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October 11, 2016

Food For Thought
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Dairy and Gluten Allergies: Why Are They So Common In Children?

It’s not your imagination, it’s not the media and it’s not just a fad or new diet trend. Dairy and gluten allergies are on the rise in kids.

The first step in understanding how an allergy can seemingly come out of nowhere, and then suddenly be so prevalent, requires us to understand how allergies develop.

Common Symptoms Associated with Dairy and/or Gluten Allergies

Symptoms may worsen over time in your children. You may notice subtle symptoms at first and they may either come and go, or become increasingly more severe. These may include but are not limited to:

  • a recurring cough or croupe
  • ear infections
  • irregular digestion (constipation/diarrhea)
  • behaviour issues
  • rashes and other skin issues
  • slower learning
  • recurring colds and flu-like symptoms
  • intense cravings for dairy and gluten-containing foods

Where Do Allergies Begin?

Allergies begins in the digestive tract, specifically our small intestine.

Our small intestine is like a wall around a city. It allows some things through and keeps other things out. It is known as a semi-permeable membrane because of this selective quality. The small intestine is designed to control what goes in, but when the intestinal lining becomes damaged, this protective barrier is compromised.

A Compromised Barrier

The small intestine becomes damaged by various exposures including non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDS), antibiotics, parasites, stress, alcohol, chemicals and/or gluten.  This results in a semi-permeable membrane becoming more permeable. When it becomes more permeable we call it “leaky”, or  “leaky gut syndrome”, or sometimes “intestinal permeability”.

What leaks through? Undigested food particles and it is the protein components that the immune system reacts to. Common reactive proteins include casein if you’re consuming milk, and gluten if you’re consuming wheat. The body can react to undigested proteins from any food source, however as wheat and dairy are tough to digest and commonly consumed repeatedly with several meals and snacks throughout the day, day-after-day, these have become some of the most common reactors.

Compromised intestinal lining

Compromised intestinal lining

The Immune Response

The immune system is programmed to identify what is foreign and then “attack” it. It does this by “reading” the proteins as foreign molecules. For example, if the influenza virus enters your body, immune cells identify it as foreign, and then signal other immune cells to attack it, making sure that it doesn’t incur too much damage to the host.

Now that we understand that the immune system can attack food protein if the gut is leaky, we can dive deeper into how these allergies can begin.

Understanding Leaky Gut and Allergies

When a baby is born, their gut is naturally leaky. This is actually a good thing. It allows for all of the beneficial components of breast milk like lactoferrin, immunoglubulins, sugars, and antibodies, to be easily absorbed into the bloodstream to support optimal growth and development. As the infant gets older, their gut becomes less leaky, and eventually develops into a mature semi-permeable intestine. This process is called closure.

Before closure occurs, the infant is in a vulnerable state. If the infant is fed anything other than breast milk, those items have a greater ability to pass through their permeable intestines and into the blood stream, triggering the immune system.

Protein Size Matters

Understanding the size of particles is important when it comes to reactions in the body. The small intestine of an infant can let particles up to at molecular weight of 970,000 daltons through. This allows for all of those important breast milk molecules to get through. For example, the immunoglobulins IgM, IgE, IgG, and IgD, range in molecular weight of 146,000 daltons to 970,000 daltons. 1

But what happens if we introduce dairy and gluten to an infant during this time? What are the molecular weights of the proteins in these foods? Casein is 121,700 thousand daltons, and glutenin, a type of gluten, is 150,000 daltons.

As these are both smaller than the proteins found in breast milk, they would easily pass through an infant’s permeable intestines and into the blood stream. These proteins are subsequently registered by the immune system as foe. As a response to these foreign proteins, the immune system amounts an attack. As a result, each time these foods are consumed, an inflammatory response ensues.

This is how dairy and gluten can become a problem for so many.

The early introduction of dairy and gluten, before there has been full closure of the small intestine, dramatically increases the potential for a dairy and gluten allergy to occur. Many popular baby formulas are dairy based, or might have wheat in them, making formula fed babies more vulnerable to allergies.

You might be asking, ‘Shouldn’t this happen to every infant?’. There are many confounding variables that also play into this process making it hard to predict who exactly will be affected.

How Can You Prevent Kids From Developing The Two Most Common Allergens?

The first line of defence is a vaginal birth followed by breastfeeding. As this isn’t always possible there are also other ways to protect your child. Firstly, seeding is becoming a common practice for babies delivered via cesarian section. There are also high quality formula options to choose from that are balanced, nutritious, and have a propensity to prevent allergies. Certain supplements, such as a quality probiotic, can also be helpful.

The only way to stop symptoms associated with dairy and/or gluten allergy is to strictly avoid it. Sometimes you can re-introduce these foods back into the diet, but you should work with a trained practitioner to guide you through the elimination and reintroduction process.

Steps To Take If Your Suspect Your Child Has An Allergy

  • Eliminate: Eliminate any suspect foods for at least a month and see if symptoms change or improve. This must be adhered to 100%. Even one cracker, if a person is gluten-intolerant, can create an inflammatory cascade.
  • Get Tested: An IgG food sensitivity test (blood test) can be helpful in narrowing down potential triggers. Please note that this is a different test than is offered by typical allergists. You may need to see a natural health care practitioner for this test.
  • Heal The Gut: Determining the allergies is the first step. The second is to heal the gut to reduce ongoing risk of reactivity. This is done through a health promoting diet and key supplements that support a healthy intestinal lining.
  • Keep It Going: Being consistent in your efforts, whether for yourself or your child, is key. Once you are starting the process of healing, an ice cream as a special treat, or that slice of birthday cake will not be worth undoing all your effort up to this point and also can become confusing for your child.

Gluten-Free and Dairy-Free Cookbooks To Get You started

Gluten-Free and Dairy-Free Recipes To Get Your Started

References:

  1. Worthington-Roberts BS, Veermerch J, Williams SR, eds. Nutrition in pregnancy and lactation. St. Louis, MO: Times Mirror/Mosby;1985:277

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