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Natural Wonderer

Intentional food & farming for a more integrated life

Figuring Out Food Allergies

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figuring-out-food-allergiesWhen you hear the words, “eight ‘o clock bed time,” you probably assume I’m talking about a child, right?  With all the housework to be done, quality time to be spent with one’s partner, books to read, and quiet time to be had, what mom goes to bed at 8:00 pm?  The answer: one whose child never (and I mean NEVER) sleeps more than 20 minutes at a time.

Casey (my husband) and I spent the entire summer of my son’s first year planning to spend half the night in an arm chair holding the baby because that was the only way he slept.  He didn’t even sleep when he was in bed with us!  I would go to bed at 8:00 (or at least that was the goal- it didn’t happen often enough) and sleep until 1:00 am, waking every two hours to nurse or more frequently if Casey was having a hard time comforting Sawyer.  At 1:00 am, we would switch off, and I spent the rest of the night in the chair, dozing as much as I could between wake-ups.

We didn’t know what was going on, but we knew something wasn’t right.  Well-intentioned people would tell us that “some babies just don’t sleep well,” and “he’ll grow out of it,” but despite the fact that Sawyer is our first child, our instincts just told us something was up.  We tried the conventional medical route, where Sawyer was diagnosed with reflux and put on medication, which I have detailed in this post.  Looking back now, I can see that the medication actually made Sawyer’s issues worse, but at the time we were desperate for a solution because we could tell our baby was in pain.

After getting one too many suggestions that didn’t sit well with us, we decided to forego further medical treatment and figure things out on our own.  Around that same time, a good friend came to visit me and mentioned that she had been a terrible sleeper as a baby, and it wasn’t until she was almost a year old that her parents discovered it was due to food allergies.  As soon as she said that, I got really excited.  Weird, I know.  It’s not like I wanted my baby to have allergies, but it seemed like the first plausible suggestion that we had received.  Other than one pediatrician who suggested a dairy-free trial (which didn’t seem to help) but pursued the allergy route no further, not a single of the many medical professionals we saw had even mentioned the word allergy.

As always, I immediately started researching to find out how to determine if a child has food allergies, what the symptoms might be, and, if allergies are present, what to do about them.

Common food allergens and symptoms

One of the first things I learned about was the eight most common food allergens, listed here in order of frequency:

  1. Milk
  2. Peanuts
  3. Shellfish
  4. Tree nuts
  5. Eggs
  6. Fish
  7. Soy
  8. Wheat

When many people think of food allergies they think of tightening airways, difficulty breathing, hives, and anaphylaxis.  While those things can definitely indicate food allergies, less severe symptoms are actually far more common.  Common symptoms of food allergies include but are not limited to:

  • Stomach cramps, gas, and bloating
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Diarrhea or constipation
  • Itching in the mouth and throat
  • Rectal bleeding or blood in the stool
  • Hives or welts
  • Swelling, itching, and redness of the skin
  • Eczema
  • Coughing and wheezing
  • An itchy, stuffy, or runny nose
  • Sneezing
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Extreme crying/colic in babies
  • Poor growth in children
  • Difficulty falling or staying asleep

*Ding, ding, ding.*  Imagine game show bells going off in my head.  Stomach cramps, gas, and bloating?  Check.  Diarrhea?  Check.  Occasional vomiting?  Check.  Difficulty falling or staying asleep?  Check, check, check!!  The more I read, the more I was convinced food was at the root of Sawyer’s (and, by default, my and Casey’s) problems.

So…how did we figure out what foods Sawyer was sensitive to?  Honestly, a little bit of it was luck.  We just happened to try out a food that had such an immediate and violent reaction that there was no doubting that it didn’t agree with Sawyer.  Most of what we figured out we found through use of an elimination diet.

food-question-markWhat is an elimination diet?

An elimination diet is a diet that, as you would expect, eliminates common allergy triggers or foods that are suspected to cause symptoms.  An elimination diet isn’t a good option for someone with severe anaphylaxis, but for everyone else, it can help to determine trigger foods without expensive and unreliable allergy tests.

There are many different methods for doing an elimination diet, but the basic premise is that you first eliminate highly allergenic foods plus ones you think might cause a problem specifically for you.  Then, you reintroduce those foods one at a time, taking close note of any returning symptoms.  Because you are only introducing one food at a time (generally no less than three days between new foods), it is easier to tell if that specific food triggers any kind of reaction in your body, whether that reaction is in your digestive tract, on your skin, or in your respiratory system.  If a food does produce a reaction, you remove that food from your diet again before reintroducing another to avoid confusion over what is causing your reactions.

While it is easy enough to devise your own elimination diet, there are also many, many examples of elimination diets already “on the market,” if you should desire a little more guidance.  While I was researching options when Sawyer was a baby, I came across the Gut and Psychology Syndrome Diet (GAPS, for short).  After looking into a lot of different options, we decided to implement the GAPS diet because not only are the introduction stages of the diet an elimination diet to determine food allergies and sensitivities, but it is also a program to heal the gut and permanently resolve food allergies with diet.

Let me just say up front that I don’t think the GAPS diet is for everyone.  It is time consuming and labor intensive, but those things both pay off when allergies and digestive symptoms resolve.  Some people find very quick healing on GAPS, and others must follow it indefinitely.  Depending on your stage of life, level of “sickness,” and degree of sensitivity, there may be other options for you, but that is a topic for another day.  We decided that GAPS was right for our son because we knew it would identify his food allergies and heal him quickly due to his young age.  (Younger age=less time for damage to be done to the gut)

Why not go to an allergist?

