I recently sat down to interview Dr. Alina Olteanu, integrative pediatrician and owner of Whole Child Pediatrics of North Texas. Dr. Olteanu played a major role in helping my youngest heal from chronic ear infections and restrictive airway disease (which I share about here).
I was thrilled to pick her brain about children’s health in the 21st century, and let me tell you – she is a wealth of knowledge! You can find the full audio recording in Google drive format here, or a YouTube link here.
Below is a transcription of the interview. All that is missing from the recording are a few comments I made here and there, but I encourage you to listen to the audio or YouTube link to hear the emotion and passion in both of our voices as we discuss these fascinating topics. She definitely speaks my language on all things gut health and brain health. I hope you enjoy what she has to say and please share with a friend!
What brought you to integrative medicine?
I grew up in Romania and went to medical school there. I came to the United States to get a PhD in biochemistry, because I love science. I’m fascinated with research, but my passion was always working with children. I did my pediatric residency at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, where I learned to treat the sickest children. I became good at treating really sick kids, but my heart was in general pediatrics and I wanted to treat a variety of diseases.
When I got into the real world of pediatrics, I noticed that a lot of my kids weren’t sick enough to go into the hospital, but they weren’t well either. Unfortunately that is becoming the normal. I started to see kids who were on daily doses of Zyrtec for ears, seasonal allergies, chronic runny noses, cough, and also a lot of behavior issues like autism, ADHD, anxiety and depression. The only thing I had in my toolbox was prescription medication. The kids would get better, but they kept coming back and never got well. Childhood should be a time of our lives when we are perfectly healthy. I tell parents that “healthy kids are happy kids.” That started my journey looking into other treatment options.
I spent some time in Africa with the Pediatric AIDS Corps and I saw a lot of kids with HIV who were being treated, but they were dying of hunger. That is what sparked my interest into nutrition. From there I worked in New Orleans, post Katrina, and I saw a lot of children exposed to toxic stress without a lot of healthy foods, the areas of the city called “food desserts.” That made me realize the importance of nutrition and how little training I had and knew about nutrition. I knew how to treat sick kids and prescribe medication but I didn’t know about nutrition.
I started looking at more treatment options and I came to the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine. From there, I gained a newfound respect for nutrition, especially in children, and what a huge difference it makes. I learned about other treatments that are considered alternative or holistic. If they have a lot of science behind them and if they have been studied the way we study prescription medication, we can safely incorporate it into traditional medicine. This is the basis of integrative medicine – bringing into western medicine these other treatments that may have been used for hundreds of years but aren’t studied. Now we have more scientific information, we know they are safe and effective. Integrative medicine is using different tools to heal children. I still prescribe medication when needed, but I worked a lot with changing the lifestyle through nutrition, supplements, herbs, or I refer patients to chiropractic care and acupuncture.
What do you believe is one of the top health issues facing children in our country today?
100 years ago, children were dying of infectious diseases. Mortality rates were mostly infectious diseases, and that is still true for some countries today. What I see now is an epidemic of behavior, mood, and emotional disorders. Parents come to the pediatricians first, and not many of us were trained to face this epidemic. We have some, but not a lot, of psychiatric training.
About 10-15 years ago I realized I can’t send half my patients to a psychiatrist. I went and got more training in managing mental and mood issues, and what I’ve noticed working in integrative medicine is that a lot of problems can be alleviated by lifestyle changes, nutrition, and stress management. At least half of my patient visits are related to neurodevelopmental disorders: autism, ADHD, anxiety, depression, mood deregulation disorders – starting at kindergarten age children.
My goal is to minimize prescription medication as much as possible or use judiciously. It’s not a permanent fix, it’s a help for a short period of time until we implement other methods to help them learn to manage emotions, improve nutrition and gut health. There is amazing new research about the gut/brain/immune health connection, so I always talk about gut health – how to prevent issues and treat. For a lot of my kids with anxiety, focus or sensory issues, I always ask “Are you pooping every day?” A lot of kids are constipated today. In my experience, I say everyone is constipated until proven otherwise.
