Written by Paul and Catrina Vonder Meulen with an introduction from Robyn O’Brien
Nine years ago as we launched AllergyKids, we received an email from father who had quite literally just lost his 13 year old daughter, Emily, to an allergic reaction. It was one of the very first emails that we received, and it immediately grounded this work in a commitment that we would never be able to shake.
AllergyKids site could not have been up for more than a handful of days when his email came in. ”I wish I had known about you earlier….” he wrote, and then shared one of the most heart-aching stories we have ever received.
Emily’s story took hold of our hearts and inspired our mission. In the years since, when we wavered out of fatigue or fear, we kept going because of families like Emily’s.
In the weeks, months and years that have followed since he first reached out, she has been part of our work and courage here at AllergyKids every day.
But, her story is not the only one. In the years since, there have been other parents who have reached out, too many of them, and I have looked into the eyes of too many parents who have lost their children.
Their memories and the unconditional love power the work that we do at AllergyKids beyond anything imaginable.
It has been nine years since Emily died. She would be turning 23 this year. And her story is a testimony of love and courage that has inspired countless others. Her favorite saying was “Live, Laugh, Love.”
And so we wanted to take this opportunity to once again share her story, as it originally first appeared on the AllergyKids site seven years ago, in the hopes that families everywhere can learn how to protect the health of children with asthma and allergies from cross-reactivity and cross-contamination.
As shared by Emily’s parents:
Emily’s Story and Our Message
When Emily was about two years old, Paul gave her a peanut butter cracker, almost immediately she started to fuss and rub at her eyes and start to develop hives. He gave her Benadryl and the allergic reaction calmed down. It was only after Emily’s death and subsequent research that Paul realized that this was when Emily’s immune system started building antibodies to fight off nuts.
After this initial exposure to nuts, Emily’s body developed its own protective warning system. If she came in contact with a food that had been exposed to nuts, she would have a tingling sensation on the back of her tongue, she would immediately spit the food out and then to protect itself, her body would vomit trying to expel whatever the offending allergen was. It was that reaction that made us comfortable with this allergy. She knew what she could and couldn’t eat. If kids brought snacks into school and they couldn’t tell her if it had nuts in it or not, she wouldn’t eat it. If they said it was free of nuts, she would still test it by putting it to her lips and touching it with her tongue. If she didn’t have a reaction, she knew it was safe.
I think you really want to know more of what happened that day, but I needed to let you know why I was so unprepared for what happened on April 13th. Elena (10), Emily and I had gone shopping that day for a graduation dress at a mall here in Cincinnati. After buying her dress (which she wore out of the store) we stopped to have lunch at about 2:50 at the mall’s food court. We decided to have a sandwich at a place that we had eaten before (we considered it a “safe food” restaurant) because Emily, in fact, had eaten this very same sandwich many times before with no problems. Their website even shows that it is peanut-free except for two of their cookies. After having lunch, we walked through a new t-shirt shop where Emily fell, tripping over her shoes, and landing on her bottom. She laughed and got right back up. We continued shopping, going to a store where we were going to get Emily’s ears pierced. While we were in this shop, Emily mentioned that she was afraid she might have messed her underwear when she fell and wanted to check it out. She came back about 5 minutes later, did two puffs of her inhaler, telling me that she felt hot and did her face look red. I told her no, but maybe we should leave. She said that her new dress felt tight and that she wanted to change her clothes. I said fine. She took her clothes and went to the bathroom. Elena and I stayed at the shop looking at “girly” stuff.
A few minutes later, I got a phone call from a girl in the bathroom asking if I have a daughter Emily and that she was having trouble breathing. Elena and I rushed to the bathroom where we found Emily gasping for air. She tried to do her inhaler again, but I could tell from looking at her that this was not good. The whites of her eyes were completely red and her normally pink cheeks were white. I immediately called 911. Emily had enough air to ask two questions. Emily became disoriented and wandered into the hallway. I had her lay down and she passed out. A woman passing by and I started performing CPR while Elena was on the phone with 911. The woman that was helping me said that Emily was O.K., and another woman said she felt air coming out of her nose. To me, Emily was not O.K., she was blue. Then I heard the strangest sound come out her mouth. People later tell me it was her death-breath. 911 had not shown up yet. Emily was taken to the hospital where they continued CPR. I arrived maybe 10 minutes later where the doctors told me they could not get her heart to start. They had finally got the breathing tube in the right spot, but they had given her all the medicine they are allowed to jumpstart her heart plus more, with no success. They were telling me my daughter was dead. It was 4:20. I believe Emily passed away in the bathroom hallway at the mall, which would have been around 3:45.
