Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Holistic Treatment of Child Food Intolerance

By Tim Howden ND BHSc MNHAA

Lily is fives years old and complains of consistent tummy pain and discomfort which has been going on for over a year.  Her appetite is diminished and her skin is blotchy, red and itchy to the point of disrupting her sleep. Her mother is also concerned that Lily’s immune system is low since she frequently picks up colds and has a constant running nose.  A food sensitivity test reveals that Lily is intolerant to Casein, Gliadin and chicken eggs.  Welcome to the world of or food sensitivity or intolerance.

Food intolerance is predominantly a Western condition that currently affects between 15 - 20% of children.  Food intolerance should not be confused with food allergy which can be  life threatening and affects between 6% - 8% of children.   The difference between the two is important since many parents often use the terms terms interchangeably which is incorrect.  

Allergy or Intolerance

A food allergy will usually occur within minutes of exposure.  A tingling sensation may be present accompanied by acute inflammation and rapid swelling.  Airways can become constricted and emergency medical intervention is often required.  Food intolerance on the other hand is for the most part less dramatic but does contribute to a myriad of health concerns.

Food intolerance is defined as any illness that is causally connected to the ingestion of any food or dietary component.  It has a slow onset ranging from hours to days and is usually accompanied by low grade irritation and inflammation in several body systems.  

Food Intolerance Symptoms

Gastrointestinal (GIT) signs include projectile vomiting in infants, frequent loose stools with presence of mucous, diarrhoea or constipation as well as stomach pain, bloating, poor appetite and weight gain.  Similarly the respiratory and integumentary systems (skin and connective tissues) may also be affected by food sensitivity.  Signs and symptoms include chronic nasal discharge, nose rubbing, frequent ear infections, ruddy complexion, eczema, hives and redness around the mouth or anus.   The thing with food intolerance is that it can masquerade as a vague set of signs and symptoms that can be difficult to diagnose correctly.  

How to Diagnose Food Intolerance

To do this a detailed clinical history must taken by a qualified health professional who has experience in food sensitivity conditions.  A naturopath, nutritionist or integrative GP are well trained in doing so.  This will help identify any accompanying factors that may require additional investigation, treatment or referral.   However the gold standard to determine food sensitivity is an IgG test.

This is a simple skin prick test that measures specific antibodies in the blood that are present and elevated in food sensitivity conditions.  The test can accurately assess up to 100 different foods which is fantastic given the test takes all of five minutes.  It is great for parents because it takes the guesswork out of what foods your child may be reacting to.  Once this is determined effective treatment can begin.

Management Strategies

Food sensitivity should be addressed in two ways.  Firstly to alleviate the presenting symptoms.   Avoidance of the reactive foods is an essential first step and can make a huge difference in as little as 24 hours.  The time needed to stay away from the offending foods will differ for each individual and can be assessed by a qualified practitioner. The second step in treat food intolerance successfully is to correct the problem at its root cause.  To do this we need to understand why an individual has developed sensitivity to certain foods?  

Understanding Potential Causes

The causes of Food intolerances are multifactorial and include Epigenetics, Family history, Immune dysregulation, Malnutrition, Systemic inflammation and Stress.  But  two common factors are worth mentioning in detail since these are the ones that present the most frequently in clinic.  The first is enzyme deficiency or error.  

The body has requires many many enzymes to help initiate essential biochemical processes. Some people lack particular enzymes that are needed to break down food components.  For example, lactose intolerance is the result of a deficiency of the enzyme lactase.  Without this enzyme the body is unable to digest lactose.  Eating dairy with a lactase deficiency will result in feeling unwell to a greater or lesser degree.  Enzyme therapy has proved quite successful in helping many people correct food intolerance.  There are other functional disorder of the GIT that contribute to food intolerance.

Intestinal permeability (IP) or Leaky-Gut Syndrome is a disorder involving the large intestine.  Under normal conditions this area acts as a type of filter which allows nutrients in their simple form to cross the gut wall and merge into the bloodstream for delivery around the body.  In IP this does not happen.  The tight junctions that are responsible for this filtration are damaged.   Large holes develop due mainly to chronic inflammation and the leaking gut cannot prevent large proteins from crossing the gut wall.  This sets off an immune reaction that affects the whole body.  A localized event that leads to systemic dis-ease, resulting in the signs and symptoms of food intolerance that were mentioned earlier.  Until the IP is corrected the food intolerance is unlikely to go away.

Treatment and Longterm Health

The good news though is that IP responds excellently to nutritional medicine and particularly to the effects of glutamine, an essential amino acid that is the primary food for enterocytes, the cells of the gut wall.  Other ways to support a healthy gut wall include low sugar and minimal refined carbohydrates such as cakes, breads, pastries and pasta. Conversley using naturally fermented foods such as yoghurts, sauerkraut, miso and tempeh encourage a healthly gut environment. Treating the underlying causes of food intolerance goes a long way to restoring long term health and bring the sparkle back to our children.

Hopefully this article has served to help parents understand food intolerance a little more.  Awareness around the signs and symptoms can prompt parents to seek professional help to correctly diagnose and more importantly initiate appropriate treatment.  Sound nutritional strategies play a vital role while holistic treatment can do the work of addressing the underlying causes successfully.  

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