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Allergies and Behavior Problems in Children

By Dr. Brownie Williams of Williams Integracare Clinic

Allergies are most recognizable by the physical symptoms they cause. You can easily make the connection between a bee sting and the excessive swelling or a peanut butter cup and the incredibly itchy hives. Symptoms can also include behavior changes, which are harder to associate with a specific allergen.

Food allergies and behavior problems in children are the most easily distinguished but other allergens can cause behavior issues, too, including pet dander, dust, feathers and cleaning agents.

The Cause of a Child’s Bad Behavior 

There are two situations where behavior issues manifest. First, the bad behavior could be a symptom of an allergy, similar to a rash. Common behavioral changes your child may experience include fatigue, hyperactivity, night-waking, irritability and difficulty concentrating.

The second situation occurs when bad behavior is a reaction to the symptoms an allergy is causing. For example, your child may have trouble breathing due to a dust allergy which is causing him or her to lose sleep at night and experience an overall discomfort during the day. This loss of sleep and discomfort may cause irritability and overall bad behavior.

Food Allergies and Behavioral Issues

Dr. Benjamin Feingold, a pediatric allergist, had a theory about the connection between diet and child behavior. In the 1970’s he began restricting his patient’s diets to treat allergies and the symptoms, which significantly improved the child’s behavior. Dr. Feingold’s theory pioneered the allergy and diet link to behavioral issues in children.

Allergy-related behavioral issues are at risk of being misdiagnosed as attention deficit disorder (ADD) or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). This diagnosis will trigger a medication prescription. If a food allergy is causing your child’s behavioral changes or issues, all that may be needed to fix the problem(s) is a diet change.

Top Nine Foods That Cause Allergic Reactions:

  • Dairy

  • Soy

  • Egg Whites

  • Wheat

  • Peanuts

  • Tree Nuts

  • Citrus Fruits

  • Shellfish

  • Food Additives

Allergies can cause physical and behavior reactions. The physical reactions are a bit easier to link to allergies because of their timely and out of the ordinary appearances.

Behavioral issues are more difficult to infer a link to an allergy because your child is in control of how he or she behaves and the reaction can be delayed (from the interaction with the allergen). Is Timmy just in a bad mood today or is his bad mood caused by something he ate for breakfast? Is Annie just mad because you shut off the TV for the day or is she overreacting due to an allergy?

Often, both physical and behavioral symptoms are present. However, some allergens can only result in behavioral changes. Without a supporting physical symptom it is even more difficult to diagnose an allergy. The best way to determine if an allergy may be a contributing factor to your child’s bad behavior is to observe closely and track over time.

Finding the Cause

The amount of information you provide to your doctor or pediatrician can affect the probability of making and the accuracy of a diagnosis. You are with your child much more consistently than your pediatrician so your input is very valuable in these circumstances. If you believe your child’s poor behavior may be linked to a food allergy, start keeping a food record. Track everything that is eaten and any symptoms that may be associated.

When you have a clear understanding of what your child eats on a daily basis try eliminating a food you think may be causing the issues. (You may want to start with the nine foods listed above that children are commonly allergic too.) Record any improvement or make notes if things stay the same.

Unbalanced diets can also cause behavior issues in children. Children need a balanced diet to function at their highest level. Fill their diets with fresh fruits, vegetables and whole grains instead of refined flours and processed foods.

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