To answer your questions:
Did she have an Epi Pen with her? If so… Was it administered immediately?
NO, I did not have an Epi-pen with me. Unfortunately, if I did have an Epi-pen with me, I don’t know if I would have known to use it. I thought Emily was having an asthma attack because of her fall. I didn’t know that what was happening to her was associated with food. She didn’t have the tingling on her tongue, she didn’t vomit, it was a safe food (so we thought).
What did she have to eat at the Deli?
Emily had the Sweet Onion Chicken-Teriyaki Wrap. We knew it contained soy sauce. This particular deli did not make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. We still don’t know where the trace amount of peanut came from. Unfortunately, the coroner and the investigator can’t prove anything at this moment, but because her reaction was so rapid and violent, the coroner has no other option but to point to the last meal Emily ate. Somehow a trace amount of peanut cross contaminated the sandwich she had eaten. We are still waiting for lab results – until then the findings are inconclusive.
How quick was her reaction?
We ordered around 2:50 and were done eating about 3:10. My best guess is that around 3:20 is when she started feeling hot and went to change her clothes. I called 911 at 3:26 and I believe she was gone around 3:40. The doctor’s pronounced her dead at 4:20.
Did she have any close calls before her death from reactions to something she had eaten?
NO, she did not have any close calls before this incident. Paul and I were in a comfort zone counting on Emily’s internal alarm system and the fact that she knew what she could and couldn’t eat, while we were blind to the fact that she was still very much in danger. Please understand, Emily was terrified of the Epi-pen and was diligent about asking questions about food preparation and ingredients. She did not want to be stuck with the Epi-pen. That’s what makes this all the harder to understand, Emily was her own advocate.
Your child is at a wonderful age, you can still control what they eat, you are watchful to make sure they don’t put the wrong thing in their mouth, you are their advocate. During this age, you can learn what the symptoms of anaphylactic shock are, you can develop a plan in case of an emergency, and go over and over what the plan is with friends and family so, God forbid, that emergency comes, you don’t think, you react.
As your child gets older, and they become more independent and responsible, don’t relax! According to FAAN, children between the ages of 10 and 19 are at a much higher risk of fatality. It defies logic, because you think now your child is at an age where they know and understand the dangers of their allergies and they will not take a chance. But what you don’t know or think you know is what can take their life so quickly. It is almost as if every time you eat prepared food, your child has a gun pointed at their heart. We don’t want to scare parents, but we want you to be scared, so that you stay vigilant in protecting your child.
I know this may sound irresponsible but please read it for what it is, learning lessons. As a learning lesson, my family would eat shelled peanuts on the couch. When they were done, Emily and I would go into the living room and vacuum the couch and the carpets. I wanted her to understand that she has to protect herself and that she can’t count on others to be as diligent as she had to be. Another time, we were taking a flight to San Diego. At the time, they still served peanuts on the plane. I had Emily wipe down the fold-down tray and arm rests in case the person who sat there before her ate peanuts and the residue remained on the surface.
The most bizarre part of this past 14 years is that I don’t think I understood that Emily could die. I thought she would get hives, swelling, asthma attacks, or really sick, but never in all of my thoughts did I ever think of death. Why didn’t that ever cross my mind? Did I not want to think that was a possibility? I now look at a lifetime of guilt, wondering how I could have done more. Please don’t ever feel you are being too protective when it comes to the health of your child and if someone tells you to relax, tell them Emily’s Story.
Learn more about Emily as the Vonder Meulens share “What We Wish We Knew“, including the potential risk that soy may pose for those with peanut allergy and how anaphylaxis can look like asthma by clicking on What We Wish We Knew as seen on www.foodallergyangel.com
We receive letters from parents from around the country and around the world. Some express gratitude, some grief, some share stories of hope, some share stories of heartache.
When we received this letter to our founder, we felt it was a powerful one to share. What would our grandparents say?
