Food Freedom Friday Edition 52

Is Your Child Gluten Intolerant?

(Although this may apply to you too)

Going gluten free has become such a popular choice that many products are labelled and marketed as ‘gluten free’ even if they had never before contained gluten (think fresh fruits and vegetables) just to get in on the hype. While choosing to follow a gluten free diet may be trendy, I don’t think it is just a passing fad.

In Latin, the word ‘gluten’ means glue. In the modern world gluten is the name given to a group of proteins found in wheat, barley and rye. It is also often found in oats due to cross-contamination. It is what gives bread dough its elasticity, and baked bread its characteristic chewiness. It is also used as a binding agent in most processed and manufactured foods. 

When a reaction to gluten occurs, the cells in the wall of the small intestine are damaged (due to gluten exposure). This in turn compromises the tight wall of the intestine increasing its permeability and allowing gluten and other larger particles to cross into the bloodstream.  The body then attacks the gluten proteins just as it would a bacteria or a virus as they are perceived to be foreign invaders.  There are a variety of different diseases associated with gluten sensitivities and intolerances, each involving different reactions. The basic process is, however, the same.

Gluten intolerance affects approximately 15% of the population, although some medical doctors believe this number to be as high as 30-50%.  While some people may show signs of gluten allergy and celiac disease (an auto-immune condition triggered by gluten), others will merely have any one or several symptoms from an extensive list of indicators

A person can be genetically predisposed to gluten sensitivity, celiac disease, and other gluten-related disorders. The science of epigenetics has taught us that simply being a carrier for a gene does not imply that gene will be expressed.  Children today are experiencing gluten intolerance at an increasing rate due to the nutrient poor diets of their parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents. It is no longer uncommon for a baby to be born with gluten sensitivity or even celiac disease.

How Do You Know If Your Child is Sensitive to Gluten?

Tests for gluten sensitivity and celiac disease are notoriously unreliable, especially in infants and toddlers. A large reason for these inaccuracies is the multiple and differing ways a person can react to gluten.  Most doctors will run a blood test for celiac disease, but the test is known to give many false negatives.  Most of the false negatives occur in those who do not yet have the small intestinal damage severe enough to be associated with the disease.  This damage is created by prolonged exposure to gluten over time, Children and babies do not have the length of time of that exposure.  Despite exhibiting all the signs of a sensitivity, intolerance or allergy, their blood test may come back negative.  There are other tests available to test for non-celiac gluten sensitivity, however, these are fairly new and may not be available through all doctors and laboratories.

What are the Symptoms of Gluten Intolerance in Babies and Toddlers?

Gluten sensitivity manifests in many ways, both physiological and psychological. Furthermore, the symptoms are often similar to those of a myriad of other diseases or allergies.  This is often the main reason it can take both parents and doctors longer than expected to determine whether a child is presenting with such a sensitivity. The following are what I believe to be the most common signs of gluten sensitivity or intolerance:

1.       Digestive issues, including gas, bloating diarrhea, constipation, or alternating diarrhea/constipation and fowl-smelling stools. The digestive tract is often the first indicator that the body is challenged.  Children and infants struggling to break down the proteins in gluten will often show symptoms of digestive distress that improve markedly when gluten is eliminated from the diet.

2.       Skin rashes are common and the source of them is often undiscernible. A child may break out in a rash shortly after gluten consumption, or up to 72 hours later. If the skin is red, peeling, or itchy, it often indicates eczema which is an indicator of food intolerance.

3.       Keratosis Pilaris (commonly called ‘chicken skin’) is a result of fatty acid and Vitamin A deficiency.  This is often caused by the malabsorption of fats, especially when gluten has damaged the digestive tract lining.

4.       Many children and infants exhibit signs of gluten intolerance in their subtle or not-so-subtle behaviors. Mood issues, including anxiety, hyperactivity, emotional instability, irritability, crying, or colic with otherwise unexplained cause, depression and even a diagnosis of ADHD may be a sign of a food sensitivity and gluten intolerance. Difficulty concentrating and a frequent inability to follow programs or tasks may also be signs of gluten sensitivity.

5.       Unexplained fatigue or ‘brain fog’. Unprocessed gluten remains in the digestive tract and taxes both the physical and mental capacity of the body. A child’s immune system will also expend extra energy trying to fend off what it senses as a foreign invader.

6.       Dark circles under the eyes are a sign of food intolerance.  The body becomes worn down when constantly fighting against foods it is unable to digest.  This in turn taxes the adrenals and inhibits proper absorption of nutrients, both of which lead to dark circles under the eyes.

7.       Irritability, crying, or colic with otherwise unexplained cause may often be attributed to digestive distress and discomfort.

8.       Slow weight gain or label of ‘failure to thrive’ can be attributed to anemia or other vitamin and mineral deficiencies as a result of the inability of the damaged digestive tract to absorb and assimilate nutrients.

9.       Frequent colds and flus are indicative of compromised immune function. When the function of small intestine and colon becomes blocked with undigested gluten, the intestinal bacteria, which support the immune system, are compromised.  The elevated adrenal response further works to suppress immunity. A runny nose that continues after the end of a cold or flu is indicative of the ongoing attempt of the body to discharge the excess mucus build.

10.   While there may be many causes of an ongoing joint pain or headaches, inflammation throughout the body from gluten intolerance is common.  This is the physiological response to irritants irritants, and an attempt to fight off an offending invader.

11.   Dizziness, loss of balance and tingling in the extremities are all signs of inflammation in the nervous system, which can have gluten sensitivity as a trigger.

12.    Difficulty staying or falling asleep

If one or more of these symptoms sound familiar, you may be dealing with gluten intolerance.

The best way to test for gluten sensitivity in a young child is to eliminate the offender.  The child (AND mother, if the child is breastfeeding at all) must remove gluten from the diet for at least two weeks, although a full 30 days would be optimal. If you have a hunch your child may be struggling to digest gluten, try him or her on a month of gluten-free eating and see if the symptoms clear up.  After a period free of gluten, you can test the skin with some wheat flour mixed into a paste with water.  If your child’s skin does not react to the flour paste, it is safe to begin slowly introducing it again in small amounts.  

Contrary to popular belief, dietary allergies and food intolerances are reversible!  With correct knowledge, care and due diligence, you are able to assist your child in healing from their food sensitivities and to grow into a full diet again.

While going gluten free may seem overwhelming at first, it is less challenging to achieve than one realizes.  There are numerous free resources available online and the most nutrient dense foods for infants and toddlers, such as animal products, traditional fats, vegetables, and fermented foods, are naturally gluten free.  Grocery shopping may take longer at first because every label must be inspected and you will be surprised at the amount of gluten (and many other deleterious substances) that is hidden in our foods. It is important to avoid gluten free replacements for low nutrient foods. Gluten free, highly processed ‘junk food’, is still ‘junk food’. Your child will in no way suffer and will actually thrive on a nutrient dense, gluten free diet.

Michal Ofer