Last night I received a call from a family friend worried about her 15 month old toddler, Stella. Stella has suffered from chronic ear infections for many months. Multiple rounds of antibiotics have been given to Stella to treat her ear infections but none of the medication treatments have worked. Now Stella’s body is becoming resistant to antibiotics. Even though antibiotics do not solve Stella’s problem, her doctor is now suggesting the girl receive daily doses of powerful antibiotics for 6 MONTHS (continuously) as the next course of action.
I’m not a doctor, but something doesn’t seem right about continuous antibiotics.
Maybe it’s just me.
Chronic ear infections are often a sign of food allergies. When I asked Stella’s mom about the girl’s health history, it became clear there was more going on and food allergies were very likely the culprit. In addition to ear infections, Stella also suffers from eczema, is pale and small, and often has a runny nose. These symptoms point directly to a problem with food allergies. The antidote is not continuous shots of antibiotics (I know, shocking statement I just made there). Instead, an overhaul of the girl’s diet, as well as food allergy testing should offer the family relief and answers. This was the information I gave Stella’s mama, and I hope the family works together to find the right solution for their little girl.
I have suffered from food sensitivities my whole life; however, I didn’t discover food was a problem until my early twenties when I completed a food allergy panel through my naturopathic doctor (more on naturopathic medicine below). As a child I suffered from chronic ear infections (I feel your pain Stella!) and spent most of my childhood swimming in brain fog. I never felt right. I was often sluggish and cranky. Sounds like a fun kid, right? I was. Just ask my mom.
It wasn’t my fault though. When food is offensive, it means business.
So what is a food allergy anyway?
People use the terms food allergy and food sensitivity interchangeably, however they mean very different things. A food allergy is an adverse immune response to the proteins in a particular food. If you suffer from a food allergy it means your immune system views proteins of a particular food as INVADERS and responds by launching a full-blown attack…called an IgE response. Most people know if they have an IgE food allergy because the reaction happens either immediately or within an hour or two (it depends on the severity). Because IgE reactions happen quickly, it is usually easy to find the food culprit. Perhaps your ears itch after you eat almonds or the roof of your mouth starts itching after you eat a piece of wheat bread. Or, as in Stella’s case, perhaps you have a case of eczema, recurrent ear infections, and often have a hard sore belly after eating certain types of foods (yes, IgE allergies are LOADS of fun). Your doctor can run a simple blood or saliva test to decide if a food allergy is present. The most common problem foods are: wheat (gluten is the mother of all food allergies), dairy, egg, soy, peanuts, tree nuts (pecans, walnuts, almonds, cashews, hazel, and brazil nuts), shellfish, fish and citrus fruits.
Food allergy symptoms:
Ears: Recurring ear infections.
Nose: Nasal congestion, sneezing, runny nose.
Eyes: Tearing, puffy eyes, dark circles under eyes.
Skin: Eczema, acne, dryness, excessive sweating, hair loss, hives, irritated eyes.
Oral: Swelling of lips, tongue and mouth.
Respiratory: Difficulty breathing, cough, wheezing, asthma.
Intestinal: Reflux, vomiting, nausea, abdominal pain, diarrhea, constipation.
Neurological: Headache, migraines, tantrums, behavioral problems, irritability, attention deficit problems and hyperactivity.
But what about Sensitive Sally?
Now comes the fun part…food sensitivities. Food sensitivity means the body releases different types of antibodies in response to foods (I’ve also heard it called a non-IgE mediated response). Non-IgE antibodies (usually IgG, IgA or IgM) are activated during a food sensitivity response. After eating an offending food, symptoms appear anywhere from a few HOURS to a few DAYS later. That’s right, the cheese you ate for lunch might be the cause of your 8pm headache. Or the bloating you feel Monday might be due to the food you ate on Friday. Food sensitivities are hard to track down, but if left unchecked they cause inflammation in the body. Inflammation creates a ripe environment for chronic illness and disease. Nobody likes disease, right?