I just wanted to thank you from the bottom of my heart for your work. My little Ginny was born the day after Christmas in 2012. At 3 months she developed severe eczema due to a dairy allergy. I stopped nursing because my dairy free diet didn’t seem to help her skin issues. She eventually ended up on Neocate. As we slowly introduced new foods she was doing very well until I decided to try hummus on the New Years Day after her first birthday. She went into anaphylaxis and we rode in the ambulance to the ER while my older daughter stayed with a neighbor until my husband could pick her up. This was by far the scariest day of my life. As we navigated the allergy world and added new allergies (egg, chickpea, lentil, garlic, sesame, peanut) I felt hopeless and powerless. I wanted to know why this was happening and (this seems a bit crazy but) what could we do now to prevent Ginny’s children from having the same issues.
I started to do just a little reading on the subject and I ran across an article about wheat being doused in roundup and felt dizzy. From there I started doing more research until I ran across your work. Your perspective is very much like mine. This journey started with an allergy in my child but I am also a conservative so writing letters to my Republican congressman about the DARK act that he supports feels strange (my guy is Joe Wilson…. The “You Lie!” fella).
My granddaddy was an agriculture teacher in south Georgia. When I was a little girl he planted a row of peanuts for me. His town has a peanut festival each year and he was the grand marshal of the parade one year. He passed away at the same time as the festival and I remember that people were wearing peanut tie pins and earrings. My sister bought peanut Christmas ornaments for my mom and for me after he died and every year when I would hang the ornament, I would think of him. Now, when I pull out the ornament I have conflicting feelings. I remember him and how much he loved the farming community and I wonder what he would think of all this. I also look at this ornament as the enemy and something that could harm my child. I wish granddaddy was still around so I could talk to him about all of this.
I feel sort of silly writing to you but I just had to say thank you. I can’t imagine doing what you do with four children but what you are doing is so very important so thank you, thank you, thank you.”
Be brave. Courage is contagious.
The food allergy community is a powerful one. None of us chose to be part of it, it chose us. And stories, successes, heartaches and strategies are often shared across networks and social media.
Like the piece below. Dawn Crowe, a mom with a child with food allergies, shared this on her Facebook page this morning. It was written by Carissa K. Her words ring so true. Allergy moms are everywhere, from the beautiful Julie Bowen to the ones on the sidelines at soccer games, and as the mom below writes, we are all “humble and grateful and reminded of just how fortunate we are that we are the parents of a child with only food allergies.”
“What it’s Like to Be an Allergy-Mom”
1. As the parent of a child with food allergies, it makes us crazy when people make any sort of assumption about food allergies other than this one assumption — a food allergy is a life-threatening condition that causes children to stop. breathing. immediately. It’s very real… and it’s very scary.
2. As the parent of a child with food allergies we want you to know that this is not a lifestyle choice. While it’s admirable that some people choose to eat healthy and be aware of the ingredients in their food, we aren’t standing in the grocery store aisle reading the label on everything that goes into our cart as a hobby. We’re studying those ingredients to make sure there’s not an obscure ingredient that could kill our children. (Did you know that caramel coloring is made out of dairy? Are you familiar with the difference between sodium lactate and potassium lactate?)
3. As the parent of a child with food allergies there is not a playdate or school activity that our child will attend without us having a discussion with the hosting parent, event chaperone or teacher first. Every event my child has ever participated in (ever!) from t-ball to school to summer camps has always been preempted with a medical conversation first. We know we’re perceived as high-maintenance parents. And we feel badly about that because the level of diligence we’re forced to have about the subject of food allergies may not be consistent with the level of diligence our personalities would normally reflect.
4. As the parent of a child with food allergies we have laid awake at night, wondering if we’ll be able to spot the signs of our child’s throat closing. We’ve been told that anaphylaxis can happen in less than two minutes, so not only do we wonder if we’ll be able to identify this emergency, we wonder if our child’s teacher, babysitter, grandparent, recess monitor, friend or coach will know when our child can’t breathe.
5. As a parent of a child with food allergies we have laid awake at night, wondering if our child will ever be able to attend a party in college or share a random kiss. And if he does, who will carry his epi-pen?
6. Speaking of which, as the parent of a child with food allergies we leave the house remembering the basics like phone, wallets, keys — and epi-pens. We know not to leave them in a car that is too hot or too cold and we always carry at least two, if not seven. Even with insurance, they are $25 a pop, so we treat them with the utmost respect for the year that we have them before they expire. But that’s all ok, because those little devices carrying a shot of adrenaline could save our child, or at least sustain them, until the ambulance arrives.
