By Clare Marcangelo
More and more often, parents are recognising that their children seem to have reactions to foods and are unsure what those foods maybe, or why. Salicylate sensitivity, (or just all round sensitivity to many chemicals), in food, environment, both natural and artificial, are more common than we realise.
So what exactly are salicylates and where do we find them?
Unfortunately as it is a natural chemical, acting as a pesticide to protect plants, namely fruits and vegetables. Its high in most fruit, and many vegetables for example tomatoes, zucchini and avocado. It is also abundant in some medicines, cleaners and even plastics. One issue parents may not be aware of is the high salicylate content of mint and mint flavouring. So if the extra ingredients in toothpaste weren’t enough to trip a sensitive child up, the minty flavour could be!
This can be a real issue, as these sensitivities can cause a myriad of symptoms from rashes to sleeplessness. But my biggest fear, is for children undergoing assessment, these symptoms can influence diagnosis. What if many of the markers a practitioner is looking for such as inattentiveness, hyperactivity or impulsive behaviour are present, but only as a result of what the child had for lunch?
This would be a tragedy for the child and the practitioner, as they can only assess what they are observing, so its essential they see the child themselves, free from any reactions.
Unfortunately this kind of sensitivity is common. It can be seen often in so many children, whether they have anxiety, sensory issues, ODD, ASD. ADHD or even giftedness. A simplistic way to think about it is that perhaps being sensitive to big feelings, thoughts, and stimuli just means they are all round sensitive.
We do know that chemical sensitivity, in particular, salicylate sensitivity occurs regularly in children with Autism, as they tend to be deficient in the PST enzyme, which is responsible for the breakdown of phenols such as salicylates and also amines. They can also have a lowered ability to break down sulphur, leading to a sulphate deficiency, again needed by the PST enzyme to break down these compounds.
We know also that children with Autism tend towards digestive issues, some that don’t show themselves easily to parents in early years, and this dysregulation also contributes to this issue.
It must be noted that although the data supports gut issues in ASD, it is common in all manner of Neurodiverse patients, and definitely those with anxiety. We know that this may be due to the Gut–Brain connection, so it makes sense on this basic level that many of these kids share these issues.
We all have a threshold for these compounds, and once exceeded, this is when issues occur. That is why some children react faster than others, and why these behaviours can seem to come from nowhere – as it wasn’t the punnet of strawberries that caused it all, rather that they tipped the scales following the spaghetti bolognaise and the kiwi fruit.
These reactions can look very different from child to child. They range from bed wetting, frequent throat clearing, asthma, anxiety, focus issues, impulsive, silly or even hyperactive behaviours, oppositional defiance to difficulty sleeping or even night terrors.
Many children have tell tale signs of a reaction too, which makes it easier to identify, such as red cheeks or ears, or single spots/rashes around the mouth.
So the advice for this issue is to restrict diet – removing all foods that contain high, and sometimes medium amounts of salicylates indefinitely.
This can mean a huge relief for children and their families, they are able to be “themselves” without the unwanted symptoms and behaviours that were holding them back. But what of the long term?
The best way forward is to address the causes of sensitivity, rather than focus on the symptoms. Once we work on digestive issues, little bodies are able to not only absorb nutrients from diet, but also filter the salicylates properly so that they no longer wreak havoc on the system.
These are the factors that need to be taken into account when tackling issues like these. Of course, the other issue with avoiding salicylates long term is the lack of so many nutrients, not to mention fibre. Many children already have issues around food aversions, if a child spends many months only allowed pears and papaya, there is a good chance they may decide they can no longer tolerate apples, melons, grapes and berries. This would be a huge step backwards for that family.
So now you know more about chemical sensitivity, and you may be able to identify it in your child. While it would be so helpful to take the easy steps of removing artificial additives and household chemicals to reduce the load on their systems, I hope you now feel happy that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. These compounds may be currently contributing to your child’s story, but there are ways that mean they don’t have to forever, and you can go onto enjoying them without the reaction in the future.
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Would you like to help your child improve their anxiety, behavioral or sensory issues naturally? Do you need an easy–to–follow plan to help your child eat new foods every day?
Clare Marcangelo is a local registered Nutritionist and former Early Childhood practitioner who specialises in children’s health. As a mum herself, she knows how hard it can be to make even the smallest of changes to a family diet.