The tightly scheduled lives of American children, packed with school, sports and other activities, are being linked to a serious health condition discovered by a Kansas City physician.
Dr. Julie Wei's groundbreaking work suggests longer nights and later dinners are to blame for a new illness she is calling the "milk and cookie disease."
Watching vibrant 7-year-old Rhenn Beckley play soccer with friends, it's hard to believe there was a time not that long ago when the Wellsville, KS, girl was too ill to join the game.
"I didn't like it," Rhenn said. "I was so mad I couldn't play with my friends."
Rhenn's mother, Glenna, says the steady stream of doctor visits began when her daughter was just 4 years old.
"She would cough uncontrollably, lots of fevers, tired all of the time," Glenna said.
In a two-year period, Glenna says Rhenn was seen by every kind of specialist, prescribed 18 different antibiotics. She endured countless pokes and prods without any answers.
"Why do we keep adding more and more medications, taking nothing away, and she's getting worse," her mother recalled wondering.
And because the symptoms increased at night, the sickness prevented Rhenn from getting a good night's rest.
"One time I actually fell asleep in class," Rhenn recalled.
Finally, her mother took Rhenn to see Wei, a pediatric ear, nose and throat specialist at the University of Kansas Hospital. The appointment began with an unusual question.
"I'm sure I was the first person to say 'Tell me what you eat?'" Wei said.
After years of treating otherwise healthy children who were dealing with the same symptoms of a chronic stuffy nose, sore throat and recurrent croup, Wei conducted a scientific review of 24 patients to determine whether a change in diet might make a difference.
She discovered, "It's conceivable that nighttime dietary habits may lead to physiological reflux … leading to recurrent ‘croup' episodes in otherwise healthy children."
Or as Wei explained, "The stomach does not instantaneously digest and kick it out to the intestines. It's a process."
When Wei linked some particular types of foods to the recurring symptoms, she decided to call the condition "milk and cookie disease."
Her prescription to parents? Simply limit their child's intake of dairy and sugar, especially at night.
The diet changes worked wonders for 20-month-old Ian Gaston.
Prior to treatment, Wei described the toddler from Holton, KS, as having "Darth Vader" clog in which he made a raspy, gurgling sound every time he took a breath. He sounded like the villain from the Star Wars movies.
At first, Ian's mother, Lura, expressed concern about doing away with nighttime feedings.
"No bottles after six and no - maybe - milk mid-afternoon. Cut out that bottle in the night, which I thought ‘Oh my gosh, how are we going to do that when he wakes up hungry?'" she said. "It was easier than we thought."
The change proved both easy and effective. Within weeks, Ian's gagging, vomiting and congestion disappeared.
"My mom put it best," she said. "The sparkle is in his eye … he's Ian!"
Beyond teaching her patients what to eat, Wei instructs them on when to have those meals and snacks.
"When your kid is finishing soccer practice and it's a school day, (parents should say) 'We better get dinner in there and you're going to bed,'" Wei said. "So this is an epidemic because kids are going to bed with undigested dinner."
As a result, dinner in the Beckley household now happens earlier in the evening. And once the dishes are cleared away, per doctor's instructions, the kitchen gets closed for the night.
"The kitchen should close about 90 minutes to two hours before bedtime," Wei said.
If there is a late game or the real need to have something to eat or drink closer to bedtime, Wei suggests water with a piece of fruit or perhaps some whole grain bread.
These simple rules are being embraced for the life-changing results they've brought to the families in Wei's care.
"She's a godsend. She's a blessing for our family because, you know, it's a miracle," Glenna said.
"She changed my life," her daughter added. "It was amazing!"
In order to reach as many families and young patients as possible, Wei has written a book on her cure for the "milk and cookie disease."
A Healthier Wei: Reclaiming Health for Misdiagnosed & Overmedicated Children is now at a publishing house.
Copyright 2012 KCTV (Meredith Corp.) All rights reserved.
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