7. As the parent of a child with food allergies, we sit outside every birthday party or sports practice while other parents leave.
8. As the parent of a child with food allergies, we balance the emotional impact of being a helicopter parent against the medical threat of having our child go into anaphylaxis when we’re not around. We feel guilty and scared of both.
9. As the parent of a child with food allergies, we have never relaxed, sat back and actually enjoyed or tasted a meal in a restaurant. Never. You see, we spend those meals playing and replaying the emergency plan in our head while quietly observing our child’s breathing as he enjoys his meal.
10. As the parent of a child with food allergies, we regularly attend medical appointments in big time children’s hospitals where we can’t help but see other patients and deeply suffering families. And upon this realization, we are humbled and grateful and reminded of just how fortunate we are that we are the parents of a child with only food allergies. While our child has a life-threatening medical condition, it is manageable. And as long as we have help from you and others in managing it, our child is alive — and that’s really something!
This article first appeared on Huffington Post. To read more of Carissa K.’s work, please visit http://www.carissak.com/
Written by Robyn O’Brien
Right now there is a lot of discussion around the science of food dyes. Do artificial colors contribute to hyperactivity in kids? Are food dyes responsible for ADHD? Is it the government’s job to take these dyes out of our kids’ foods or is it ours?
The fact of the matter is that you are going to get a different answer depending on who you ask. I learned this the hard way when I went to some of our leading pediatric allergists a few years ago to ask about the link between the introduction of GMOs into our food supply and the sudden epidemic we were seeing in the number of American kids with food allergies. They didn’t like the line of questioning and fired off some pretty aggressive responses. But given my background as a food industry analyst, I quickly learned that financial ties between doctors and agrichemical, food and pharmaceutical corporations can play a pretty important role in what these doctors are willing to say.
So when people get heated up around the science of food dyes, I find myself asking the same questions: Who has funded the research? Is there a financial incentive involved to protect the status quo? And are doctors that are speaking out on this issue in any way affiliated as spokespersons for either the food or pharmaceutical companies that stand to benefit from the continued use of these food dyes in foods?
Since there are usually extensive financial ties between doctors and food and pharmaceutical corporations, it is often helpful to turn to the consumer marketplace and food companies themselves for answers because money talks.
And interestingly, Kraft, Coca Cola and Wal-Mart have already removed these artificial food colors and dyes from the products that they distribute in other countries. They’ve reformulated their product lines in other countries and no longer include these food dyes, and they did it in response to consumer demand and an extraordinary study called the Southampton Study.
The Southampton Study was unusual in that it not only tested an overall number of six dyes (three of them are used in the US (Red 40, Yellow 5, and Yellow 6) and the other three are used in the UK) but also the combination of two ingredients: tartrazine (yellow #5) and sodium benzoate. The study’s designers knew that a child very rarely has occasion to ingest just a synthetic color or just a preservative; rather, a child who is gobbling up multicolored candies is probably taking in several colors and at least one preservative.
What’s amazing is that in the U.K., the federal food safety agency actually funded the Southampton Study that led to even U.S. corporations eliminating synthetic colors and sodium benzoate from their U.K. products.
And in response, a whole host of companies, including the U.K. branches of Wal-Mart, Kraft, Coca Cola and the Mars candy company (who make M&Ms), have voluntarily removed artificial colors, the preservative sodium benzoate, and even aspartame from their products. Particularly those marketed to kids.
When I first learned about this in the spring of 2007, I was stunned. Our American companies had removed these harmful ingredients from their products overseas—but not here?
When I first learned this, I found the information discouraging. But then I realized that we aren’t asking our corporations to reinvent the wheel, we are simply asking for them to place the same products on our grocery store shelves that they are selling overseas.
Because Kraft, Coca Cola and Wal-mart are living proof that is possible for giant corporations to make and sell kid-friendly, family-friendly, and healthy processed foods so that we can give our kids some special treats—like the U.K. versions of Starburst and Skittles, for example —without necessarily exposing them to a chemical cocktail that might also give them brain tumors, or leukemia, or the symptoms of ADHD, as the Center for Science in the Public Interest recently highlighted in their report “Rainbow of Risks”.
And it is inspiring (once you get over the initial shock) to see how far the companies have gone and how quickly they acted to remove these dyes from kids’ foods in other countries.
