**This post has been entered in Monday Mania at The Healthy Home Economist!**
Food allergies are becoming increasingly common in our society – both the life-threatening anaphylaxis reactions that are commonly recognized as allergies, and the “food sensitivities” that result in children who can’t eat certain foods (behavior problems, digestive distress, etc.). There are various reasons for it, including increasingly processed food, hybrized and GMO food, and over-reliance on certain foods. Over the last 10 – 20 years, these problems have exploded.
Common Food Allergies
There are 8 common food allergies, referred to as the “top 8.” These must now be labeled on any processed food. They are:
- Shell fish
- Peanuts/tree nuts
These 8 foods are responsible for the majority of – but not all – food allergies. Many doctors will recommend going “top 8 free” if a child is struggling with distressing symptoms that are thought to be food-related.
It’s interesting to note that these are among the most commonly-consumed foods. Babies are typically fed formulas that are based on milk or soy; kids are frequently given snacks and foods that are largely wheat-based. Eggs, meat, soy, and wheat are also industrially produced with chemicals, hormones, antibiotics, etc. Soy is usually GMO. (New reports say Monsanto is now working on GMO wheat, too, but they don’t expect it to be marketable for almost another decade.)
It should also be noted that although it’s not among the “top 8,” corn is also another major allergy, which will probably be considered as one of the top allergies in the next few years. Many, many children are now allergic to corn. Grain allergies in general are on the rise.
Discovering Food Allergies
Twenty years ago, when food allergies were less common, only the most severe forms tended to be recognized. This means the IgE or IgG reactions that cause anaphylaxis and which will show up on a blood test. This is the standard “scratch test,” or an actual blood draw. These days, most children with “allergy” will not show positively on either of these tests (unless they have the life-threatening symptoms). Life-threatening allergies are growing, too, but not as sharply as other forms.
Many babies are born with allergies, or develop them soon after birth. Parents may notice the following symptoms:
- Constant crying, especially during/after feedings
- Acting as if their stomach hurts (squirming, twisting, back arching)
- Diarrhea, especially if green or bloody
- Frequent gas
- Poor weight gain, or no weight gain
- Frequent night waking
- Red, itchy palms
- Behavior problems (lack of concentration, tantrums, excessive anger, ADHD)
- Bedwetting/bathroom accidents
Only some of these symptoms may be present, and they may come and go. If a mom is breastfeeding and baby is allergic to something she consumes only on occasion, then baby’s reactions may be infrequent. These same symptoms can be seen in older children (who are on solids) if they have allergies, although they may be able to tell you when their stomach hurts, for example.
If you note these symptoms, try to figure out if there is a pattern to them. Is it after every feeding? After you/the child eat(s) certain foods? It can sometimes be hard to tell, because while some foods cause an immediate reaction (within minutes), others can cause a delayed reaction (up to 2 weeks). Even if reactions seem minor, continuing to consume allergens is causing gut damage, which can cause more allergies and other health problems.
An elimination diet is the best way to diagnose food allergies. An elimination diet removes a particular food(s) from a person’s diet for at least 2 weeks, but ideally for at least two months. It can take the body this long to clear an allergen. Two weeks is really the minimum amount of time before a true difference will be noted; but 2 – 4 months is when the body can begin to actually feel better because it has completely cleared the allergen.
Elimination diets aren’t easy, because not only do all obvious sources of an allergen have to be eliminated; all hidden sources do, too. Soy and wheat are in almost all processed foods. It does no good to say “we don’t eat soy,” but eat processed foods containing tiny amounts of soy lecithin almost daily! The best solution is, of course, to eat whole, unprocessed foods that you’ve made at home, so that you know exactly what is in them.
(We’ve dealt extensively with food allergies; you can read Rebekah’s Story, and Rebekah’s Update to learn more. It was shocking at times to me that at home we could eat anything without fear, but when we were out there was very little we could safely consume.)
Treating Food Allergies
Once you’ve discovered allergies, you have to decide what to do about them. The current mainstream thinking is that there is no cure; you just have to avoid those foods forever. I don’t buy that at all. Of course, the mainstream still has no idea what causes these food allergies or sensitivities, so obviously they have no idea how to treat them. Do not believe them when they say “There’s nothing you can do.” (Yes, I feel strongly about this…but given our experience, how could I not?)
Treating acute reactions isn’t easy. There are a few remedies you can try:
- Gripe water (to calm upset tummies)
- Hypericum (homeopathic for allergies)
- Coconut oil, calendula (applied to skin inflammation)
- Activated charcoal (to bind to the substances and remove them quickly from the body; can also stop vomiting)
- Digestive clay (similar to activated charcoal; some think it is more effective)
- Epsom salt baths (can calm itchy skin, and help detox the body)
Sometimes, waiting it out is the only solution, though. 12 – 18 hours is usually enough to clear the worst of the reaction, especially if the exposure was accidental and not chronic.
