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Can Allergies Cause Behavior Problems?

You may have heard conflicting information on this subject. There are many, many parents who swear dietary changes helped their ADD child, and yet most doctors and researchers deny that food allergies or sensitivities can cause the behaviors associated with ADD, their conclusions supposedly based on studies. If allergies can cause ADD behaviors, then shouldn’t the studies verify that? The answer is yes, if the studies were designed properly. But according to The Center For Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), most of the studies which show no relationship between diet and ADHD were very poorly designed and executed (and often paid for by the food industry). For example, when researchers tested whether children reacted to artificial food dyes made from petroleum, they used only a fraction of the quantity that children actually consume, because no one actually took the time to figure out how much dye kids actually eat. Then they only tested one dye at at time, even though kids consume many dyes simultaneously. And finally, all the results were averaged together. If one or two children out of fifty reacted to the dyes, their reactions were lost in the pile of data from all the other children. Even so, studies as far back as the 1940’s show that some people definitely react to certain colors, especially Yellow #5 (Tartrazine), a color that is well known for causing reactions in asthmatics and people allergic to aspirin. CSPI, a non-profit group of scientists, reviewed 25 years of studies and issued a report in 1999 that concludes ADHD CAN be caused by foods and food additives.

After reading books, studies, and talking with affected parents I am convinced that some people (not just kids!) are reacting to foods and food additives by exhibiting ADD behavior. Not all, but some. Which people are most likely to be reacting to a food?

  • ALLERGIC people (stuffy nose, eczema, asthma). 
  • People who often do not feel well or who are depressed 
  • Kids with the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde syndrome, who seem happy one moment and suddenly, without provocation, become a nasty wildebeest (provocation includes asking the child to clean his or her room). 
  • Kids with dark circles under their eyes (“allergy shiners”). 
  • Kids who were colicky past the age of four months and were unhappy babies.
  • Kids with chronic sleeping problems.
  • People with reoccurent infections (ear, chest, sinus)

What kind of reactions have been observed in children? (Note: adults undoubtedly react too!)

  • hyperactivity
  • trouble sleeping
  • tantrums, aggressive behavior, screaming
  • whining, crying, not feeling well
  • poor handwriting
  • very tiny handwriting
  • inability to concentrate
  • dyslexics may reverse letters or do “mirror” writing while reacting
  • digestive upset (bloating, belching, gagging, vomiting, constipation, nausea, gas)
  • headaches
  • wheezing, runny or itchy nose, scratchy eyes, coughing
  • depression
  • non-stop, senseless talk
  • reoccurrent infections: ear, chest, sinus
  • bright red earlobes, red patches on cheeks
  • dark circles, wrinkles and/or bags under the eyes
  • eczema, hives, rashes

The above reactions have been induced in children by “challenging” them with a known allergen and then halted by neutralizing the reaction. The book “Is This Your Child? Discovering and Treating Unrecognized Allergies in Children and Adults” by Doris Rapp, M.D., does a wonderful job of describing reactions, ways to identify allergens, and tells how to treat them. The author has had many years of experience and doesn’t just provide quick, pat answers, but helps people really figure out what to do. What I found really fascinating were the pictures of children’s handwriting samples and drawings before, during and after their reactions. The changes were astounding. The author is somewhat critical of mainstream allergists who rush people in and out and do not use the best methods to detect allergies because they are too time consuming. 


BOOKCase Study: From the book Is This Your Child? Discovering and Treating Unrecognized Allergies in Children and AdultRobert

Robert was four and a half years old when his mother brought him to see us. His well-educated, cultured, but distraught mother had asked for years why her son had such unbelievable spells of uncontrollable behavior. She worried that his education might present a serious challenge because his actions were so unpredictable. He simply never could sit still long enough to learn.

As a toddler he was disturbingly hyperactive and aggressive. On a daily basis he kicked, spit, hit, bit punched, and refused to wear clothing. He had sudden, alarming mood changes, which were accompanied by a spacey look, dark eye circles, and bags under his eyes. At other times he seemed to become easily frustrated and he would suddenly burst into tears. He tended to have recurrent ear infections in spite of the best possible medical treatment. He drooled excessively, and had bad breath and a bloated abdomen. He was clumsy and had difficulty using crayons and scissors. He tended to fall frequently when he tried to run.

His mother fortuitously saw the 1987 Donahue show. She recognized that some of her son’s behavior patterns were surprisingly identical to those of one hyperactive boy on that program. For the first time she had some insight as to why her son’s behavior switched from Dr. Jekyll to Mr. Hyde. She had repeatedly observed that Robert was always calm and loving in the morning, but that by mid-morning his behavior would begin to deteriorate. As the day wore on, he routinely became progressively more and more difficult. For the first time, she wondered if the foods he ate during the day could possibly be the cause of his problems or if some inexplicable changes in the clarity of his speech could possibly be related to his diet.