Asda, for example, the U.K. branch of Wal-Mart acted just one week “after details were leaked to the UK press of a study by researchers at Southampton University. . . ” They didn’t even wait for the study to be published—that’s how concerned they were about public opinion.
In an article published by the Food and Drink Federation, a Web site that monitors food issues in Europe, Jess Halliday reported that “Asda [U.K. Wal-Mart] has pledged to remove any artificial colours or flavours from its 9,000 own label products, as well as aspartame, hydrogenated fat, and flavour enhancers such as monosodium glutamate.”
Wow. The Southampton study didn’t even mention those last three items. Why was the U.K. Wal-Mart rushing to make such healthy choices, when the U.S. Wal-Mart still offered the same old stuff? Wal-Mart had even been slapped by a lawsuit from the Ajinomoto, the company that now makes aspartame, which claimed that U.K. Wal-Mart’s publicizing of its aspartame-free products was a kind of defamation—all while U.S. Wal-Mart continued to use the sweetener.
Can you imagine how grateful parents in the UK must be when they read this? “[U.K. Wal-Mart] will also meet the Food Standards Agency’s salt-reduction targets–two years ahead of the 2010 deadline,” the article continued.
Isn’t that amazing? Over in the U.K., our American companies rushed to meet government standards two whole years before they even go into effect. It begs the question, why?
According to Asda/U.K. Wal-Mart food trading director Darren Blackhurt, “We know that our customers, particularly those that are mums and dads, are becoming more and more concerned about what’s in the food they buy.” Indeed, the article continues, “consumer awareness of nutrition and food quality in the UK has soared in the last few years. . . ” Accordingly, U.K. Wal-Mart was planning to spend 30 million pounds, or about $50 million, to reformulate its product line, adding that, “in the main, taste will be unaffected.”
Pretty stunning, right? Clearly learning about this remarkable decision is sure to leave a few American parents a little hyperactive. And if you look at the decision a little more closely, you will discover that Asda/Wal-Mart was far from the only British company to respond to the Southampton Study in such a dramatic way. According to the Food and Drink Federation in the U.K., several companies—whether British-based or British division of American corporations—had started offering their customers color- and additive-free processed foods.
“We are aware of the recent publication from the University of Southampton on selected artificial colours, and we will continue to follow the guidance of regulators on this issue.”—Coca- Cola Great Britain. And in fact, on May 27, 2008, the story broke that Coca Cola was removing sodium benzoate from its products—but only in the U.K.
“Kraft Foods UK has no products aimed at children that contain the ingredients highlighted in the FSA [Southampton] study. . . . [W]ith our recent Lunchables reformulation in the UK, we reduced fat and salt, as well as removed artificial colours and flavours. Without compromising quality, taste and food safety, we will continue to see where we can make changes and still meet consumer expectations.”—Kraft Foods UK
“We know that artificial colours are of concern to consumers, which is why, in 2006, Mars began a programme to remove them from our products. . . in November 2007, Starburst Chews became free from all artificial colours. . . . in December 2007, Skittles were made free from all the artificial colours highlighted in a landmark study by Southampton University. . . We have already removed four colours mentioned in the Southampton study from Peanut and Choco M&M’s, and are in the process of removing the final one so they too will be free from these artificials during 2008.”—Mars UK
“Nestlé UK does not manufacture children’s products that contain any of the additives investigated by the FSA [Southampton] research. . . . and from September 2007, the UK’s favourite kids’ chocolate brand—Milky Bar—is to be made with all natural ingredients.”—Nestlé UK
“We are committed to replacing all artificial colours in our sweets. We note the Southampton University findings, but we had begun this process already because we are continually listening to our customers.” —UK Cadbury Chocolate division
Every time I read over those quotes, I find them absolutely stunning. Why are companies that operate in the U.K.—including our very own U.S. companies—so eager to take out the artificial colors there and so completely reluctant to do so here? Why are they willing to spend the money to reformulate their products there while refusing even to consider such a change-over here?
Maybe the answer can be found in a BBC report on Asda/U.K. Wal-Mart, “Explaining its decision to halt the use of artificial colours and flavours, Asda said it was acting because ‘mums and dads are becoming more and more concerned about what’s in the food they buy.’” An Asda/U.K. Wal-Mart press release elaborates: “Reformulation was hard work, but it was a labour of love.” Well, why can’t they perform that same labor of love over here? Is it too much to ask for what they have overseas?