Food sensitivity symptoms:
Head: Chronic headaches, migraines, difficulty sleeping, dizziness.
Mouth and Throat: Coughing, sore throat, frequent clearing of throat, sores on gums, lips and tongue.
Eyes, Ears, Nose: Runny or stuffy nose, postnasal drip, ringing in ears, blurred vision, sinus problems, watery/itchy eyes, ear infections, hearing loss, sneezing attacks, excessive mucus, dark circles under eyes, swollen, red or sticky eyelids. Let me say this again: recurring ear infections.
Heart and Lungs: Irregular heartbeat, shortness of breath, difficultly breathing. Remember this?
GI: Nausea, vomiting, constipation, diarrhea, irritable bowel syndrome, indigestion, bloating, passing gas, stomach pain, cramping, heartburn.
Skin: Hives, rash, eczema, dry skin, excessive sweating, acne, hair loss, irritation around eyes.
Muscles and Joints: Weakness, muscle and joint aches, arthritis, swelling, stiffness.
Behavior and more: ADD/ADHD, irritability, tantrums, depression, mental dullness, memory lapses, apathy, hyperactivity, restlessness, learning problems.
Why your doctor may stare blankly at you.
Unfortunately, nutrition education is lacking in conventional medical schools today. This is why your primary care physician may scratch his (or her) head when you ask about food sensitivities (and why Stella’s doctor missed the clues completely). Your doctor may also tell you you’re crazy. (Food sensitivities? What’s that?) Here’s my official plea for continuing education for primary care physicians as it relates to food allergies and sensitivities. I am tired of seeing so many sick kids turned away without getting the right help (“Oh it’s normal for some kids to have a chronic runny nose and eczema.” Huh?). Steroids are not a cure. Continuous antibiotics are not a cure. Ear tube surgery is not always the answer either. Food sensitivities and allergies are treated successfully and simply by removing the offending food (s) from the diet and re-building a healthy digestive tract. Don’t give up on your primary care physician completely though (they hold the ticket to health insurance coverage so try them first!). I’ve had a few great MDs over the years who have been well-informed about food allergies. In my experience, physicians with the most knowledge on this subject have food allergies themselves. We recently moved to southern California and I was thrilled to learn our new physician suffers from food allergies. Because of his condition, he is very educated about the healing power of food. Is it wrong that I wish this condition on all of our future doctors?
Finding a doctor who can help.
Naturopathic doctors are well educated in the field of nutrition. Some of you might be asking…a naturo…what? Naturopathic doctors train at accredited medical colleges throughout the country. Their focus is on natural healthcare with a holistic approach to health and healing. NDs usually get the hard cases because when patients exhaust all possibilities with their primary care physician and STILL feel miserable…they usually start looking for answers elsewhere. Naturopthy is often the next step. To find out more about naturopathic medicine click here.
So what can you do if you suspect your child has a food allergy or sensitivity?
1) At home you can try the Elimination-Provocation diet. To do this you must remove all potentially offending foods from your diet for 4-6 weeks (sometimes you may need to remove a food for as long as 12 weeks). Then add questionable foods back into your diet ONE AT A TIME and wait 3 days to note any reaction. Working with a naturopathic doctor, health educator, or nutritionist to set up the diet correctly is a must.
2) Request a food allergy and food sensitivity panel from your doctor. If you do this, make sure your doctor orders a test that not only tests IgE antibodies, but also (and most importantly) tests IgG (sensitivity) antibodies. Too often doctors order tests that only test IgE antibodies when the majority of food symptoms are actually caused by IgG, IgA or IgM antibodies. If your doctor is unable to order the correct test, seek the help of a naturopathic doctor (ND).
If you would like more information about food allergies and sensitivities check out these resources:
Find a Naturopathic Doctor near you:
If you have a child suffering from food allergies and would like more resources, please email me: firstname.lastname@example.org