His mother started the first week of the Multiple Food Elimination Diet with immense skepticism. She was truly surprised and comforted by his dramatic, rapid response. Within three days after the diet was begun, his behavior was unbelievably calm and consistent throughout the day. By the end of the first week he could sit still and cut with scissors. He could write and draw better and could even speak in sentences. He stopped racing impulsively down the street. He was cooperative, pleasant, happy, and less easily frustrated. he no longer attacked his mother. His parents found the change incredible.

During the second week of the Multiple Food Elimination Diet, when foods were added back again into his diet, one at a time, his mother found specific answers. Within twenty minutes after he ate a slice of wheat bread, his total personality changed. Eating wheat was associated with attacking his dog, babbling, spitting, laughing uncontrollably, and even trying to eat a plate. He was completely out of control. When milk was reintroduced into his diet, the reaction was so violent that he put his head through a glass window. At that time his intestinal symptoms, bloating, and bad breath also recurred. Subsequent P/N allergy testing reproduced similar dramatic personality changes, especially from wheat and milk.

Within nine days after his initial allergy extract therapy, he improved about 50 percent. Within six weeks he was 95 percent improved. By then he could eat and tolerate all foods, except for wheat products, at a four-day interval. His sensitivity to wheat was so intense that despite months of allergy extract treatment for wheat, he could not eat a slice of bread for approximately one year. At that time wheat was finally tolerated, but only if it was eaten in small amounts. Since then he has been able to eat gradually increasing amounts of wheat products every four days. Presently, after five years of treatment, he is even able to tolerate large amounts of wheat products, every four days, without any difficulty.

Within six months after allergy treatment his IQ, which was initially gauged to be near 81, had increased to 125. 


Allergies are a really tough thing to deal with. You can’t just go to a professional and assume that they will magically find all your allergies and treat them. Allergists MAY find some of your allergies, but the tests used are extremely unpredictable. You can be allergic to something and very easily test negative. This is especially true for milk allergies, because milk is broken down into many different substances in the digestive tract before it is absorbed into the blood stream, and you could be allergic to any one of those substances. A quick allergy test can often identify some of the items you are allergic to. Just remember, however, that it is a STARTING point only. Finding out what you or your child is allergic to can very easily take months of careful dietary manipulation and recordkeeping. Helpful hint: The food you are most likely to be allergic to is the one you crave and eat most often (it’s true!)

Here are some of the allergens most likely to cause hyperactivity, according to Dr. Rapp:

  • artificial coloring
  • preservatives
  • sugar
  • milk
  • corn
  • cocoa
  • wheat
  • grains
  • egg
  • apples/juice
  • grapes/juice
  • peanut
  • peanut butter
  • tomato
  • food additives
  • artificial flavoring
  • banana
  • orange
  • yeast
  • dust
  • molds
  • pollen
  • chemical odors

An elimination diet excludes the major foods that you or your child are mostly likely to be allergic to. For the first week you eliminate all of the “forbidden” foods. After that you eat an excessive amount of one of the forbidden foods each day and carefully record any reactions. If you plan on trying out this diet I recommend that you get the book “Is This Your Child?” as there is a lot of useful information in the book that I could not possibly include here.


Allowed Forbidden
Allowed Cereals

  • Rice – rice puffs only
  • Oats – old fashion oatmeal made with honey
  • Barley
Forbidden Cereals

  • Foods containing wheat flour (most cakes, cookies, bread, baked goods)
  • Corn
  • Cereal mixtures (granola)
Allowed Fruits

  • Any fresh fruit, except citrus
  • Canned (if in their own juice and without artificial color, sugar, or preservatives)
Forbidden Fruits

  • Fresh, frozen, or canned citrus (orange, lemon, lime, grapefruit)
Allowed Vegetables

  • Most fresh vegetables except forbidden fresh vegetables
  • French Fries (homemade)
  • Potatoes
Forbidden Vegetables

  • Fresh, frozen, or canned corn, peas, mixed vegetables.
Allowed Meats

  • Chicken or turkey (nonbasted)
  • Louis Rick Ground turkey
  • Veal or beef
  • Pork
  • Lamb
  • Fish, tuna
Forbidden Meats

  • Luncheon meats, wieners
  • Bacon
  • Artificially colored meat or hamburger
  • Ham
  • Dyed salmon, lobster
  • Breaded meats
  • Meats with stuffing
Allowed Beverages