After all, we’re not asking them to reinvent the wheel—they’ve already removed these ingredients from their products elsewhere. So why can’t our children get the same protection? Why can’t they serve up the same products to us?
Today it is estimated that 50% of Hispanic and African-American children will develop diabetes, that 1 in 90 boys has autism, and that 1 in 4 children has asthma. The Journal of Pediatrics reported that from 2002-2005, there was a 103% increase in diabetes medication for children, a 47% increase in asthma medication, a 41% increase in ADHD medication and a 15% increase in high cholesterol medicine.
And while the science may be disputed, depending on who is funding the study, as to whether commonly used food dyes such as Yellow 5, Red 40 and 6 others made from petroleum pose a “rainbow of risks” that include hyperactivity in children, cancer (in animal studies), and allergic reactions, because of the problem of hyperactivity, the Center for Science in the Public Interest petitioned the Food and Drug Administration to ban the use of these dyes given that the British government and European Union have taken actions that are virtually ending their use of dyes throughout Europe.
Is it too much to ask for the same value to be placed on the lives of the American kids in their cost-benefit analyses that has been placed on the lives of kids in the UK?
As a proud American, it seems to me that our duty as moms and dads and concerned citizens is pretty clear. We have to get this information out there so that our government and our corporations listen to us, the way that governments and corporations in Europe, Australia, the U.K., Japan, and other developed countries listen to their citizens.
Because while our children may only represent 30% of our population, they are 100% of our future.
Perhaps it’s time that we value them like our country depends on it.
To take action, please join me and the team at Healthy Child Healthy World by signing a letter to the CEO of Kraft Foods (also a mom!) so that together, we can have the same products on grocery store shelves here in the US! Learn more HERE.
It’s Food Allergy Awareness Week this week. In the early years of this work, when you spoke about food allergies, people used to look at you like you were making food allergies up. How could a child be allergic to food? And since when? As kids, we ate PB&Js and had cartons of milk for lunch at school. They weren’t loaded weapons on a lunchroom table. What’s changed? And why has it changed so fast?
According to UCLA Health System, “The occurrence of allergic disease is skyrocketing, and some estimates are that as many as one-in-five Americans have an allergic condition.”
You don’t have to tell that to parents.
Today, a food allergic reaction sends someone to the emergency room once every three minutes. One in ten children struggle with asthma, and one in four are affected by allergies. The incidence of allergy has increased significantly over the past two decades, and allergy to peanuts more than doubled from 1997 to 2002. The National Association of Nurses now says 19% of school age children have a food allergy.
In the last twenty years, there has been a 400% increase in the rates of allergies in children and a 300% increase in the rates of asthma, with at least a 56% increase in the number of asthma-related deaths.
Approximately 30 million children – more than 1/3 of our kids – are affected by one of the four new childhood epidemics – allergies, asthma, ADHD and autism, earning our children the title of “Generation Rx” and these condition the title “the 4As.”
This is not something we can just accept nor can we afford to ignore.
And it’s not just affecting children.
The official statistic holds that allergies affect millions of Americans, including about 6-8 percent of children below the age of three. That information comes courtesy of U.S. Food and Drug Administration Deputy Commissioner Lester M. Crawford, J., D.V.M., Ph.D., speaking before the Consumer Federation of America on April 22, 2002. It is over ten years old.
Since then, the Centers for Disease Control issued a report in 2008 that said that there has been a 265% increase in the rate of hospitalizations related to food allergic reactions.
Since when did a PB&J and a carton of milk become so dangerous?
This begs explanation.
An allergy is basically an overreaction by your immune system to a protein that it perceives as a threat—for example, the proteins in particular types of food, the dust mite protein, or pollen. For people without allergies, these proteins are harmless. But if you’ve got an allergy, your immune system sees these proteins as dangerous invaders.
To drive the invader out, your immune system mobilizes all its resources: mucous, to flush out the intruder; vomiting, to force it out; diarrhea, to expel it quickly. Such conditions may make you feel sick, but they’re actually evidence of your body’s attempts to get well.
A key aspect of the immune response is known as inflammation, characterized by one or more of four classic symptoms: redness, heat, swelling, and pain. Inflammation doesn’t occur only in allergic reactions; it flares up whenever your body feels threatened, in response to a bruise, cut, bacteria, or virus as well as to otherwise harmless pollen, dust, or food. Scientists now believe that much of our immune system is found in our digestive tracts, where many of these inflammatory reactions occur in the form of stomachaches, cramping, nausea, bloating, and vomiting.
