Difficult behaviour – could food be the culprit?

We’ve known for a long time that food can cause us problems.  The well-known adage ‘One man’s meat is another man’s poison’ was reportedly said by Herodotus in 460 BC.  Later, Hippocrates identified that stomach and skin complaints could be caused by drinking milk.  Yet the link between the food we consume and children’s problems remains stubbornly ignored by many.  Inattention is seen to be the result of ‘unbalanced brain chemicals’ or a symptom of a mental disorder (ADHD).  This is in spite of much evidence that attention and other typical challenges (can’t complete tasks; loses focus; is aggressive; can’t follow instructions  etc) may well be linked to brain function that is disrupted by food substances.

There’s a difference between a food allergy and an intolerance.  A food allergy means any immediate adverse immune reaction to any substance inhaled or eaten or coming into direct contact with the skin.  The reaction (swollen lips and tongue, asthma attack, rash) is immediate and so can usually be traced back to a particular cause.  Peanut and shellfish allergies are perhaps the best known.

Food intolerance is the name for reactions that show up to 72 hours after exposure, making the trigger food or substance much more difficult to identify. While the reactions may not be life-threatening, as in the case of an allergy, they can certainly impact badly on the general health and functioning of the child.  Symptoms of food intolerances can be divided into two broad categories: physical (especially digestive) and mental/emotional/behavioural.

It is much easier to understand the link between what a child eats and what happens in his digestive system than to see the relationship between his food and his feelings, behaviours and learning. Nevertheless, we have known for decades that reactions to foods can cause, amongst others, hyperactivity, nervousness, learning problems, depression, hostility, aggression, periods of confusion, irritability, mood swings and clumsiness. 

Partly clouding the issue is that the distinction between allergy and intolerance is still not recognized.  This means the absence of an immediate negative reaction to a food is seldom thought of as a possible cause of emotional/emotional/behavioural issues.

Dr William Philpott, a psychiatrist and an author of an interesting book titled Brain allergies, reported that intolerant reactions to foods and pollutants often trigger violent behaviour. This rings true to ILT practitioners, who have had experience of children as young as 3-years-old being expelled from their nursery schools for violent outbursts.  On careful analysis, the causes were food additives – such as colourants, preservatives and flavouring. 

Another case[1] involved a 5-year old boy with poor speech development.  The child showed an abnormal EEG (brain scan showing abnormal brainwave patterns) and a temper that was out of control.  The boy was found to be intolerant to chocolate, milk and cola, which were then eliminated from his diet for over seven months.  The EEG was repeated and found to be normal, and his behaviour was much improved.  When the culprit foods were then reintroduced, his EEG was once again abnormal and his behaviour worsened.

Common food intolerances

Many foods may be the triggers to adverse reactions but to help alert you to the most likely culprits in childhood, here are the top five usual suspects:

  1. Cow’s milk products
  2. Food additives and colourings
  3. Gluten grains (wheat, oats, rye, barley)
  4. Sugar
  5. Yeast

In addition, sometimes the clue to a culprit food may be the food that a child craves and insists on eating all the time.  Eating too much of the same food too often can lead to a food intolerance which then becomes a craving for that food.  Yet another reason to try and ensure that your family has a varied diet.

It is difficult to test reliably for a possible food intolerance and some tests are also expensive.  One method that can be done without expense at home is an elimination diet. 

Elimination diet

As the name suggests, this approach means that you withhold the suspected food to see if symptoms improve. This means being very strict and ensuring that the suspected food is totally absent from the diet.  For example, you may be withholding milk but the child is eating other foods containing milk, for example, baked products, cheese and so on. 

If the symptoms do seem to abate, after a while you add the food back to see if symptoms reappear.  Don’t be in too much of a hurry.  If food tolerance is the cause of the symptoms, it might take up to several weeks to see improvements – especially if the symptom is related to a health condition.  On the other hand, children sometimes show remarkably quick improvement.  An example of this is a young girl who showed mood problems, low energy levels, ‘foggy head’, sore muscles and some digestive problems.  We suspected wheat as her diet was particularly high in this, being part of nearly every meal.  After cutting out all wheat and wheat-containing products (read the labels!), she felt very much better after only a month. In the first few days, she had felt worse, which is a well-known sign of withdrawal from a biochemical addiction. This was a confirmation that the approach was correct and luckily passed after only a short while.

If there are multiple food intolerances, identifying them may be a long and difficult process. Symptoms may not improve even if one suspected food is avoided because other culprit foods may be contributing to the symptoms.  In this case, it would be better to consider a test, for which you should consult a medical doctor with specific knowledge of allergies and intolerances.

Is there a cure for food intolerances?

There is no simple remedy for a condition that is a manifestation of the body’s inability to adapt to certain things, not least eating too much of the same foods too often.  The only real way to deal with a food intolerance is to avoid the food so as to reduce or eliminate the symptoms.

[1] Haynes, A J & Savill, A. 2005. The food intolerance bible. HarperThorsons: Berwick upon Tweed

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