to do with detoxification.

Given the public health crisis that we are still in (pandemic), increasing Glutathione is even more of a no-brainer than it was previously. Well, because it helps our bodies fight infection.

My favorite way to increase glutathione for adults and kids alike, is to put a “Glutathione” patch right under the superior notch of the sternum or a couple of inches below the belly button. Leave on for 24-36 hours at a time. You can purchase your own, here.  And to read more about acu-phototherapy, read this article.

Detox For Kids: A Chinese Medicine Perspective

Detox for kids is arguably more of a way of life than an “event” like a lot of us treat it. You get to choose what you bring and don’t bring into the home environment, how you store your food, what you eat, how you spend your time, and more. What I appreciate about Chinese medicine (and I think you may too), is that the wisdom is about living in a way that creates the most harmony amongst you, your children, your community, the Earth, and the body and mind.

Taking a leaf out of this wisdom tradition, I hope that this approach to safe detox for kids resonates for you and your kids. 

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