Mom, My Stomach Hurts!.... Is it a Food Sensitivity?
The last thing we as parents want to see is our children in pain. It happens, of course, and we do what we can to help them feel better in the moment. As a Naturopathic doctor and mother of two, my toolbox is pretty large when it comes to alleviating pain, but what is MORE important is finding out where that discomfort is coming from. One area that I work with a lot in my practice is gastrointestinal issues in both kids and adults. I want to share some key knowledge with you all to hopefully help in either your or your kids’ health journey….and avoid a lot of discomfort or issues down the road!
It is not uncommon to get the occasional upset stomach, gas, loose or hard stool, and possibly even heart burn. The key word there is “occasional”. I’m talking less than two to three times/month, and definitely less than 1/week. When we see these symptoms in ourselves or our children, it is time to put on our detective hats and start paying attention. Here are the most common reasons for an upset GI tract that I see, in no particular order:
Food sensitivity: This is when our body does not tolerate a food very well and reacts by up-regulating the immune system. This can lead to many GI symptoms, as well as things like allergy symptoms, eczema, anxiety, insomnia, headache, fatigue, and many more. Testing that can be helpful here are blood tests that look at immune reactions such as IgG or other white blood cell components.
Food intolerance: This is when the body does not produce enough of the enzyme to break down the food. A good example of this is lactose intolerance when the pancreas is not producing lactase. Common symptoms will be persistent diarrhea and/or gas and bloating from eating the food.
Food allergy: A true food allergy is usually diagnosed at a younger age when you see things like anaphylactic reactions (hives, swelling, trouble breathing) as well as vomiting and sometimes severe diarrhea. This is typically an IgE immune reaction and can be tested for in blood or with a skin scratch test. If your child is showing any of these symptoms, you should contact your pediatrician immediately.
Low “digestive fire”- This is my way of saying that the strength of the digestive tract is low. It could be low production of digestive enzymes from the pancreas, low HCL production in the stomach, or slow motility (the movement of food through the intestine). Symptoms of this can be undigested food or fatty stools (yes you have to look!), constipation, diarrhea, smelly gas and stools. Stool testing can catch some of these markers, as well as seeing if taking herbal bitters or digestive enzymes with or without HCL alleviates the symptoms.
Imbalanced microbiome- Our digestive tract has around 100 trillion microbes made up of bacteria and fungi (!!). Some are beneficial flora, some can be good or bad depending on their amount (commensal), and some are bad (parasites, harmful bacteria). If there has been a disturbance in the microbes, we can experience a variety of symptoms from gas/bloating, diarrhea/constipation, nutrient depletions, weight gain, mood issues, inflammation, and beyond. A disturbance can be anything from antibiotic use, the introduction of an unwanted virus or bacteria, low fiber or poor nutrition, surgeries and hospital stays, C-sections, and stress (to name a few). Stool testing is amazing here and can map our your unique microbiome!
Any of the above issues can and will lead to inflammation in the digestive tract and possibly even damage if left untreated for too long. It is common to see nutritional deficiencies due to this damage. So how do we figure out what the problem is? What’s the next steps?
Get that detective hat on!!!
I mentioned some testing options with some of the issues above, and these can be helpful especially when trying to rule out something more serious or with more acute symptoms and pain, but often the first step is to start to observe and track.
When do the symptoms occur? What variables may be playing a part (stressful situations, dehydration, eating out, foods consumed…). I often start with the steps below with my patients:
Make a food and symptoms tracker. You can create your own with pen and paper, or I have been liking the “Cara Care” app you can get for free. If it is a sensitivity, you often can see symptoms 1-3 days after consuming the food, so it is important to start to look for a pattern. List your fluids as well (beer!). 2 weeks is a decent amount of data to get.
Start to clean up your diet if you haven’t already. This looks like making more home cooked meals, choosing whole foods over processed foods in boxes and cans, and choosing organic when possible. This will be helpful when you start to look into the next step
Food elimination/re-challenge diet. The gold standard in diagnosing food sensitivities is to remove the possible trigger food for 3-4 weeks, then reintroduce it in a very specific way. This can look different for each person depending on if they are a child, adult, or have a specific medical history. I highly recommend that you consult with a Naturopathic Doctor or a nutritionist for advice and resources on how to do this. It is a lot of work, so you want to do it right, and it is so worth it!!
Additionally, if your healthcare provider gives you the OK, you can see if taking digestive enzymes or herbal bitters with meals help your symptoms.
Starting with this basic investigative work can sometimes lead to avoiding more expensive and invasive testing, which I think we all would like to avoid especially in our kiddos. It can of course be more complicated than this, and looking at the whole person, their lifestyle, medical, social and psychological history, and overall constitution is where the art in Naturopathic Medicine comes in.
If you feel like you or your child need more guidance in this area, please reach out for a free 15min consult. I would love to help!