Childhood Food Allergy Interview

by Elisa Rodriguez, RD, LDN

Peanuts 11-7-08In addition to my multiple autoimmune challenges, I’ve recently learned that I have my own set of extensive food allergies (gluten, soy, corn, etc.), and around that time I shared this link on my facebook page with a caption that read, “Food allergies are a growing problem. The number of school-age kids affected rose 18% from 1997 to 2007, says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.”

A viewer named Laura Verzi passionately replied by sharing her family’s experience in order to help others become aware of food intolerances. Laura and I know there must be others with similar situations that haven't yet made the connection. It means a great deal to Laura (and myself) to help others become aware of food intolerances.

E: Let’s hear Laura’s story in her own words…

L: Two years ago I understood a 3 year old shouldn't have peanut butter but when my older son was eating a peanut butter sandwich my 2 year old took it from him and ate it. He had quite a reaction! His face and ears turned red, his lips swelled up, his face, back and stomach broke out in hives, his nose was running and he had horrible diarrhea! I was panicked by how quickly his body was reacting. I was never told what to do if your child has a reaction to nuts just to never give it to them. Luckily Benadryl was enough to help him return back to normal. Just like the doctor predicted, he's outgrown it. But for a whole year we had to read labels and avoid any tree nut ingredient or he would have the same reaction.

E: Wow, that must have been a frightening way to discover a serious food allergy in a child – especially since children’s bodies are so much more sensitive to anaphylactic reactions than adults. How did you discover that your son was no longer allergic to peanuts? Were you afraid to reintroduce the legume back into his diet?

L: After a year of being nut free, Andrew’s doctor suggested introducing a small amount of nuts back into his diet. I was leery of what his reaction might be since we’d been without nuts for so long. I started with a small spoon of peanut butter. He had no reaction. To this day he can have nuts in moderation. Although, more then a serving can cause him to break out in hives.

E: That's interesting. Based on those symptoms, I would actually recommend that your son continue to avoid the peanuts since an inflammatory reaction (hives) still occurs, which is an indicator that his immune system is stressed by those foods. It may not be serious now, but over time that reaction could worsen again. Anytime you reintroduce a food back into the diet, you want to be 100% symptom-free. If there are any symptoms, avoid and re-test at a later time to err on the side of caution.

Have any of your other children experienced any food allergies?

L: My daughter suffered with a chronic runny nose/sinus type of infection. It started since she was an infant and never went away. She had been asked to not return to preschool because other parents were concerned with her health issue. This traumatized her. She became very withdrawn till I found a great preschool that made her feel welcome. Then once kindergarten started kids took notice and throughout the year called her the boogie monster. Enough was enough. By the time she turned 7 she had seen multiple pediatricians, family doctors, an allergy specialist and an ENT. Nothing they prescribed or suggested helped.

E: How discouraging and disheartening it must have been to watch your child suffer. So you took matters into your own hands, isn’t that right?

L: Yes, I did my own research and made a discovery: wheat allergies aren't just for people diagnosed with Celiac disease. The misconception about people who can't tolerate wheat is that they will experience severe stomach pain. This wasn't my daughter’s symptom at all. But if you have environmental allergies (which the allergy specialist showed she's basically allergic to being outside) then wheat can lower your body’s ability to tolerate airborne allergens.

E: I can totally relate to what you describe here, because I personally did not have loose stools, malabsorption or severe abdominal pain. My gluten intolerance manifested in headaches, fatigue, constipation and anger – not the typical signs, but we know autoimmune illnesses manifest uniquely for everyone.

I too have had many environmental allergies (grass, trees, pollen, ragweed, dust mites, mold, cats, dogs, etc.) for the past decade of my life, so I find the link between environmental allergies and wheat very interesting. So what action steps did you take to improve your daughter’s health Laura?

L: I knew it was going to be a challenge to become a gluten-free home but we became 100% committed to helping my daughter, Alena, live in a gluten-free environment.

E: How exactly did you go about making your home gluten-free?

L: We discovered wheat is much harder to avoid than nuts. Gluten is used in a lot of sauces and prepackaged meals. Then there was the obvious, no more wheat based cereals for breakfast, no sandwiches for lunch, no pasta for dinner, or crackers, pretzels, and cookies for a snack. It forced us to become creative in our meal planning and we got the kids involved. We made a list of naturally gluten free foods and let the kids make their menu. It was no longer about what they couldn’t have but what they could!

Instead of buying overpriced gluten free labeled treats, that don’t appear to be healthy, we opted for yummier healthier homemade snacks. By substituting wheat flour for gluten free flour (such as: sorghum, almond, etc) and following traditional recipes, we still enjoy familiar treats without sacrificing great taste!

E: How do you manage gluten-free living away from home? Does your daughter attend a public school and if so, how has the school/church/org cooperated?

L: The private school Alena attends is very mindful of her intolerance. However, they don’t always have a substitute for goodies brought to the class. Emotionally she seems to handle that well. We also pack her lunches instead of letting her buy like she used to. Not that she can’t make good choices but the fact that school lunches are largely consumed with only gluten options.

At church, Alena has expressed disappointment because of the weekly snacks her teachers bring to class. I know this is challenging for the teachers as well. Most people don’t understand what “gluten” is or what foods contain gluten.

E: What changes have you witnessed in your daughter after removing gluten completely from her diet?

L: Her nose doesn't run anymore! She hasn't had a runny nose for 13 months!!

E: What do you want to tell other parents whose children have pesky symptoms, and how soon did you see these improvements?

L: Alena suffered a long time. She had so much congestion that she was never been able to smell anything. Even her taste buds were altered. Yet she’s the happiest most loving and affectionate child. She wasn’t fazed by her condition or what others thought of it. As a mother I was hurt and frustrated at times knowing others didn’t understand and doctors couldn’t help. I spent countless hours researching her condition. The result? Not paying for medications. Not paying for a surgery that may or may not have helped. Simply removing gluten products from our house. The most memorable part of our transition was when I was in the kitchen cooking dinner. Alena ran in smiling and in a very excited voice said, “Mommy, I can smell the food!” It brought me to tears. I knew at that moment I made the right decision. After a solid 2 weeks on her new diet Alena was healed.

E: What a heartwarming story. Thanks for taking the time to share your experience with us Laura. I'm sure it will provide much insight to our readers. If any of you out there have a similar experience, please share it in the comments below...

PS, If you liked this article and want to hear more from me, please do hop on the mailing list...

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