Ironically, the immune system’s inflammatory reaction—meant to heal and protect the body—often causes more problems than the initial “invader” in the cases when allergic reactions become life-threatening.
Common Symptoms of Food Allergy: Immediate Reactions
- rash or hives
- stomach pain
- itchy skin
- shortness of breath
- chest pain
- swelling of the airways to the lungs
Food Allergies and Food Sensitivity: Our Immune System Overreacts Again
At first glance, the distinction between “allergies” and “sensitivity” may seem like a meaningless word game. But understanding the relationship between these two conditions is crucial to grasping the true nature of the allergy epidemic—and to seeing how even the supposedly healthy foods in our kitchens may be harmful to our health.
As we’ve seen, allergies are an overreaction of our immune system, a kind of exaggerated response to a perceived danger. When a child comes in contact with these proteins (peanut, egg, wheat, etc.) her immune system “recognizes” the protein as dangerous, just as it would have seen the danger in the bacterium that causes pneumonia or the virus that causes mumps. In response, her immune system creates special “fighter” proteins called antibodies designed to identify and neutralize the “invader.”
These fighter proteins are known as immunoglobulin E, or IgE for short. When they’re released into the bloodstream, their purpose is to “seek and destroy” the invader, which they do by creating one or more of the classic food allergy symptoms, such as the hives, or the diarrhea with which other children respond, or, in more extreme cases, the anaphylactic shock that can kill a child within minutes.
The classic IgE response occurs within minutes or even seconds, because IgE proteins are some of the most aggressive antibodies we know. That immediate IgE response is the defining characteristic of an allergic reaction.
Food sensitivities start out in a similar way. If a “sensitive” child is exposed to a protein that his system perceives as a threat, he’ll manufacture another type of fighter protein, known as Immunglobulin G, or IgG. Although IgE and IgG antibodies play similar roles, they produce somewhat different—though often overlapping—symptoms.
A crucial difference between the two, though, is their reaction time. The less aggressive IgG antibodies typically produce a delayed response that might not appear for hours or even days after the child has consumed the offending food.
So even though food sensitivities and food allergies both produce painful, inflammatory, and potentially dangerous responses, this delayed reaction time has led many doctors to give food sensitivities second-class status. Partly that’s because they don’t present an immediate and obvious threat to children’s lives: only the IgE proteins trigger anaphylactic shock, for example, and in that sense, only the IgE proteins can kill (though the IgG reaction can have serious long-term consequences). Unfortunately, some doctors tend to downplay the importance of nutrition, frequently dismissing the idea that such symptoms as earache, eczema, crankiness, brain fog, and sleep problems might be related to a child’s diet.
However, an article in The Lancet, Britain’s most respected medical journal, casts another light on the subject. The article referred to doctors who use elimination diets—diets that begin with a very limited, “safe” array of food choices and then add potentially problematic foods back into the diet, one by one.
The reason to do an elimination diet is to identify which foods in your diet might be triggering symptoms like skin rashes, fatigue, or stomach ache. Often, some foods affect us without our realizing it and we live with the symptoms, taking medicine to alleviate the suffering. But if you eliminate these foods from your diet, you may find that your symptoms disappear. What becomes even more interesting is that when you reintroduce the offending food, you may suddenly suffer drastic symptoms which make it clear that the food was indeed triggering one or more problems. An elimination diet can sometimes reveal with dramatic speed that a particular food you’ve always believed was harmless is actually causing such chronic symptoms as headache, digestive problems, and even more serious complaints. Masked by your daily diet and by the slowness of the food-sensitivity reaction, the offending food does its dirty work without ever realizing that it is the culprit behind your—or your child’s—disorders.
When you take a break from eating that problem food, however, and then add it back into your diet, you see how powerful its effects are and how responsible it may be for a seemingly unrelated problem. Foods that you thought were safe for you turn out to be highly problematic, indicating the presence of a previous undiagnosed food sensitivity. As a result, the authors of the Lancetarticle conclude that the prevalence of food sensitivity (referred to in the article as “food intolerance”) has been seriously underestimated.
