Does your child have stomach aches or a stuffy nose after eating? Does he have dark circles under his eyes even though you know he gets enough sleep? Does she get frequent ear infections? Does your son have difficulty paying attention in school because he's so restless? Does he have eczema or wheezing or headaches? All of these problems and many more can be caused by food allergies.
Allergies are an inappropriate reaction by the body to substances that are harmless to most people. Traditionally, an allergic reaction is considered to be mediated by a particular immunoglobulin (IgE) that causes a histamine release creating redness, swelling and pain. We see this reaction in the runny nose and itchy eyes of hay fever, or hives from eating strawberries. However, the immune system is very complex and there are many ways that the body can react to foods and substances in the environment. Non-IgE mediated responses are poorly understood and can create almost any symptom. These kind of reactions are actually considered to be 'sensitivities' though we still commonly refer to all reactions as allergies.
True food allergies are estimated to affect less than two percent of adults and four to eight percent of young children and infants. Food sensitivities are much more common, although estimates vary. Symptoms of food sensitivities can involve a part of the body or the body as a whole. The frequency of digestive disorders such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome and gastric reflux suggest that many, many people have food sensitivities that affect the digestive system. Careful observation is sometimes required to connect other reactions to food.
Food sensitivities have become very common over the last decade. More and more children and adults are reacting to peanuts, milk, gluten, and many other foods. The reasons for the high incidence of reactions are not completely understood. Many allergies have a genetic component. Allergic parents have allergic kids, and usually the children are allergic to more things than the adults. These are referred to as 'atopic' allergies and cause problems like atopic eczema or atopic rhinitis.
There is good evidence that the cleanliness of our environment is actually causing more respiratory allergies. Our immune system is trained in childhood by exposure to bacteria and viruses. If this exposure is limited by excessive use of anti-bacterials and cleaning products with disinfectants, the immune system may actually be compromised. This is not to suggest that you shouldn't clean your house but perhaps to recognize that minor illnesses are normal and not a reason to give antibiotics and other drugs.
The in utero environment is important to having a healthy, allergy free baby especially if the mother and father have allergies. Some OB/GYN physicians have suggested that eliminating certain foods during pregnancy will decrease the amount of food allergies in children. The foods most commonly suggested to avoid in pregnancy are nuts and seafood. Milk, eggs, citrus and wheat are also considered common allergens.
Some studies suggest breast feeding will prevent or delay the development of allergies. Naturopathic physicians frequently recommend delaying the introduction of solid food until the baby is 6 months old and drooling adequately indicating the child is producing enough digestive juices. Babies are more likely to develop allergies to foods if they are exposed to them before their digestive systems are mature enough to handle them. The nursing mother may want to consider breast feeding for at least a year to ensure development of the immune system. Your naturopathic physician may suggest delaying the introduction of common allergens like egg white and wheat until the child is a year old. At the very least, introduce new foods one at a time, and 3 days apart, so you can recognize any possible reactions. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends waiting until your child is 24 months old to introduce peanut butter.
The incidence of food sensitivities has risen dramatically in the last 25 years. This cannot be blamed solely on genetics or on cleanliness in the home environment. In fact, changes in the food we eat may be the primary factor contributing to food sensitivities. Increased pesticide use, irradiation, adding artificial colors and flavors, synthetic vitamin fortification, chemical preservation, and hydrogenation have changed the food we eat. It becomes difficult to know if people are reacting to a particular food or to chemical residues or contamination in the ultimate product that we eat.
The need to store and transport food has generated many new methods of processing food. These new methods include mechanical processes, separation, isolation and purification, thermal processing, biochemical processing, genetic engineering, irradiation, synthetic vitamin fortification and the addition of natural and artificial colors, flavors, and preservatives. Processing at high heat has been shown to reduce the allergenicity of various food proteins as the high temperatures cause significant alterations in protein structure. However, multiple studies have also concluded that the thermal processing of peanuts actually increases the allergenicity. Excessive heat causes denaturing of the proteins, ie changes in the structure, making the molecules unfamiliar to the body. This may be happening to numerous other foods.
There are simple ways to decreasing allergic responses and prevent creating new allergies. Avoid those foods that you think may be bothering you until you can be tested or treated. Make careful dietary choices. Eat minimally processed food. Eat organic foods whenever possible. Eat a varied diet. Shop in the outside aisles of the market. Investigate the sources of the food you eat. Feed your children and yourself a wide variety of whole foods in as natural a state as possible.