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9.02.2010

Food Allergies and Chronic Illness in Children

You may know, if you have followed me for a while, that I have been in the throws of this issue myself. For almost a year, from early spring of 2009 until this past February, my children were sick almost constantly with upper respiratory and ear infections. I became very good friends with my doctor who, thankfully, was cooperative and open minded. My only complaint about my doctor was that testing for food allergies was not her idea. However, when I brought it up she cooperated fully and never made me feel like it was a stupid idea because it wasn't hers (you know, some doctors do that). Obviously (and no surprise to me) their tests came back positive for wheat and dairy allergies, which are two of the most common food allergies to have. From the time I have eliminated these foods both their health and their behavior has improved exponentially. Temporarily eliminating the foods (as well as some vitamin therapy, daily probiotics, and a diet high in healthy whole foods) gave their immune systems the chance to recover and mature. A few months ago we re-introduced dairy to both children and they have shown no ill effects since (still holding off on re-introducing wheat to Oliver). Sure, it's been a pain, but a little sacrifice is totally worth it. Being healthier has obviously made them happier children, which makes for a happier family. Instead of spending most of their days cranky, uncomfortable, and clingy we get to spend our days learning and playing (and getting things done, which was much harder when they were sick all the time). So yes, monitoring their diets was usually hard and often annoying, but doesn't that sound like a worthwhile sacrifice?

Anyway, ever since I got their test results and saw how quickly eliminating these foods helped my children I have wondered almost daily; "how many other children are suffering chronic illness due to a simple food allergy? And how many could have a greatly increased quality of life if one or two foods were simply eliminated from their diets?" And as I have wondered this a good sized handful of friends' children (remember this post- not exactly a friend, but you know what I mean) who seem to be suffering from the same progression of illnesses that Oliver suffered from. Most of them, as in the post cited above, I have at least mentioned food allergies to. And not a single one (unless the lady I posted about before has changed her song- as I said, she's not technically a "friend") seems to have taken me seriously. Granted, I am kind of the crazy hippie health nut (which is really funny, because I REALLY don't eat that healthy, I just try to most of the time) that most people just disregard because, well, they think I'm crazy. Whatever, don't take my word for it. But if your child is sick all the time, if he/she seems to have some sort of digestive of upper respiratory infection every time you turn around, and if your doctor doesn't seem to be worried about any other more serious problem, then ask them about allergy testing. And if your doctor blows you off or tells you that food allergies are an unlikely culprit, find a lab in the phone book and call to see if you can have allergy testing done there. Without a doctor's referral the biggest problem you should have is that you may have to pay it out of pocket.

For those of you who have a hard time believing that a reaction to food could cause the many and varied ailments that some children get frequently, try looking at it this way: it's not that wheat/dairy/etc CAUSES an ear infection or reactive airway directly. The child's immune system is "confused" and is attacking the food with antibodies that are normally reserved for fighting illness. This causes inflamation throughout the body AND taxes the immune system, creating the perfect environment for any common ailment to set up house (and hang around). So while your initial reaction to cart off said child to the doctor and pump them full of antibiotics will clear up the current infection, as soon as you've finished the antibiotic an infection (not necessarily the same one) will likely set in again because not only does the underlying cause remain, but the antibiotic itself has likely exacerbated the problem because it depletes the gut flora, which many studies have shown is directly linked to the immune system...

...okay okay, I've confused you more. What can I say, it's a curse this constant quest to know everything. Simplified- food allergy= compromised immune system= near constant "common" child illnesses= cranky child and cranky mom.

What causes people to develop an allergic reaction to a food? No one knows for sure, although the theory I find most likely is overexposure- we eat too much of the same things. Think about the most likely allergens, wheat and dairy (and btw, corn and soy are climbing the list, but the distinction between "allergy" and "intolerance" is causing difficulty in tracking). While there are dozens of edible grains in existance, most people eat three- wheat, corn, and oats. And dairy allergies aren't exactly new. It's estimated that 80% of adults have some degree of difficulty processing dairy. Most children under the age of 5 (depending on their heritage) produce an enzyme that allows them to digest dairy better than adults, so their incidence on intolerance is actually lower, but dairy allergy and lactose intolerance are different (as wheat allergy and gluten intolerance are different). As with the cause, prevention of food allergies hasn't been pinned down. The little research that has been done, however, shows that taking probiotics daily during pregnancy and eatting whole food while avoiding processed sugars is the best way to prevent food allergies in your children. Further, the progression of foods introduced to an infant has to be different from what is generally recommended. Cereal should NOT be the first food introduced to infants. Fruits and vegetables are safe first foods. Depending on your particular nutritional philosophy you can also introduce egg yolks (not the white, which is the part infants often have problems with) and yogurt as early as 4 months, although this is controversial and you should do your own research before planning what and when to feed your baby (don't just take my word for it... or your pediatrician's).

If your child develops a food allergy the best course of treatment is total elimination of the offending food. Also, daily probiotics can help speed healing and development of the immune system (easy if your child isn't allergic to dairy and likes plain yogurt, but if they can't have dairy there are several good probiotic powders you can mix into their food or drink). Cod Liver Oil (I know I know, sounds gross, but my kids actually liked theirs- the kids' versions are usually flavored) is also a great theraputic vitamin at both healing the gut and the immune system. In addition kids should be given a B complex vitamin (esp if allergic to wheat- I couldn't find a kid's b complex so I bought adult capsules and mixed 1/2 into each kids' juice with the probiotic each morning) and a calcium/C/D vitamin. Because I was focused on these specific vitamins (and because they had been taking them when they developed the allergy) I avoided a multivitamin so I didn't have to worry about overdoing any vitamin (of the ones I listed D is the only one you could potential overdose your child, the others are all water soluble and any excess will be flushed out- but be wary, both the cod liver oil and the calcium will probably have vitamin D and maybe A in them, both of which are fat soluble and can build up to toxic rates in the body). Avoiding sugar is also important, since sugar can cause bad yeast to build up in the gut further taxing the immune system and inhibiting the development of beneficial bacteria.

My research? Yeah, I was going to find some cool articles to cite. The problem with that is I read everything and remember most of it, but I NEVER remember WHERE I read it, making it difficult to cite. My recommendation would be to go to the mothering.com forums and browse the food allergy board- those ladies are SMART and most of them have done far more research than me- several of the stickies at the top of the board cite great studies and articles. Were I a responsible journalist, I would link to some here. However, I don't really consider myself a journalist. And every time I browse that message board I end up reading something completely unrelated for 3 hours, which ends to me developing yet another cause. So I'm going to avoid it instead and send you there:)

Sorry if I lost you at some point- my goal is to inform, not overwhelm. I just have a hard time striking a balance.

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