Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Food sensitivities

A few weeks ago, Marko had a couple of colds. He was coughing a lot and had a runny nose. The colds are long gone, but the cough remains. I've started to get worried.

Then I remembered I had reintroduced tomatoes, the last thing to add back into my diet, weeks ago. At the time I didn't notice any new symptoms -- but I hadn't thought to look for coughing, and he got that cold very soon after that, as I remember. So I cut tomatoes back out for a couple days to see if it helped.

Two nights later, he slept through the night. Seven hours. I don't think he's done that since he was three months old!

But I forgot about it the next day at dinnertime, and made chili with diced tomatoes in it. I was up at midnight and two o'clock with a coughing baby, and from four to five with a crying baby. He wasn't feeling well, and I blame the tomatoes. I'm going to be more careful to avoid them now, and see if I can get this cough gone.

After a lot of experience with this boy and his ways, it's become a habit, every time he seems extra fussy, won't sleep when expected to, or has some odd symptom, to look at food first. What new foods have I been eating? What foods have I not been eating? What foods have I introduced to him lately? When everything he eats agrees with him, he is almost always happy. He naps regularly, plays independently, explores the world, and doesn't get upset easily. But when he's not feeling well -- either sick, teething, or sensitive to a food -- he is clingy, weepy, and doesn't sleep well. I've stopped writing off his bad days as "just out of sorts today" and starting to find causes. Even going through my notes from when he was a newborn, I can see that he was incredibly fussy and stuffy-nosed at two weeks old, and that was the same time I was eating that tomato casserole every night! Bingo.

Food sensitivities are widespread

Food sensitivities are, in my opinion, underdiagnosed. We all know people who are violently allergic to nuts or bee stings, but what about people who feel unwell from milk or get heartburn from tomatoes? Often a person reaches adulthood before they make the connection. And it seems quite likely to me that this connection is sometimes never made: people with IBS, acid reflux, eczema, chronic acne assume that there is no cure, when, in some of these cases, a diet change might help. It's easy to say, "Oh, everyone's got allergies these days, they're just making a fuss over nothing," but my reaction is rather, "A nagging health problem could be cured by making a simple diet change? Sign me up!"

When kids have food sensitivities, they're not always able to make the connection. Sometimes they're not even aware of what's bothering them; they just feel out of sorts and act up. Or those food sensitivities can cause mental and behavioral problems that we think is "just the way they are." This article amazed me with its claim that two-thirds of kids with ADHD improved with an elimination diet. Two thirds! I've even heard of kids with autistic-like symptoms improving when certain foods were eliminated.

Not all food sensitivities are allergic reactions. Some may be a problem with digestion -- tomatoes, for instance, are very acid, and some grains are hard to digest. Celiac disease is an example of a severe food sensitivity not caused by allergies. (If you suspect you or your child have celiac disease, see a doctor. But be aware that a blood test for celiac will only show up positive if the disease is very advanced. A good doctor or naturopath can try other tests or lead you through an elimination diet.)

Food sensitivities and babies

Babyhood is the ideal time to find out about what foods a baby handles well. First, because you have no prior data. This is when you discover that your kid is one of those who is allergic to nuts or shellfish -- the big allergies that adults know they have. Now is the time to find out, so it's important to watch your baby when new foods are introduced. Second, as you introduce solid foods, it's like doing an elimination diet in reverse: add one food at a time, waiting three days or longer between new foods, and watch for a reaction. If you're not sure, it's easy to skip the solids for awhile until a symptom goes away.

Most food sensitivities come with the baby actually eating the food himself, but food proteins are also passed through breastmilk, so a child can be sensitive to something you eat, as well. A formula-fed baby's at a disadvantage here: he may be sensitive to his formula, but since he's always had the same one, you think it's just his personality. If a formula-fed baby seems colicky, refluxy, or gassy, it might be wise to switch for awhile and see if that helps. Many babies who are sensitive to cow's milk are also sensitive to soy, which does make things difficult. Hypoallergenic formulas may be the only option for very sensitive formula-fed babies.

The bright side of this is that babies do sometimes grow out of food sensitivities. A baby's gut is much more porous than an adult's, and it begins to seal around 6-8 months. You may not have to be cooking without eggs or cow's milk forever, but just until the baby's tummy is ready for it.

Symptoms of a food sensitivity

So how do you recognize a food sensitivity? Here's a list of symptoms, most of which I have noticed when Marko has had the wrong thing to eat. None of them is a surefire proof of a food sensitivity, but if you see one or more of these, especially after introducing a new food, be wary and write it down!

