How Food Sensitivities & Intolerances Can Manifest In Children

You’ve heard us talk a lot about food sensitivities in adults, but we haven’t spoken about how they can manifest in children. In fact, you may not have even considered that this could be a factor in your child’s symptoms. This is something I have experienced with my clients many times, but when I had Sophie, and saw first hand how much my diet was affecting her through breastfeeding, I thought it would be worth sharing how food sensitivities can present in children. 

Food sensitivities involve IgG antibodies, which is a different type of antibody than your classic allergies, which are IgE reactions. What this essentially means is that rather than presenting as an immediate and very obvious reaction, symptoms can present themselves up to three days later. Often, and especially in the case of children, they may not present with any noticeable digestive symptoms. This makes them difficult enough to pinpoint in yourself, let alone your child. Even though gluten, dairy and egg sensitivities are common, for some people the culprit is actually a “healthy” food you wouldn’t suspect like a certain nut or fruit.

Some examples of how food sensitivities can present in children:

  • Eczema
  • Hives or rashes
  • Headaches
  • Behavioural problems
  • Irritability
  • Stomach aches
  • Ear aches/infections
  • Diarrhea or constipation
  • Blood in stool
  • Bed-wetting
  • Wheezing or asthma

Symptoms of food sensitivities may also present very differently for babies, children and adolescents and they can change throughout your life. Adolescents, for example, may experience depression, anxiety, irritability and an inability to focus, all things that might just get brushed off as regular teenage behaviour. One of our teenage clients developed major anxiety and fatigue, which was so out of character for her that her parents wanted to look into it a bit deeper. Though we didn’t do any food sensitivity testing on her, we found that her mood and energy started to get much better when we removed gluten from her diet.

To illustrate the complexity of sensitivities a bit more, I thought I would share some examples from different clients.

Examples from our Clients

One of our clients, a nine year old girl, was getting sick more often than other kids, was very fidgety and had these big lulls in energy. Her parents had been to an allergist but no foods came up. When we reviewed her intake questionnaire and got the full picture of her symptoms and medical history, we saw that she also had very bad seasonal allergies and eczema. Right away, we were drawn to food sensitivities as a potential root cause, despite her having no digestive symptoms. Why is that? Allergies, eczema and low immunity are signs that the immune system is overloaded. Inflammation in the gut is a potential cause of inflammation elsewhere in the body, which is very taxing on the immune system, so we needed to rule that out.

While we waited for her food sensitivity test results to come in, we had her parents remove dairy and gluten from her diet.  These tend to be the most common culprits when it comes to eczema. Even though the eczema wasn’t a symptom they were looking to address, it was a clue as to what was going on in her body. We also had them reduce refined, processed and sugary foods as much as possible because they can lead to poor gut health, which is a factor in food sensitivities. It can also contribute to low energy and mood changes in children and adults. Before we even got her test results in, her parents commented that her mood was more stable, her eczema had gone down significantly, and the cough she had for months had finally resolved. What a simple fix! 

Low and behold, the test results showed that she did in fact have a gluten and dairy sensitivity, as well as a sensitivity to peanuts, peas, and eggs. It’s impossible to say how she developed these sensitivities but studies have shown that children with allergies (remember, she has seasonal allergies) tend to have lower levels of beneficial bacteria, have higher levels by comparison of some of the more pathogenic strains, and have a low diversity of strains, all factors in a healthy microbiome. Maintaining a healthy microbiome helps support a strong immune system and helps with the digestion and breakdown of foods. This may be why children exposed to antibiotics either in vitro or in their first year of life have a greater risk of developing allergies and food sensitivities, because antibiotics can kill off beneficial bacteria in the gut.

In any case, we removed those foods, incorporated some gut healing and immunity boosting nutrients including a children’s probiotic, and thanks to the testing and removal of those additional foods, she continued to get better. The important thing to note is that this process can feel very overwhelming for children and their parents, so we made sure to go slow while instituting any new changes and we spent time working with her parents to find suitable snacks and meals so she didn’t feel too restricted. If a symptom didn't come about overnight, it definitely won't resolve overnight.

My Experience With Sophie

For Sophie, she was experiencing acid reflux symptoms that caused her to be really fussy and unhappy breastfeeding. We were recommended by our doctor at a breastfeeding clinic to remove cow’s dairy for a period of time as that can cause or make the reflux worse. There is research to show that a cow’s milk allergy can cause or exacerbate GERD (reflux) and that removing cow’s dairy as a significant improvement in the kids. 

I don’t eat much dairy to begin with, but when I was eating out, I wasn’t asking for my meal to be dairy free (only gluten free), so there was some dairy creeping into my diet. Going dairy free did help immensely and now that her system is a bit bigger and more mature, I’ve been able to have some (very minimal) cow’s dairy and it seems to be ok. 

What You Can Do

If you suspect your child has food sensitivities or intolerances, and you haven’t been able to find anything through tests with your GP or even an allergist, I highly recommend considering a food sensitivity test for your child if they are at least four years old.  I know how frustrating it can be knowing that something is wrong with your child, but not being able to find the answers you’re looking for. The food sensitivity test we do at HEAL is a blood spot test that you can do at home on your own. We will ship you the test and it’s about a 3 week turnaround time from when you order the kit. The test will look at the top 132 most commonly eaten foods and food additives and measure the level of sensitivity (if any). This test looks at IgG 1-4 and C3d complement (measuring 2 inflammatory pathways instead of just IgG) which dramatically reduces false positives compared to traditional IgG testing. It is not available through your GP.

Any foods that are found to be problematic, should then be removed for at least 12 weeks. We would then re-introduce them one at a time assessing for symptoms to see if they can be reincorporated on a rotational basis or if they have to be removed for a longer period of time. Working with a nutritionist, regardless of if you decide to go the testing route or not, can help you narrow down foods like sugar, processed foods, food colouring, etc. that may be a factor in their symptoms.

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