Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Food Allergies Behaving Badly

The number of reported behavior problems in children with food allergies is on the rise.  A growing number of parents, pediatricians, and allergists are reporting connections between problems in behavior and the physical symptoms of an allergic reaction.  Not all bad behavior in all children is attributed to this, but there is a growing awareness that the two go hand in hand.

Let’s take a closer look.  Technically, children (and adults, too) can be allergic to any food or food additive (think preservatives, artificial flavors, and food dyes), but the most common 8 food allergens are: milk, egg, peanut, tree nut, wheat, soy, fish, and shellfish.  Most allergy symptoms are caused by a histamine release within the immune system.  This release can cause inflammation, congestion, headache, abdominal pain, diarrhea, and swollen eyes, lips, and throat.  Severe reactions display symptoms including seizures, suffocation, coma, and anaphylaxis, which can be potentially fatal.

Imagine you are a small child just learning to communicate verbally and you are experiencing one or several of the symptoms mentioned above.  As an adult, we have learned how to respond when we don’t feel well.  We have established a vocabulary that allows us to describe how we feel and what our symptoms may be.  A small child has not yet learned this.  A small child becomes frustrated when they don’t feel well because they do not understand why.  They cannot grasp the concept of time and how long the symptoms/pain will last.  For children, the best method of communication is through behavior. 

Behavioral symptoms triggered by food allergies are: aggression, tantrums, mood swings, anger, depression, and inability to concentrate.  Many of these may be strictly related to the physical discomfort caused by allergic reactions, but some symptoms are present because of the existence of certain chemicals in the immune system which alter hormone levels and neurotransmitters in the brain.  One major cause of concern (which I recently learned about) is how toxic histamine releases can be.  I did not realize they directly trigger inflammation on the brain.  This can cause major behavioral and cognitive changes within children.  New studies also suggest that food allergies may imitate ADHD and other psychiatric conditions.

Again, I would like to clarify that I do not believe all bad behavior in children is caused by food allergies and allergic reactions, but I do believe that there is a direct correlation between the two and the research that supports this theory is advancing at a rapid pace. 

So what can you do as a parent to help with food allergy-related behavioral problems???  Well…

1.       Strict avoidance of all known allergens and intolerance is the key to great food allergy management!!!!!!!!

2.       Read labels and be meticulous.

3.       Strictly avoid all chances of cross-contamination.

4.       If you notice that certain behaviors present themselves during or after your child eats a particular food, seriously consider eliminating it from the child’s diet. 

5.       Educate yourself and anyone who comes into contact with your child, so that everyone is on the same page, and maintain good communication.

6.       Make an action plan.  Give everyoe who is caring for your child a copy!

7.       Make your family doctor, allergist, nutritionist, and other medical and professional staff aware of your concerns. 

Most importantly, do not let the child’s poor behavior make you behave like a child.  You are the adult, the care taker, the one in charge.  Ultimately, you can make or break the situation.  Do not give in to the bad behavior, but instead, do something positive to redirect it and to change it.  Get the necessary help to get the behavior under control.  Many psychologists and psychiatrists will agree that is almost impossible to get a child’s behavior under control If there are underlying medical problems which are left untreated. 

If you take away one thing from this post, please let it be this:  Remember that it is not the child behaving badly on purpose if there is an underlying medical condition that needs to be treated.  The child is not deliberately trying to upset you by not brushing his teeth before school; it might just be that his mouth hurts from something he ate.  He isn’t trying to frustrate you on purpose by letting you know that he doesn’t want to go to school for the 100th time today; in reality he really probably does have a tummy ache from the abdominal pain caused by something that he ingested that he was allergic to.  More likely than not, the child probably just doesn’t know how to tell you that he doesn’t feel well.  Remember the last time you didn’t feel well?  How did you behave?  Put yourself in the child’s shoes and try to be compassionate. 

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