Why every foster parent needs to know about food intolerance. IMO.

In one of my very first posts about food intolerance I flagged that I wanted to write about the significance of food intolerance to foster care.  I’m just now getting around to it.  Reflecting on where we were at Christmas last year has re-ignited my passion for evangelizing about food intolerance and this is something I feel needs to be really spelt out.  I’m going to try to build an argument here for something that I feel instinctively is true.  I hope you’ll still be with me at the end of this post.

When children come into foster care, they often arrive with a catalogue of symptoms that would break your heart.  How many foster kids have asthma, eczema, unexplained rashes (urticaria), recurrent infections, sleep problems, behavioural problems, digestive problems?  Lots. Lots and lots and lots of kids coming into care have these problems.  And foster parents are scratching their heads, trying to treat the symptoms, not understanding the cause.

Because here’s the thing.  We don’t know what causes food intolerance.  But here’s what we do know.  It runs in families.  It’s exacerbated by stress.  It’s exacerbated by poor diet.  It is often undiagnosed or misdiagnosed.  It’s difficult to manage and requires a high level of stability, commitment, research and understanding on the part of parents.

So let me run a little scenario past you.  Let’s talk about Madison.  Madison is 2.  She’s always had lots of rashes and sometimes she gets asthma.  She’s pale and pasty and she’s got big black bags under her eyes.  She gets the runs from time to time and when she was a baby she screamed and screamed and even at 2 she doesn’t sleep well, waking frequently at night and struggling to settle.  As Madison is getting older she is starting to show signs of behavioural problems.  Her parents also have problems and Madison has come to the attention of child protection.  Eventually, Madison comes into foster care.  Her foster parents give her lots of fruit and vegies to improve her diet.  They treat the eczema with steroids prescribed by the doctor and whatever other creams they read about on the internet, often ones with lots of healthy organic fruit and vegetable extracts.  They try to be consistent with Madison and offer her the love and support she needs to address her behavioural problems.  The foster parents are engaged and well connected and determined and they get all the help they can.  They access early intervention therapies and they spend hours on the internet and reading books about attachment, about behaviour, about parenting strategies for fostered and adopted children, and about how to be better foster parents.

After about six months, things aren’t going so well.  Madison’s health is worse.  Her behaviour is worse.  The foster parents are exhausted, because Madison still doesn’t sleep very well.  The foster parents don’t understand why she isn’t getting better.  They are doing everything right.  Sometimes it seems like Madison is getting better and then she seems to go backwards again.  Some days her behaviour is wonderful and they start to think they are making progress. Then something seems to happen and it’s all downhill again.  Madison always seems to have a cold or is generally off-colour and sometimes they think that she’s just sick or just teething but she never seems to be quite right.

It’s a horrible scenario because the foster parents are trying as hard as they can and Madison is trying as hard as she can, but they are all fighting with one hand behind their backs because they are treating the symptoms not the cause.  In Madison’s case, the cause is food intolerance.  And perhaps one of the reasons that Madison ended up in care in the first place, is because her parent/s have behavioural problems that can also be linked to food intolerance.  With foster kids it’s commonsense to assume that any behavioural issues they are experiencing would be solely as a result of the trauma they have and continue to experience.  Maybe, one element of this horrible cycle of behavioural reproduction is down to a biological element that no-one knows about.

So that’s the key idea in my theory:  that some parents have undiagnosed and untreated food intolerances, which result in behavioural issues, which contribute to their inability to parent their children, who are more likely to also have undiagnosed and untreated food intolerances.

Of course, I’m not suggesting that every child who comes into foster care has food intolerances.  I’m also not suggesting that every ailment can be sheeted home to food intolerance.  Nor am I suggesting that only kids in care or other disadvantaged situations are the ones with food intolerance.  Or that food intolerance is the reason that some parents can’t parent their kids.  Of course not.