Certainly, food allergies are far more dramatic. Whenever you read about a kid who died within minutes of eating at a fast-food joint or after breathing in the peanut dust from a friend’s candy wrapper, that’s an “IgE-mediated” food allergy. They’re fast, they can be deadly, and need the attention they deserve.
But we should be looking at delayed reactions, too, the “IgG-mediated” responses to food sensitivities. And some doctors do look seriously at both. Most conventional doctors, though, tend to focus on IgE immediate reactions. There are lots of reasons why they should view the two types of reactions as part of a larger, single problem.
First, both reactions have the same ultimate cause: the immune system’s overreaction to apparently harmless food. According to internationally acclaimed author and physician Kenneth Bock, M.D., there’s also quite a bit of overlap between IgE and IgG symptoms. Both can contribute to inflammatory responses in multiple body systems.
True, the delayed IgG reactions are less likely to cause hives and are more likely to produce a host of apparently vague symptoms, such as headache, brain fog, sleep problems, joint pain, fatigue, and muscle aches. But both the immediate and the delayed responses are immune system problems triggered by a supposedly “harmless” food.
Conventional doctors’ tendency to separate “IgE-mediated” food allergies and “IgG-mediated” food sensitivities into two separate problems has the effect of minimizing the allergy epidemic. Remember, IgE allergies, IgG sensitivities, and asthma—three similar ways that our immune systems can overreact—are all on the rise. It makes sense to find a doctor who is willing to address all three as symptoms of a greater underlying issue.
Common Symptoms of Food Sensitivity: Delayed Reactions
- gastrointestinal problems, including bloating and gas
- itchy skin and skin rashes like eczema
- brain fog
- muscle or joint aches
- sleeplessness and sleep disorders
- chronic rhinitis (runny nose), congestion, and post-nasal drip
1. Even if your kids can’t talk, their skin speaks volumes! Did you know that the skin is a person’s largest organ? Even when your child is too young to tell you how he feels or too used to her symptoms to identify them (when kids hurt all the time, they don’t know they hurt!), you can often read your child’s condition in his or her skin.
Does your child have eczema? Does he get rashes around the mouth, especially after he eats a certain food or swallows a certain beverage? Rashes around the knees, elbows, or armpits? Does he have “allergic shiners”—that is, dark circles under the eyes?
These are all inflammatory reactions, signs that the body is trying to rid itself of what it perceives as “toxic invader.” In your child’s case, that “toxic invader” might be an apparently harmless food, to which your kid is either allergic or “sensitive.” Keeping that invader away from your kid may bring relief from symptoms—and it may clear up other problems, such as brain fog, crankiness, sleep problems, inattention, acne, and mood swings.
2. The toilet bowl has a lot to tell you. Your kids’ bowel movements, not to be too delicate here, also speak volumes. Runny poops are a sign that a person isn’t properly digesting his food. And indeed, as we got the allergens out of some children’s diets, poops tend to firm up.
3. Chronic ear infections are often a sign of dairy allergies. In some cases, milk may have ill effects like eczema, upset stomachs or chronic ear infections for children who are allergic or sensitive to it.
4. Find a doctor who is willing to work with you, test for both IgE and IgG allergies and sensitivities and to address the important role that elimination diets can play in managing allergic symptoms like eczema, ear infections and chronic mucous.
AllergyKids turned eight this weekend over Mother’s Day. In these first eight years, we’ve met too many parents who have lost children to an allergic reaction. We’ve spent so much time with a dad who lost his 13 year old daughter to a food allergic reaction eight years ago. He was one of the first emails we ever received at the AllergyKids Foundation.
His daughter had eaten what they considered a “safe food.” Something she had eaten dozens of times before. For some inexplicable reason that day, it proved deadly.
We can not afford to lose our children, they are our country’s greatest resource.
Follow Robyn on Twitter @foodawakenings and on Facebook. She is a former financial analyst and author. This post is dedicated to Emily V. and all of the children whose lives were taken too soon, as well as to the parents of children with food allergies whose love, courage and dedication protects these children every day.
Note: Always discuss individual health inquiries and medical issues with a qualified personal physician and/or specialist. Robyn O’Brien, the founder and Executive Director of the AllergyKids Foundation, is an author and analyst but not responsible for medical decisions made by any one person. The professionals who share their knowledge, discussions, minutes, handouts, agendas, and other products do not constitute medical and/or legal advice and should not be relied upon as such. Always discuss individual health inquiries and medical issues with a qualified personal physician and/or specialist.