*Unexplained crying, colic
*Excessive spitup, reflux
*Sleep problems
*Stuffy or runny nose, coughing, repeated ear infections
*Rash, eczema, severe diaper rash
*Very red cheeks, as if they've been slapped

*Green stools, diarrhea, extreme constipation
*Nursing strikes, nursing aversion, hunger strikes
*Behavior problems, hyperactivity, tantrums

These are just a few things that might appear suddenly when a child, particularly a baby, has had a food he is sensitive to. It might be nothing; it might just be the way the baby is normally. I mean, what baby doesn't have "sleep problems," by adult standards? But if these symptoms appear suddenly, and they're a big change from the way he normally is, they may be a warning sign.

How to identify and cure

When you see these warning signs, start keeping track of them right away. A food journal is really helpful, especially when your mind is full of naptimes, change times, mealtimes, and so forth. Write down what the baby has eaten and what symptoms he has each day.

Depending on how severe the problem is, there are a number of courses you can take. If it's mild, you could try cutting out one potential allergen at a time and seeing if it helps. Eliminate it both in baby's food and in your food if you are breastfeeding. Give it at least a week, preferably two, before adding it back in and cutting out something else. The downside of this approach is that it takes forever, and it won't help if the baby is allergic to more than one thing.

A more effective approach, for a more serious problem, is to eliminate all of the most common irritants: cow's milk, wheat, corn, peanuts, cruciferous vegetables (like broccoli and cauliflower), onions, garlic, spicy foods, tomatoes, chocolate, citrus, caffeine, and soy. Give it a few weeks. Milk, the most common allergen for babies, may take three weeks to get out of baby's system. You'll need to eliminate ALL foods made from these products, including all dairy products. It will be rough! But, if you see improvement in your baby after a week or so, it will encourage you to keep on. Once the baby has improved, you can start adding things back in. Consult your food journal to see what symptoms were the most common, and watch particularly for those. It takes 2-24 hours for a food mom eats to appear in her milk, and may take another day to cause symptoms in the baby, so it's probably best not to reintroduce foods more closely than every other day.

If the problem is very severe and you're in a rush to cure it, you can do what I did for a brief time and go on a very limited diet. Pick one meat, one grain, one or two veggies, and one fruit, and eat those for a few days. If there is no improvement, switch to a different meat, starch, veggie, and fruit. Don't stay on this diet for too long, or you run the risk of vitamin deficiencies. When you do see improvement, start adding foods back in, starting with the ones you eat most often or the mildest foods.

With any elimination diet, if you cheat at all, you have to start all over. That means that you should probably do it at a time that you can make all your own food instead of eating out, from boxes, or at other people's houses.

This is a lot of work and very difficult, but, if the child suddenly perks up, stops fussing, starts laughing, and his rashes and sniffles go away, it's definitely worth it. And if not, at least you know you've ruled out that possibility.

Some people believe food sensitivities can be healed in time using the GAPS diet. This is a diet intended to heal a gut that has become too porous and is "leaking" allergens into the bloodstream. I haven't tried it, but it may be useful, especially for a child who has multiple allergies. You can avoid tomatoes forever, but when a child is showing up allergic to wheat, dairy, nuts, eggs, and who-knows-what-else, there may be something wrong in his digestive system that is causing this.

As for Marko? His cough is not gone yet, so we'll give it a few days, and not add anything new into his diet for a bit. I'll let you know if we manage to get rid of that cough!


Alicia said...

Very well written and informative. I have done a lot of research on food sensitivities as well because I discovered when my son was a couple months that dairy in my diet was affecting him (through breastmilk). He will be 2 next month and he is still sensitive to dairy and soy. The biggest signs for us were frequent night wakings with tummy cramps and excessive spit up. It is tough finding foods without these additivies so we eat very wholsecome, natural foods. The allergy specialist calls it a "protein allergy" and suspects he'll grow out of it.

Anonymous said...

Very informative! I`m going to add this to my next Sunday Surf. :D

Sheila said...

Alicia, I do hear they grow out of protein allergies eventually. Sure would be easier on you guys, seeing how dairy and soy are in so many things!

Thanks, Wolfmother!

Kristen @ My Semi-Crunchy Life said...

Such a well-thought out and informative post! Thanks.

I, too, look to food as soon as I notice my son is extra fussy or etc. I am wheat-, dairy- and soy-free for him right now. I always look to food first, although I'm very careful and eat only whole foods now so it's unlikely he would really get any of those. I wonder about other things though.

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