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Food Allergies and Bad Behavior in Children

by
author image Sirah Dubois
Sirah Dubois is currently a PhD student in food science after having completed her master's degree in nutrition at the University of Alberta. She has worked in private practice as a dietitian in Edmonton, Canada and her nutrition-related articles have appeared in The Edmonton Journal newspaper.
Food Allergies and Bad Behavior in Children
A group of children eating a party in the park. Photo Credit Seiya Kawamoto/DigitalVision/Getty Images

Bad behavior in children has a variety of causes, including dietary factors. Low blood sugar, imbalanced insulin levels, caffeine and food allergies all impact the moods, perception and behavior of children to some extent. Food allergies may impact behavior through a combination of physical discomfort and altered biochemistry, including hormones and neurotransmitters of the brain. Consult your doctor if you think your child’s bad behavior might be related to food allergies.

Food Allergies

About 90 percent of all food allergies in both children and adults are triggered by only eight foods. These include milk, eggs, fish, shellfish such as shrimp, peanuts, “tree” nuts, wheat and soy beans, according to “Public Health Nutrition: From Principles to Practice.” Technically, children can be allergic to any food or food addictives such as preservatives, colorings, artificial flavors and artificial sweeteners. The compounds that cause the most problems in food are either protein-based or artificial chemicals. Food allergies range from mild hypersensitivity to serious anaphylactic reactions. Furthermore, food allergies are distinguished from food intolerance, which is the inability to digest certain compounds such as lactose or gluten.

Common Symptoms

Most allergy symptoms are caused by a massive release of histamine within tissues, which leads to increased blood and lymph flow, inflammation and congestion, according to the book “Human Biochemistry.” An allergic response is an over-reaction by the immune system, which can be fatal in rare instances. Commonly recognized allergic symptoms include skin rash, runny nose, respiratory congestion, breathing difficulty, headache, abdominal discomfort, diarrhea and swollen eyes, lips and throat. Severe food allergies can lead to seizures, suffocation, coma and death. Behavioral change due to food allergies is not as well recognized as the physical symptoms related to histamine release, but a growing number of parents, pediatricians and allergists are making the connection.

Behavioral Issues

Behavioral symptoms such as sudden anger, aggression, tantrums, mood swings, depression and reduced concentration can all be triggered by food allergies, according to the “Textbook of Functional Medicine.” Some behavioral issues are related more to physical discomfort and the child’s inability to verbally express herself, but some artificial chemicals directly alter the levels of hormones and neurotransmitters in the brain. Furthermore, histamine release and toxicity can cause inflammation in the brain, which also leads to behavioral and cognitive changes. Not all bad behavior in children is caused by food allergies, but allergies may mimic the symptoms of attention deficit hyperactive disorder or related psychiatric conditions.

Recommendations

Food allergies that trigger bad behavior in children usually -- but not always -- also cause physical symptoms related to histamine release. If you notice that your child starts behaving badly within a few minutes of eating certain foods and that they also have a runny nose, skin rash, swollen face or bloated abdomen, make an appointment with a doctor specializing in childhood allergies. Some children are misdiagnosed due to their bad behavior and put on psychotropic medication, when the real problem is a food allergy.

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