But I do think that the sorts of situations that many foster kids come from are like the ideal laboratory conditions for food intolerance to do what it does.  You’ve got a potential family history.  You’ve got high levels of stress.  You’ve got incomplete or inconsistent treatment and care of symptoms.  You’ve got poor diet.  It reads like a food intolerance How To Bring It On guidebook.

And for foster carers who are dealing with the every day challenges of foster care, dealing with food intolerance on top of that must be incredibly difficult.  First of all there’s the resistance to the message:  fruit and veg might be bad for my kid!! WT?  Then there’s the casting about for answers:  what do you mean there’s no test??  I’ll just get on the internet and find a bloody test.  I’m sure there’s a test.  Isn’t there?  And then there’s the slowly dawning reality of the diet:  You mean I have to re-think every single thing I thought I knew about diet and health and what a good diet is?  And I have to change our whole diet, quite radically?  And it might just be for a year or two or it might be forever?  But won’t she grow out of it?  And then there’s trying to access the right practitioner when you’re having to get departmental permission for every doctor’s visit and medication. And how about when the family members are giving kids forbidden foods during access visits. 

It’s the weirdness of food intolerance that confuses and upsets people.  If my foster kid was raised on softdrink and chips, why is she now reacting to tomatoes and oranges?  How can eating some carrots cause my child to wet the bed/not be able to sleep/become enraged at the drop of a hat?  Why why why?  How how how?

No-one knows what causes food intolerance and no-one really knows why there has been a significant increase in food intolerance and allergies amongst children in the West over the last 20 or 30 years.

There are a number of theories.  Research is centered around immunology and the researchers who are making the most progress and contribution are working from the basis that immunology holds the key.  The RPAH Allergy Unit’s work has resulted in significant and life-changing improvements for children and adults living with food intolerance and allergy.  The Australian Society of Clinical Immunology and Allergy is a great resource for what we currently know about this stuff.

I’m not one to swallow medical orthodoxy holus bolus.  My entire life has been lived in defiance of doctors :)   But I get anxious and upset when I realise how many desperate parents are sidetracked into hocus pocus explanations, tests, treatments and “cures” for food intolerance.  It bothers me because it means the kids aren’t getting the real help they need.  You don’t have to spend long in the food intolerance community to come across some pretty whacky approaches to this problem.  And I get it.  I get that parents want to know WHY?  They want to know a definitive answer.  And they want to fix it NOW.  It’s a sad truth that the elimination diet is tough, it’s long (possibly forever) and it’s complicated and it’s not perfect.  It doesn’t explain everything and often parents need to go further.  But while I respect every parent’s right to make decisions about their children’s health and explore all of their options, a lot (not all) of what is going on is exploitative, anti-scientific bullshit.

If you’re a foster parent and the child you love is struggling with chronic health or behavioural issues, have a think about food intolerance.  Consult a doctor who specialises in food intolerance.  Do not just ask your regular GP and allow your concerns to be dismissed.  Although Australia leads the world in the diagnosis and treatment of food intolerance, many GPs and paediatricians do not know or understand the science and the lived experience of food intolerance.  Do not allow yourself to be swayed by skeptics.  Don’t get drawn into alternative approaches which make the problem worse (heard the one about the naturopath who prescribes salicylate-filled medicines for food intolerance?) Consult a specialist, who will do a skin prick test (to identify allergies) and will advise you on how to do an elimination diet (to identify food intolerances).  You never know, you may get lucky.  You may only end up having to avoid one particular additive or a small number of very highly reactive foods.  Or you may find that food intolerance isn’t the problem at all.  But whatever the outcome at least you’ll know and then you can get on with dealing with everything else.

I hope I’ve made my case.  It’s one of those situations where it seems so obvious to me so I have to really work to break down my argument to explain it to others.  For further information, I’ve got a truckload of resources linked from this blog under the tab Some Food Intolerance and Allergy Resources at the top of this page.  I’m also happy to answer questions here or via email TortoiseMum [at] gmail [dot] com

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