  • Water
  • Single herb or other plain tea with honey
  • pure grape juice, bottled
  • pure frozen apple juice
  • pure pineapple juice
Forbidden Beverages

  • Milk or any type of dairy drink with casein or whey
  • Fruit beverages except those so specified
  • Kool-Aid
  • Coffee creamer (any type)
  • Soda pop
Allowed Snacks

  • Potato chips (no additives)
  • Ry-Krisp crackers and pure honey
  • Raisins (unsulfured, from health food store)
Forbidden Snacks

  • Corn chips
  • Chocolate or anything with cocoa
  • Hard Candy
  • Ice cream or sherbet
Allowed Miscellaneous

  • Pure honey
  • Homemade vinegar and oil dressing
  • sea salt
  • pepper
  • homemade soup
Forbidden Miscellaneous

  • sugar, fructose, dextrose
  • Aspartame
  • Bread, cake, cookies, except from special recipes
  • Eggs
  • Jelly or jam
  • Jello
  • Margarine or diet spreads(unless no dyes and corn)
  • Sorbitol (corn)
  • Peanut butter, peanuts
  • Cheese
  • Dyed vitamins, mouthwash, toothpaste, cough syrups, etc.
  • Colored pills or liquid medicines (CONSULT DOCTOR FIRST)


The Feingold Diet:

A second book I found enlightening was “Why Can’t My Child Behave? The Feingold Diet Updated for Today’s Busy Families” by Jane Hersey. This book introduces the Feingold Diet and describes many children who were literally saved by it. The difference with the Feingold Diet from other allergy diets is that it does NOT check for regular food allergies, such as an allergy to milk or eggs. Instead, the emphasis is on food colors, specific preservatives, and foods that contain salicylates. This diet was created by Dr. Benjamin Feingold after he treated a woman’s severe case of hives. The woman turned out to be allergic to not only aspirin, but to all food containing salicylates, a natural chemical related to aspirin. Remarkably, not only did the hives clear up, but the woman’s behavior changed from belligerent to normal as long as she stayed on the diet. Dr. Benjamin continued to look for chemical sensitivities in his patients and found many other people who were helped by a modified diet. Eventually grass-roots “Feingold Associations” were started by parents who volunteered their time in order to help other parents. When you join a Feingold Association, you are sent a packet that contains a list of foods and products which have been verified free of colors and certain additives. This is important because there are significant loopholes in FDA labeling requirements and additives can be hidden. The Feingold Association maintains a website at

The Feingold Diet is actually an elimination test. You must strictly follow the diet for a few weeks to see if there is any improvement. If there is, then you reintroduce the natural salicylates foods to see if there is any reaction. You do not want to simply eliminate salicylates foods without an elimination test because these are otherwise very good goods (mostly fruits). It may be complicated if you or your child are allergic to many foods. For example, if your child is allergic to milk, eggs and peanut butter, and he consumes these while following the Feingold Diet, you may not see any benefits due to a masking effect. It’s best if you can identify other food allergies before doing a full Feingold Diet test (but you can certainly start eliminating artificial additives right away!).


Case Study from Why Can’t My Child Behave? The Feingold Diet Updated for Today’s Busy FamiliesLita

“The day she was born, the nurse warned me she was hyperactive,” Lita’s mother recalls. “But she was such a bright, lovable baby that we didn’t even realize she was hyperactive until she started the Feingold diet at age 4.

“Lita didn’t play with toys, didn’t watch TV, couldn’t sit at the table for a meal, and seldom slept for more than 30 minutes at a time — even at night. But she was sweet, and I guess we just got accustomed to the level of activity.

“Developmentally, she was slow in most areas, but because she spoke in full sentences by the age of 18 months, we didn’t consider the possibility of retardation.

She had done well at home and on a one-to-one basis with other children, but nursery school brought more frustration than this three-year-old could handle, so we began the search for answers.

“We followed the Feingold Diet to the best of our ability for a week, and then on Saturday I gave her a glass of Hawaiian Punch. It made me think of a dog chasing its own tail. She chased around in circles, with no place to go; her reaction was so extreme we became fully committed to the diet that day.”


What the Feingold Diet eliminates:

  • Food Dyes
  • Artificial flavoring (including “vanillin” or synthetic vanilla – the likely culprit for people who are sensitive to chocolate)
  • Aspirin
  • Natural salicylates, including:


almonds coffee peaches
apples cucumbers & pickles peppers (bell & chili)
apricots currants plums & prunes
all berries grapes & raisins tangerines
cherries nectarines tea
cloves oranges tomato
oil of wintergreen


If you want to try this diet then you should join the Feingold Association and they will mail you a packet of information. It does not work to eliminate MOST of the additives and salicylates from your diet, ALL must be eliminated.

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