Allergies and Food Sensitivities

Written by Stephen M. Edelson, Ph.D.
Center for the Study of Autism, Salem, Oregon
People with autism are more susceptible to allergies and food sensitivities than the average person; and this is likely due to their impaired immune system. I have provided a brief discussion of allergies and food sensitivities below.

Allergies. An allergy is the body’s overreaction to a foreign substance. When a substance causes the body’s immune system to overreact, this substance is referred to as an ‘allergen.’ When an allergen, such as a plant pollen, is inhaled, it is identified by the body as an intruder. As a response, the body produces an antibody called ‘immunoglobulin E,’ or IgE, to destroy the intruder. The antibodies then attach themselves to mast cells which are located in tissues and basophils and are located in the blood stream. When the IgE also attaches to the intruder, the mast cells and basophils release histamine. Histamine causes swelling of the lining in the nose and causes extra mucus to form. Consequently, the person can suffer nasal itching and congestion, sneezing, and inflamed, irritated, and/or itching eyes. Due to one’s immune system, some people are more sensitive than others to foreign substances.

Numerous tests are used to identify which foreign substances are allergens. These include skin prick tests, blood tests, x-rays, and nasal endoscopy. There are also many treatments which may alleviate symptoms associated with allergies. Interestingly, giving an extremely small dose of an allergen may desensitize a person to the foreign substance thereby its status as an allergen. This procedure usually involves receiving an ‘allergy shot.’ One can also purchase sublingual drops from a nutrition store. Vitamins and other nutrients, such as Vitamin C, are also used by many people to reduce allergy symptoms. While not used to desensitize a person to a foreign substance, allergy symptoms can be treated by taking medications such as cromolyn sodium (administered using a nasal spray) or taking antihistamines. These medications sometimes have side-effects, such as drowsiness and dryness. Another method to relieve the suffering associated with allergies is to reduce allergens from one’s surroundings, such as using an air conditioner and/or an air filter in the home.

Food Sensitivities. There is growing evidence that many people with autism are sensitive to certain food products. The most common food products to which this sensitivity develops are grains (e.g., wheat, rye, oats) and dairy products (e.g., milk, cheese, whey). Other foods, which are often consumed during the spring and summer, are strawberries and citrus fruit. Food sensitivities are considered by many people as allergies in that one’s immune system is overly reactive to these substances. Food sensitivities may be responsible for numerous physical and behavioral problems, such as headaches, stomachaches, feeling of nausea, bed-wetting, appearing ‘spaced out,’ stuttering, excessive whining and crying, sleeping problems, hyperactivity, aggression, sound sensitivity, temper tantrums, fatigue, depression, intestinal problems (i.e., gas, diarrhea, constipation), muscle aches in the legs, ear infections and possibly seizures.

Sometimes the person will have changes in physical appearance as a result of a food sensitivity. These can include: pink or black circles around the eyes, bags under the eyes, rosy cheeks or ears, rapid heartbeat, shallow breathing, fluid in the ears (a cause of ear infections), and excessive perspiration. However, it should be mentioned that these behavior and physical symptoms may not necessarily be a result of a food sensitivity and can be due to other causes as well.

A reaction to a certain food may occur immediately after exposure or may take up to 36 hours or longer to manifest itself. In addition, reactions usually occur after a meal rather than before a meal. If behavioral problems occur before a meal, the problem may be hypoglycemia (low blood sugar). Interestingly, people often crave the very foods to which they are sensitive. At the present time, we do not know why this is so.

There are several ways to determine whether a person is sensitive to a specific food substance. The easiest way is to eliminate completely the suspected foods from one’s diet. If a person is sensitive to the food, one would expect an improvement in how a person feels and/or behaves once these products are no longer in the person’s system. One way to test for a food sensitivity is to remove the substance from the person’s diet for approximately one or two weeks, and then give it to him/her on an empty stomach. The food must be totally eliminated; even a trace amount might be too much for some individuals.

In most cases, a food sensitivity reaction, if it occurs, will do so within 15 to 60 minutes; however, it may take several hours to notice some reactions, such as bed-wetting and fluid in the ears. Another way to test for food sensitivities is to rotate food items in one’s diet every four days. If the sensitivity exists, then one would expect a reaction to occur every fourth day. Another method used to determine a food sensitivity is to provoke a response with an extract and then neutralize the response by using a diluted form of the food substance. This can be done by having a qualified physician inject the substance into the person via a needle or placing food extracts under one’s tongue. When a reaction is observed, then a dilution of the extract is given to stop or neutralize the reaction. For some, a dilution of the food substance will desensitize the person to the allergen itself.

The best way to stop a reaction to a particular food substance is to remove that food from the person’s diet. Other treatments include taking nutrients to strengthen the immune system and giving the person sublingual drops, i.e., very small amount of the substance.

In general, it is important that people realize that allergies and food sensitivities can affect one’s health and behavior, but these problems are treatable.

The Autism Research Institute distributes an information packet on
vitamins, allergies, and nutritional treatments for autism.

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