Wouldn’t it be a lot easier to just go to an allergist and get a test done to determine food allergies?  Well, that depends on whether the allergist is going to be able to test for the type of allergies you have!  We actually did go to an allergist to try to confirm the allergens we found problematic for Sawyer through the diet.  Through following the GAPS Diet, we were able to identify dairy, eggs, and almonds as Sawyer’s main trigger foods, in addition to gluten, which we had already discovered before starting the diet.  When we went to the allergist, he had skin prick and blood tests done and didn’t have a positive reaction to ANY foods, including those that unquestioningly caused him digestive distress!

How can that be?  Are we just crazy-overprotective parents who are just making up allergies for our child?  In short, no.  The tests performed by most allergists only test for one specific type of antibodies, called immunoglobulin E (IgE) antibodies.  While IgE antibodies are often the principal participant in allergic reactions, the body actually makes at least five different types of immunoglobulins.  (See my post on infant reflux for more of an explanation about how immunoglobulins work.)  If your allergic responses are mediated by IgE antibodies, testing with an allergist will most likely reveal your triggers.  If, however, like Sawyer, your allergies are not IgE mediated, your test results will come back completely normal, and it will appear that you have no allergies at all!  While other forms of allergy and food sensitivity testing are available through naturopaths and other alternative practitioners, these tests are known to be somewhat unreliable, although many practitioners swear by the one they use.  People have had blood drawn twice in the same day and sent to the lab, only to find that they got completely different results and a different list of “allergies” from each sample.  Now I don’t know about you, but I would rather spend a few weeks doing an elimination diet than waste my money on something that may or may not give me the answers I need.

If you or someone you know has any of the symptoms mentioned above on a regular basis, I would highly recommend trying an elimination diet with the eight most common food allergens as well as any other foods you suspect might be causing a problem.  You can always visit an allergist or other alternative medicine practitioner to confirm your results after doing the diet.  Figuring out how your food is affecting you is empowering and a great first step toward better health and a more vital life.

Have you tried an elimination diet?  What did you find challenging about it?  Did you find it effective?  What would be your recommendation for someone else considering trying an elimination diet?

 

This post was shared at Allergy Free Wednesday, Party Wave Wednesday, Real Food Wednesday, Natural Living Link-Up, Simple Lives Thursday, Fight Back Friday, Unprocessed Friday, Natural Family Friday, Old-Fashioned Friday, Simply Natural Saturday, Mostly Homemade Monday, Thank Goodness It’s Monday, Natural Living Monday, Fat Tuesday, Traditional Tuesday, Tuned-In TuesdayHomestead Barn Hop, the Homeacre Hop, Clever Chicks Blog Hop, and Tasty Traditions.

 

CC Images courtesy of http://www.spaweekblog.com/2011/02/18/food-allergies-common-big-8/ and Erix! on Flickr

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16 Comments

  1. An elimination diet is the ONLY WAY to figure out what’s wrong with you! That’s what helped me tremendously! And Highly Recommend it!!

  2. I have many food allergies so I can understand much of what you are describing except it is harder when you are dealing with a child you can’t tell you what they are feeling. Elimination diet does work well for many people but nothing is one size fits all with the human body. I had never actually heard of GAPS system but I am glad it worked for you. I also agree with you that going to an allergist is about useless many times. I wish you and your child the best of luck and health. Food allergies are not fun and are a very serious issue that more and more people are waking up to. I believe it is mostly due to GMO’s, processed foods, additives, chemicals dyes and how much we have changed the natural course of nature.

    • You’re right, I probably should have mentioned in my post that it is harder to figure out allergies when you’re dealing with a young child. It took us a lot of careful observation and trial-and-error to figure out what we needed to do with our son, as we started when he was about 11 months old. It isn’t impossible, though! I completely agree with you about the causes of what is really an epidemic of food allergies. Thanks for the well wishes!

  3. I found this very interesting. Thank you for sharing your experience and your knowledge with us.

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  5. Thanks for providing such a simplistic and illuminating post on food allergies. It is extremely disturbing not to know what is wrong with ourselves or our children. It is particularly important to know the symptoms of food allergies, especially because some symptoms may be easily overlooked. I’ve also that we may develop sensitivities to foods later in life that we were able to eat before without side effects.

    • Thanks, Deborah. I’ve talked to others with the same experience of developing food sensitivities later in life. It seems to me that it must be due to increased gut permeability/leaky gut. What do you think?

  6. Mother’s should always trust their instincts. No one knows your child as well as you do! Glad you’ve been able to find out what your son’s problems are. It’s so difficult to see your child in pain and not know what’s wrong.

    • Thanks, Sarah! I agree. Seeing your child in pain is such a terrible feeling! We went against our instincts so many times early in Sawyer’s life in order to follow the doctor’s orders. Now we realize that those instincts are there for a reason!

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  9. Excellent explanation of allergies and how to figure out which foods are the culprits. I went for many years thinking my food allergy symptoms were part of the medley of Systemic Lupus symptoms I get. Once I discovered the food allergy issues, it was so nice to get some relief from a couple of the symptoms that have plagued me. Sorry you have had to go through this with a child — that must be so much more difficult to assess what is going on.

    • Thanks, Rebecca! I’m glad you figured out there were food issues on top of the lupus! It definitely adds a new dimension of trickiness doing the elimination with a small child, but it’s not impossible. You just have to learn what to watch for. :)

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