How Food and Eating Problems Can Be Affected by Retained Primitive Reflexes

How Food and Eating Problems Can Be Affected by Retained Primitive Reflexes


Food intolerances, compulsive eating, vomiting disorders, allergies, sugar cravings, fussiness, and biting and chewing problems can all have links to retained primitive reflexes. Still not well known, working with reintegrating primitive reflexes are usually seen in the context of helping children with processing issues such as dyslexia, dyspraxia, ADHD and autism. The effects of retained primitive reflexes can affect us at any age and in diverse areas of life, from our ability to get projects finished on time to being able to sit still in a meeting, to our ability to digest the very food we eat.

If you are unfamiliar with primitive reflexes, they are movement patterns that are exhibited by infants all over the world. Beginning in the womb and fully integrating before the age of 2, these movement patterns enable the brain and nervous system to fully develop. They are involved with birthing, safety, finding food, rolling over, crawling, standing and eventually walking. When these movement patterns are unable to be fully expressed or integrated in the central nervous system there can be problems with physical, mental or emotional development.

The Fear Paralysis Reflex is the first reflex to emerge shortly after conception. As its name implies, when there is a perception of a threat this reflex shuts down movement of the developing baby. If this reflex is retained beyond birth then the feeling of being in danger will make the baby freeze and not move. Sometimes the feeling of danger can be misinterpreted by an oversensitive system and benign sensory input such as smells, taste or texture of food can feel overwhelming. This can lead to picky eaters, the sensory aspects of different foods can be intimidating, even frightening and this can lead to a reluctance to try new food and a restricted diet. Another aspect of Fear Paralysis is a need to be in control and a tendency towards perfectionism, combined with the sensory links this may lead to eating disorders.

The Moro Reflex follows on from the Fear Paralysis Reflex and is probably the reflex that people are most familiar with. It develops at approximately 3 months in pregnancy and should integrate at 3 months old. Its role is to alert the caregiver to possible danger and then to cling on and cry when safety arrives. The Motor reflex is in two parts; flinging and gasping and clinging and crying. When the baby is startled the first part of the reflex makes the baby throw its head back, fling out its arms and legs and take in a big gasp and cry loudly, the second part is when baby is picked up and held close and baby will to cling on with hands and feet and cry for comfort. When the baby’s needs are met, (when it’s startled, it cries and then is picked up and comforted), this process helps regulate the fight/flight response which is governed by the vagus nerve. This is important because the vagus nerve travels from the brain stem through every major organ, including the gut and stomach, sending and receiving information, including safety - the opposite of fight/flight is rest/digest. If the Moro reflex is active (retained) then the baby, child or adult is too easily triggered into fight/flight which may then cause issues with digestion such nausea, cyclical vomiting and conditions such as gastroparesis, where the stomach isn’t able to function at all. The constant search for the energy needed for fight or flight can also lead to very strong sugar cravings and cravings for easily available carbohydrates provided by highly processed often white or “beige” foods such as chips, chicken nuggets, white bread, pasta and rice. This tension in the vagus nerve and then in the gut can also be linked to the development of food allergies. Good integration of the Moro reflex is also essential for establishing strong connections through the brain structures that regulate the brains seeking/reward system. The ability to bond and attach to a caregiver through the expression of the Moro reflex is important for establishing a well functioning seeking/reward system. Disturbances in this integration and connection process causes frustration in the system which can trigger unwanted behavioural responses to fight or flight which can include compulsive eating.

The Moro reflex is also linked to the hand and foot reflexes because of the need to cling in the second part of the reflex, we only need to look at hand reflexes in regard to food issues and then also mouth reflexes. The Babkin hand reflex emerges during pregnancy and is connected to the mouth via a muscle train, as the baby suckles, the hands will squeeze and let go of the breast to stimulate milk production.it allows the baby to grasp and cling in the second stage of the Moro reflex and encourages bonding and regulation of the seeking/reward system. In the absence of this reflex being well integrated, the strong link between moving the hands and mouth together can be another trigger for compulsive eating, and also smoking and nail biting - anything where there is a compulsion to bring the hand to the mouth.

Root and Suck are mouth reflexes, the Suck reflex is connected to the Babkin and therefore the Moro, if these are retained then there may be problems with chewing hard foods or biting the cheek or tongue while eating. There is often a need to have something constantly in the mouth, so compulsively chewing gum or chewing sweets, again the links to sugar cravings are part of the Moro issues. Another hand reflex, the Palmer Grasp also clings but has problems with letting go. This can also be seen in those who are greedy or who hoard food.

A better understanding of Primitive Reflexes and how they affect us, from childhood through to adulthood could really revolutionise how we address related food and digestive problems. A good neurodevelopment or reflex integration program will address deep seated problems in both children and adults. In babies and children there are things that can be done to help good reflex integration. In new babies, picking them up swiftly when they cry and carrying babies in a chest facing sling can help. Lots of movement, tummy time, swinging and rolling are good to help with sensory processing. Hand reflexes respond well to hand massage, messy play, manipulation of dough, plasticine and putty as the different textures help stimulate hand relexes. Pushing against a wall or pulling yourself and the floor using your hands, on a hard floor or using a scooter board. Things such as cats cradle or wool winding will help. These activities can apply to adults as well as children, as improvements can be made at any age. Facial massage will help with the Babkin and other mouth reflexes, massaging across the forehead, across the cheekbones and around the lips will address the areas affected.

If you would like more information of to book an appointment for yourself or your child, please contact me at Niki@OrganisedMind.co.uk or contact me via Organised Mind on social media.

I also offer courses in learning Rhythmic Movement Training for professional therapists, parents and teachers.

I have a corporate programme available to address the problems of retained primitive reflexes in the workplace.


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