Every parent lives in terror of discovering a food allergy for their child. One peanut or piece of shellfish can quickly send families to the emergency room, so it’s important to exercise caution.
However, the standout signs of an allergic reaction aren’t all you need to worry about for your child’s safety – food sensitivities are also a concern. While a food sensitivity is typically more subtle than an allergic reaction, it could be the cause of chronic issues for your child.
What is a food sensitivity, and how can you tell if your child is dealing with one? By the end of this article, those answers will be clear.
What Are Food Sensitivities?
In today’s world, we are more aware of our diets than ever. Gluten intolerance wasn’t nearly as much of a buzzword even ten years ago, but now we’re all better educated about the ways that food affects us.
However, food sensitivities are still not well understood. This condition is often defined as slow-onset allergic reactions. It can take anywhere from an hour to several days for the symptoms of a food sensitivity to appear, and the only way to identify a sensitivity is by removing suspected foods and then re-introducing them, or through a specific blood test.
Your immune response defines the difference between allergies and sensitivities. An allergic reaction will trigger an immediate immune response (called an IgE reaction) that develops into symptoms like hives or closed airways. In contrast, a food sensitivity triggers a delayed response (IgG, IgA or IgM reactions) that can lead to vague, wide-ranging symptoms that often take three or more days to show up.
Common symptoms of an allergic reaction include a scratchy throat, painful swelling, and breaking out in hives. However, bouts of brain fog, bad breath, stubborn acne, and painful joints are all cues that something else is wrong- like a sensitivity.
Are food sensitivities the same as intolerances? Not exactly. Food intolerances are triggered when you eat things that your digestive system can’t fully digest (like lactose), often leading to gas and cramping. This can often be due to an enzyme deficiency (i.e. lactase).
While an intolerance triggers similar symptoms to a food sensitivity, they differ because it’s not an immune response.
How Common Are Food Sensitivities?
You’re not alone if you struggle with food insensitivities. In fact, the condition affects (conservatively) as much as 25 percent of the population, while far fewer know that they even have a problem. Because the mechanisms that trigger food sensitivities are complex and the symptoms can be delayed, most food sensitivities are misdiagnosed as different conditions.
Unlike allergies, food sensitivities aren’t typically something you are born with. Instead, they can develop over time when your digestive tract becomes compromised, and/or consuming too much of certain foods – thus creating imbalances within your digestive system. Children are most likely to experience sensitivities to gluten, corn, soy, eggs, and dairy.
11 Signs of a Food Sensitivity
How can you tell if your child is suffering from a food sensitivity? The following symptoms are usually a good indicator.
1. Brain Fog, Bad Moods, and Headaches
Food sensitivities compromise your neurological functioning, making you feel like you’re trapped in a fog and not able to focus on anything in front of you. If your child acts surly throughout the day and complains of frequent head pain, their diet might be to blame.
Research also shows that diet can trigger migraines, primarily if it contains processed foods with artificial sweeteners, flavours, colours, and preservatives. Identifying these foods and eliminating them from your child’s diet is a proven way to reduce a migraine’s severity and prevent them from occurring in the first place.
2. Food Cravings
Because food sensitivities are often triggered by overeating certain food groups, they are often correlated with the foods that your child loves most. This is because eating foods the body can’t digest well triggers antibody production as an immune response. Often, this can also be associated with a release of natural painkillers (endorphins). These antibodies are typically overproduced to get the problem back under control.
Any unused antibodies will sit in your system in anticipation of another attack, potentially leading to food cravings. But stay strong! If your child can resist the urge to snack for at least four days, the worst cravings will be over.
3. Inexplicable Fatigue
Eating should give you energy, not deplete it. If your child regularly falls into a stupor a few hours after meals, this might be a sign that they aren’t getting enough nutrition because a food sensitivity is affecting their digestion.
4. Digestive Problems
It’s hardly surprising that some of the most significant signs of a food sensitivity are problematic for your digestive system like gas and cramping. These symptoms usually start several hours after a meal because your body can’t completely digest what’s in your stomach, leaving lots of debris for bacteria to munch on, producing gas in the process.
5. Depression or Anxiety
The brain and digestive system share a deeper connection than most people realize. Called the gut-brain axis, this link is responsible for up to 90% of the body’s serotonin production, a compound renowned for boosting moods and keeping you feeling relaxed.
If your child’s gut health gets compromised because of a chronic food sensitivity, their serotonin production might also suffer. Research shows that improving eating habits can boost people’s moods, making it easier to overcome the effects of depression.
6. Skin Problems
Strange as it sounds, a food sensitivity can show itself on your child’s face. The digestive system has extraordinary influence over skin health, especially conditions like psoriasis, eczema, acne, and rosacea.