How does the stress of parents impact the health of children? What can we, as parents do?
The bad news is most children’s stress starts with parental stress. The good news is parents have the power to changer their children’s neurochemistry and even rewire their brains to have a different reaction to stress by managing home stress levels.
I wish I could reach more moms when they’re pregnant or before they’re pregnant. A lot of children’s stress start in their mom’s belly. Unfortunately, I see a lot of maternal guilt related to this and I want to take that guilt away. I want to empower moms to see that if they take care of themselves they are taking care of future generations. It all starts prenatally. When mom has a stressful pregnancy it changes the cortisol levels of her and the child, which rewires the brain and makes children more sensitive and reactive to stress. Babies can be born stressed. They’re more colicky, they have more sleep issues, and when mom is able to manage her own stress level and emotional health the babies do much better.
There are interesting studies about the mom’s heart rate variability and when babies are more colicky and crying, mom is more stressed. When mom breathes and relaxes, the baby calms down. We live in a society where moms don’t have a lot of support (grandmas nearby, aunts, even maternity leave), and as babies grow, they become more reactive to stress.
The best thing parents can do for children is to manage their own stress. Put on your own oxygen mask first, as they say on the airplanes. I want to give moms permission to put themselves first. Self care isn’t a luxury, it’s a necessity. I’m a big believer in stress management methods – yoga, method, anything that works for parents. I actually teach a stress management and medication class for busy parents where I give practical tools through meditation on how to destress on a daily basis. Through meditation, parents can rewire their own response to stress and through the process of neuroplasticity they can change their children’s response to stress. We can only go so far with nutrition, supplements, and medication, but there is a big part of alleviating chronic conditions through stress management.
What are some tips for getting through cold and flu season?
I know most parents may want to hear about supplements and vitamins. But I’m going to mention that last because I want us to look at the big picture. We have to go back to the basics.
One of my first pieces of advice would be sleep. Kids need sleep – especially teenagers. So many teens struggle with chronic fatigue and in the winter they are catching every bug possible, and when I ask them how much they sleep, and they say 4-6 hours a day.
Next is exercise, especially outside. I encourage children to play outside at least an hour a day to decrease screen time to help them sleep better – because those go hand in hand. Many kids are overscheduled with activities but kids need free time to play an hour after school, outside to relax and reset.
Third is nutrition. I talk a lot about anti-inflammatory diet principles. Eliminate processed food, artificial dyes and preservatives, added sugars. Add the good stuff – brightly colored vegetables, fruit, leafy greens. I encourage at least 5 servings of vegetables a day and there are tricky ways to do that. I focus on nutrition for gut health. All cultures around the world have some sort of fermented food as part of their staple diet. Pickled vegetables, sauerkraut, all of those can be incorporated.
Water is especially important for hydration during the dry, winter months. Keep a humidifier in the bedroom 24/7, especially after we start turning the heater on. Nasal saline spray before they go to bed keeps the nasal mucosa moist so they are less likely to get viruses. Teach children good hygiene and not to put their fingers anywhere above their neck.
In terms of supplements, I encourage parents to know their kids vitamin D levels. Maybe check it once a year. If it’s normal, in the winter months, supplement with vitamin d, if it’s lower, supplement a little bit higher. Vitamin C if they don’t get it through food, and elderberry is one of my favorite immune boosters that has antiviral properties. I try to the keep the supplement to a minimum because I don’t want to replace prescription medication with supplements. Kids should get all their nutrients from food, but very few do, so that’s why we boost it during winter months with supplements.
Finally, stress management. The 4-7-8 breathing method is my favorite relaxation breathing tool. I have a video on my website that teaches kids how to make their out breath longer than their in breath. It stimulates the vagal nerve which switches their nervous system from fight or flight response to the relaxed response.
I think our bodies are so miraculous and so smart, I want to make parents and children aware that we do have an inner pharmacy that we can awaken through certain mind-body exercises, and by practicing a basic healthy lifestyle.