Food allergies and intolerances in children

by Sarah Harris, FGHG Naturopath

Allergy and immune diseases are among the fastest growing chronic diseases in Australia. In fact, 1 in 10 babies are born with an immediate allergy to food. The impact allergy can have on a child as they grow becomes even more apparent at school age. It can be a major reason for school absenteeism, whilst allergy symptoms and some medications used to treat those symptoms can lead to poor learning at school and may also be a risk factor for ADHD.

What are the symptoms of allergies or intolerances?

Symptoms of allergies and intolerances may be quite different to what you would expect. There may be the common and more obvious symptom of mucous congestion or there may be something less specific like restlessness. Here are some key signs to look out for:

  • Instead of feeling more energetic after a meal, a child may feel tired or out of balance in some way
  • Mucous congestion, often caused by difficulty digesting lactose, can lead to a constant runny nose, chronic cough, or even asthma
  • Children experiencing restlessness, ear tugging, hyperactivity, mood changes, unusually quiet, or bed wetting may be signs of reactivity
  • Symptoms can be worse at night, with mouth breathing and snoring, which interferes with sleep and leads to irritability
  • A child will often crave the very food that is worst for them…seen as a child showing a ‘love’ they show for nothing else!

Allergy and reactivity symptoms can vary significantly from person to person and even vary at different times of our lives depending on our state of health. Intolerance or sensitivity is different to, but can lead to allergy. Allergy reactivity can vary from a serious anaphylactic response to allergic conditions such as hay fever, allergic asthma, eczema (atopic dermatitis) or food allergies; extending to a diverse range of physical symptoms including respiratory symptoms (red itchy nose, sneezing, sinus pain), gut symptoms (cramping, bloating, flatulence) and/ or skin symptoms (red/ itchy skin or hives).

If you suspect that symptoms are related to a food – then you are most likely right!

Intolerance to certain foods can be a result of poor digestion caused by enzymes imbalances (such as in reactions to milk products) and reactivity to chemicals in foods (natural: histamine, salicylates; or food additives, often synthetic). These can lead to additional, less specific systemic symptoms such as headaches, poor concentration, mood changes and energy slumps. Food allergy is also a key factor for atopic conditions such as eczema, hay fever, asthma; whilst other causes may be early exposure to solid foods or formula and heavy exposure to environmental allergens.

Digestive health is the key.
Allergy and reactivity has multiple causes and contributing factors, including genetics and environment but often gut health is at the centre of the problem.

Poor digestive health plays a crucial role in the development of allergies and intolerances. With approximately 70 per cent of the immune system residing within the gastrointestinal tract there is a close connection between the immune system and integrity of the gut. Healthy gut flora (microbiome) plays an important role in enhancing immune tolerance; the resulting appropriate processing of proteins is fundamental to the prevention of allergy in children, whilst poor digestion can lead to intolerance and allergy over a lifetime. Use of antibiotics, although essential at times, can negatively affect digestive function and immunity.

What can be done about allergy and reactivity?
Essentially, get help to assist you to identify the real cause and navigate the maze of testing, elimination diets and improving gut health. Immune processes can be modified to help you or your family to become less reactive. Dietary changes can be helpful; such as eliminating wheat or dairy, although sometimes it feels like “where do I begin?” Short-term symptomatic relief is important in order to relieve physical and emotional consequences of allergy symptoms and can be gained by avoiding the allergen (trigger). However, nutritional deficiencies, especially in children, can result from highly restrictive diets that eliminate entire food groups. Focus on correcting the underlying processes that perpetuate symptoms, combined with therapeutic elimination and gradual re-introduction of appropriate foods, creates the potential to decrease the frequency and intensity of the symptoms experienced. Increasing tolerance to food and environmental factors can enable improved quality of life, both short and long-term, which is preferable to a long-term restrictive diet.

By understanding yours or your child’s aggravating food groups according to the symptoms you experience alongside optional testing of potential allergens, an individualised program can be recommended by your Naturopath. Resting from foods that you are sensitive to reduces the immune system load. Herbal medicine and nutritional supplementation improves immune tolerance, reducing allergic symptoms, and works at a deeper level, to support a more normal immune system function.


sarahharris_edited_colourSarah Harris is a qualified and experienced naturopath, herbalist and nutritionist with more than a decade of knowledge and practice in complementary medicine. As a mother of three children and highly skilled in providing  naturopathic care, Sarah has a special interest in treating children of all ages. Her empathetic and kind nature instills comfort and confidence when providing advice to parents about their child’s health and she works well with families and individuals to find solutions for health concerns.