If your child’s skin is looking splotchy or inflamed, this is often a sign that something in their diet is irritating their immune system. Removing these trigger foods might make a difference.
7. Nutrient Deficiencies
Food sensitivities affect your nutrient stores in two main ways: they prevent your body from fully digesting each meal and properly absorbing nutrients – often by instigating leaky gut syndrome and they stress out your system so that you deplete your existing stores. If your child is eating a well-balanced diet but still shows signs of common nutrient deficiencies such as vitamin C, vitamin D, iron, or magnesium, a food sensitivity might be to blame.
8. Joint Pain
Chronically painful, swollen joints are often a sign of unchecked inflammation triggered by a misbehaving digestive system. Research shows that cutting certain foods from your diet can reduce the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis and leave you with less pain. While your child likely isn’t living with early onset arthritis, any complaints of achy joints that aren’t sports related should still be taken seriously as a possible sign of a food sensitivity.
You should think twice if your child is struggling to fall asleep or stay asleep each night- undiagnosed food sensitivities might be to blame. Some research points to food sensitivities as an underappreciated trigger of sleepless nights, and chronic inflammation can lead to elevated cytokine levels, which are a trigger of insomnia.
10. Weight Gain
Gaining weight without noticeably increasing your calorie intake or lowering your exercise levels might be a sign of a food sensitivity. Some experts even attribute food sensitivities to as much as 70 percent of inexplicable weight gain, typically because the digestive distress messes with the signals that your stomach sends to your brain.
In the same way, a chronic inflammatory response can lead to bloating several hours after a meal. If you’re finding that your child looks “puffier” than usual, the problem may be a food sensitivity.
11. Respiratory Problems
Does it seem like your child’s seasonal allergies aren’t going away? The problem might be on their dinner plate. Food sensitivities can cause inflammation throughout the body, leading to a stuffy nose, coughing fits, and even chronic ear infections.
How to Test for a Food Sensitivity
I often treat patients with food sensitivities that have previously looked elsewhere for the reasons behind their symptoms. This usually means that they have previously undergone standard blood work or diagnostic testing, but gave up in frustration when all their results came back “normal.” While these are important first steps, often times we need to dig further using specific functional medicine diagnostics to help provide the full picture.
At The Dempster Clinic- Center for Functional Medicine, we strive to get to the root cause of health problems by treating the entire body as one cohesive system. We also understand that your digestive system is often at the heart of your health- for better or for worse.
To test for food sensitivities, I typically recommend an immunoglobulin G (IgG) test to measure blood levels of the compound. Food sensitivities are delayed reactions to specific foods in the body, and the food antigen-antibody complexes will build up in body tissue over time. In this way, blood testing offers a straightforward way to uncover the causes of your child’s food sensitivities.
3 Strategies for Helping Your Child with a Food Sensitivity
Understanding the reason for a food sensitivity and helping your child recover from it are two separate issues. After all, most sensitivities are caused by foods that kids love, like dairy and processed snacks.
What does it take to eliminate a food sensitivity? These tips are a smart place to start.
1. Make an Elimination Diet Fun
The best way to overcome a food sensitivity is through an elimination diet, or a food plan where you remove anything that might trigger a sensitivity. If you frame things right, the program will be fun for your child.
A hint: make sure you focus on the foods your child CAN eat, not the ones they need to avoid.
By letting your child think like a detective to find ways to improve their health, you’ll encourage them to stick with the plan and feel better in the process.
2. Eat What They Eat
Don’t let your child feel deprived by forcing them to eat separate food from the rest of the family. In most cases, everyone can benefit from pulling processed foods from their diet, so challenge your entire family to follow the recommended food plan. This will also provide opportunities for everyone to cook together, and you can teach your kids the importance of nutrition from a young age.
3. Educate Other Adults in Your Child’s Life
When it comes to food sensitivities, you need to be an advocate for your child. Teachers and other parents often won’t understand your concern unless you clearly explain it, and you might need to provide separate food for your child in some situations.
Think of it as an opportunity to be an ambassador for the seriousness of food sensitivities, and you’ll be drawing attention to an issue that doesn’t get nearly enough of it today.
Treating Food Sensitivities at The Dempster Clinic- Center for Functional Medicine
We all want the best for our children, and the reality is that an undiagnosed food sensitivity can hinder that. At The Dempster Clinic- Center for Functional Medicine, I will work with you to identify whether a food sensitivity is the source of your child’s symptoms.
I am pleased to offer a Complimentary 15-minute Discovery Session for all potential patients. This session can take place over the phone or at the clinic in person. It provides an opportunity for you to better understand what services I offer and how they can be of benefit to you.
Please schedule an appointment today! Your best health awaits.
Dr. John Dempster
The Dempster Clinic-
Center for Functional Medicine