Can you cure food allergies? Yes. To cure food allergies, you have to address the underlying cause: gut damage. Gut damage is caused by basically everything in our modern environment: c-sections, not breastfeeding, eating processed foods, eating too much sugar, not eating fermented foods, eating GMO foods, using anti-bacterial products, consuming foods treated with antibiotics and pesticides, frequent antibiotic or other drug use, and so on. No “one factor” can permanently damage your gut, but these all add up over time to cause serious gut damage.
Gut damage is also passed along from mother to child. If a mother’s gut isn’t healthy, she doesn’t build a healthy baby, and she can’t pass along good gut flora to her newborn, whose gut is sterile until birth. Babies are meant to get their first dose of gut flora as they pass through the birth canal, then by breastfeeding for a minimum of 18 weeks. As they age, they transition from breastfeeding (ideally for at least 2 years) to an adult diet that is absent of excess sugar and processed foods and rich in fermented foods. This produces ideal gut health, can help to produce very good gut health even if a mother isn’t quite as healthy as she should be.
When an unhealthy mother breastfeeds, undigested proteins get into her bloodstream and then into her milk, which get passed to her baby, causing allergic reactions. Formula-fed babies, especially those on standard commercial formulas, don’t get the protection of the IgA that is found in breastmilk (which coats the open digestive system, protecting from undigested proteins getting into their bloodstream – assuming they’re not already present from an ill mother), meaning that the milk or soy can go right into their bodies and cause allergies.
In the future we’ll talk about how to handle babies who don’t or can’t breastfeed for whatever reason. There are options besides commercial formula, which can help prevent some gut damage. (It’s worth noting that a lot of people who cannot handle pasteurized cow’s milk can handle raw milk just fine, including my own family – unprocessed is always better!) We’ll also talk further about introducing babies to solids in the best way to prevent sensitization and allergy problems.
Since this is all rooted in the gut – a so-called “leaky gut,” which is what it is called when the undigested proteins go through open spots in the gut wall (open from immature guts or from poor/non-existent gut flora) – the goal is to close and heal the gut and repopulate with good bacteria.
The GAPS diet was designed to do exactly this.
GAPS eliminates all grains and disaccharides (sugars) from the diet, which are hard for the gut to digest. Instead, the diet focuses heavily on animal foods, which are easy to digest. Consuming homemade bone broths is also key, because the natural gelatin in the stock helps to heal and seal the gut lining. Then, the body is hit with a number of probiotic foods and supplements in order to repopulate the gut. There are many, many success stories of families using the GAPS diet to completely eliminate food allergies. (For some, it can eliminate environmental allergies, too, because it calms the system and stops the hyper-sensitivity.)
The diet isn’t easy, and those with serious food allergies will need to commit to the diet for about two years, sometimes longer. Even after the diet, they’ll never be able to go back to eating SAD (Standard American Diet); they’ll still have to eat a healthy, animal-rich, unprocessed diet. Most families also end up going back on GAPS for a few months every year or two in order to boost gut health further. (We’ve done GAPS twice; we’re currently on hiatus due to the arsenic detox but will have to go back to it in a month or so.)
After GAPS, many families can successfully re-introduce previously allergenic foods without reactions. We were, at one point, unable to eat any grains, legumes, nuts, dairy, and certain fruits. Now almost all of these foods are okay. Unsoaked grains and peanuts still do not go well, but anything else is okay. Legumes, soaked nuts, raw dairy, and all fruits/vegetables are completely fine. (Peanut butter and any commercial whole-grain product is really all we have to avoid; white flour is fine in a pinch. It’s not a big deal anymore at all.)
We also noted that food dyes and unfiltered water are not very safe; my daughter had terrible behavior (screaming, whining, crying, out of control; she seemed also unable to concentrate or pay attention) as well as her first accidents in months after consuming some food dye over the weekend. After 18 hours, when it was out of her system she was back to normal. If she ate SAD, she’d definitely be diagnosed with “ADHD.”
If you’re looking for some help with doing GAPS, check out Against the Grain: Delicious Recipes for the Whole Food and Grain-Free Diet, which contains grain and dairy-free recipes, most of which are suitable for the GAPS diet.
If your family suffers from food allergies, or potential allergies, consider an elimination diet and the GAPS diet if problems are confirmed. It’s worth it to be able to eat foods without poor reactions!
What has been your family’s experience with food allergies?