This is a guest post from Michelle Riddle, OT, R.H.N. director of Resilient Health.
Picky eating, brain fog, anxiety, and/or irritability. These behaviors can make life difficult for both parents and kids but the solution may be closer than we think.
It is very likely that you know someone who is on a gluten-free diet. About 1% of the population has celiac disease but studies show that more than 13% of North Americans are diagnosed with non-celiac gluten sensitivity and more than 25% report feeling happier, calmer, and more focused when they stop eating gluten.
This is a good time to note that all content of this article, Resilient Health, and Michelle Riddle, OT, R.H.N. is provided for informational purposes only and is not intended as medical advice, or as a substitute for the advice of your health practitioner.
What is Gluten?
Gluten is made up of protein that is bound to starch.
It is found in wheat, rye, barley, spelt, and a similar compound (avenin) is found in oats. Gluten gives bread its chewy texture, helps pasta keep its shape, and is a cheap filler that can be found in everything from salad dressing to soy sauce.
Learning to steer clear of this common ingredient can make life so much easier for kids who have a gluten sensitivity.
Is Gluten Sensitivity the Same as a Wheat Allergy or Celiac Disease?
No, gluten sensitivity is not the same as a wheat allergy or celiac disease.
If a child has a food allergy reaction, we expect to see a rash or hear about tummy pain. This type of reaction is based on an immediate immune response that can be identified with allergy testing.
Symptoms of a wheat allergy will typically show up within minutes of exposure and can involve skin rashes, tummy pain, or difficulty breathing.
Celiac disease is a genetic condition that causes your body to attack the cells in the lining of the small intestine when any amount of gluten is eaten.
Symptoms of celiac disease can include diarrhea, weight loss, abdominal pain, nausea, and constipation. Blood born autoantibodies (tTG and EMA) and intestinal damage are the features that identify celiac disease.
When a child has a sensitivity, the reaction develops over time and is caused by the repetitive contact with the reactant. These exposures create swelling (inflammation) in the body and can throw off the balance of the micro-organisms that live in the gut.
Gluten sensitivity does not show up in allergy or blood testing, it shows up in behavior.
4 Behavioral Symptoms of Gluten Sensitivity
There are 4 main behavioral symptoms of gluten sensitivity:
- Picky eating
- Brain fog
Here’s how they play out in a gluten sensitive child.
Picky eating is characterized by an unwillingness to eat familiar foods, or to try new foods, as well as having strong food preferences.
RELATED: Solutions to picky eating. (You probably haven’t heard all these before!)
In sensitive kids, the protein part of gluten is not digested properly. These improperly digested proteins pass into the bloodstream and then bind with opiate receptors in the brain.
Stimulation of these receptors creates an immediate feeling of pleasure, then brain fog (feeling forgetful, clumsy, distracted) and finally cravings for more gluten.
The starch part of gluten (especially from refined flours) feeds the yeasts that live in every child’s gut. When this microbiome is out of balance (too many yeasts which overpower the good bacteria), a child will want to eat more foods that are high in processed carbohydrates.
Bread, pasta, and cereal are often the favorite foods of a child with a gluten sensitivity.
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Our immune system is designed to protect us from invaders like viruses, bacterial infections, or toxins. When an unwanted invader is detected, the body launches an inflammatory attack (swelling, redness, heat, pain) to eliminate the threat.
Within a sensitive body, gluten becomes a toxin, and repeated contacts stimulate an immune response. When the exposures to gluten continue so does the chronic inflammation that is part of the immune reaction.
In this state, anxiety takes over because the immune system can not eliminate the ‘invader’ and the brain begins to perceive everything as a potential ‘threat’.
We now know that our gut bacteria have a large role to play in creating a happy mood. When a gluten sensitivity throws these micro-organisms out of balance, the production of the neurotransmitter serotonin (relaxation and pleasure), and the hormone melatonin (sleep) is reduced.
The inflammatory effect of gluten makes it harder for the body to properly absorb nutrients so it can become depleted of zinc, and vitamins B and D which are necessary for stable moods.
The end result of this cascade is a child who presents with irritability.
Does a Gluten-Free Diet Affect Behavior?
For the gluten-sensitive kid, identifying the root cause of behavior can tricky because there are no blood tests to pinpoint this reaction. Luckily, eliminating gluten, the source of inflammation, can quickly transform how your child feels and acts.
When a sensitive child is able to keep gluten out of their diet, their mood will improve and their behavior will become calmer and more focused.
5 Easy Tips for Going Gluten-Free with Kids:
1. Encourage Whole Food.
Whole, unprocessed foods like fruit, vegetables, nuts, meat, fish, and whole grains, like rice or quinoa, are naturally gluten-free. When you choose whole food, you don’t have to worry about interpreting a list of mystery ingredients or eating highly processed gluten-free products.
2. Limit Between Meal Snacks.
When transitioning to a new diet, a hungry kid is more willing to try new foods. Snacks are also a common source of gluten. If your child needs a snack between meals, try a crunchy carrot or a sweet apple.
3. Drink Lemon Water With a Pinch of Salt.
A squeeze of lemon juice and a pinch of high-quality salt (Himalayan or sea salt) in a large glass of water can reduce inflammation. The lemon water flushes toxins from cells, the electrolytes (salt in water) help to rebuild damaged tissue, and the act of drinking water between meals reduces cravings for gluten-containing foods.
4. Care For The “Buddies” In Our Belly.
Naturally fermented foods, like kefir or kimchi, help balance our microbiome to stabilize mood and conquer cravings. Many kids are also motivated to try a new food if it will take care of the ‘Buddies’ in their belly. High fiber foods like apples, bananas, and asparagus help to feed our healthy gut bacteria which manufacture B vitamins and happy hormones.
5. Keep It Fun.
Focus on the great changes you are making (the beautiful color of the red apple, the crunch of the carrot, the feeling when the ‘brain fog’ lifts or the mood becomes calmer) and have fun experimenting with new foods. To build interest, encourage kids to play with food, help in the kitchen, or grow a garden.
More Gluten-Free Resources:
- Tips for completing an elimination diet with kids
- Gluten-free with kids starter guide
- Going gluten-free long term (without going crazy!)
- Gluten-free recipes on Kitchen Stewardship®
- Empower your kids by teaching them how to cook
This is perfect if you’ve just been told you need a GF diet, if you have a friend or family member eating GF and you’d like to cook for them, or if you’re just curious what it’s all about!
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Catassi, C., Elli, L., Bonaz, B., Bouma, G., Carroccio, A., Castillejo, G., et. al. (2015). Diagnosis of Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity (NCGS): The Salerno Experts’ Criteria. Nutrients, 7(6), 4966–4977. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu7064966
Lebwohl, B., Ludvigsson, J.F., Green, P.H.R. (2015) Celiac disease and non-celiac gluten sensitivity. British Medical Journal, 351, h4347. https://www.bmj.com/content/351/bmj.h4347
Morgan, S. & Bell, H. (2018). Buddies in my belly: a story about probiotics. Marceline, MO: Walsworth Publishing.
Roszkowska, A., Pawlicka, M., Mroczek, A., Bałabuszek, K., & Nieradko-Iwanicka, B. (2019). Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity: A Review. Medicina (Kaunas, Lithuania), 55(6), 222. https://doi.org/10.3390/medicina55060222
Sapone A, Bai JC, Ciacci C, et al. (2012). Spectrum of gluten-related disorders: consensus on new nomenclature and classification. BMC Medicine, 10, 13. https://doi.org/10.1186/1741-7015-10-13