Kids are driven by a keen sense of curiosity and wonderment, which power their continuous stream of relentless activity. It’s no wonder that sometimes we can hardly muster the energy to keep up with it all. But did you know that if your kid is predominantly restless, anxious, or inattentive, these could be signs of something more serious?

The analysis of the Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey finds that half (50%) of adults ages 18-24 reported anxiety and depression symptoms in 2023, compared to about a third of adults overall. This study showed that young people are more likely than adults to be experiencing anxiety or depression symptoms. So what is going on? Why have behavioral problems skyrocketed in the last few years?

It could be a pandemic and the lack of social interaction that these kids needed, or is it all the devices that are constantly on their faces? As a sidebar, we discussed social media’s impact on kids’ psyche in this podcast episode — if you want further advice. However, according to a 2022 study published by Neuroscience News, food allergies may be linked to behavioral disorders. The research says that food allergens can affect your brain by causing inflammation involving the nervous system and manifest as behavioral disorders — even if you don’t show the typical food allergy symptoms. 

I interviewed Dr. Kumi Nakamoto Combs, Ph.D. and Assistant Professor of Biomedical Sciences at the University of North Dakota School of Medicine and Health Sciences, about this incredible information to see what parents can look for regarding foods causing silent inflammation. I noted seven things to look out for.

1) Physical symptoms that suggest the body is fighting an allergy

Well-known conditions caused by allergies are asthma, hay fever, stuffy nose, eczema or atopic dermatitis, and various intestinal issues. These allergies happen when your immune system works a little too hard to fight against something that’s not supposed to be harmful. 

When invaders like bacteria and viruses come into your body, your immune cells respond to them, and they try to get rid of them from your body. So you may have a fever or vomit or have diarrhea, but these are your body’s efforts to kill or remove these invaders and are part of the natural defense against inflammation. 

Unfortunately, some individuals have these inflammatory responses to things that they inhale, touch, or eat, and that’s a more blatant sign of an allergy. However, these inflammations can sometimes be more challenging to detect when inflammation repeats or lasts for a long time and could cause many more problems.

2) The trends based on age and gender for allergy reactions

Kumi has done studies showing that some prolonged inflammation can affect brain mood and behavior due to hypersensitivities. The survey studies have found when specific allergies appear in mood changes and how long they last. Allergies to milk, eggs, and peanuts are often reported in children. Many children outgrow milk and egg allergies, but unfortunately, peanut allergy lasts much longer. Also, some people, especially females, develop new allergies, particularly seafood, when they age. Food allergies are more common in boys than girls at younger ages and more women than men in adult populations.

3) Foods that are classified to cause significant food allergies

The US Food and Drug Administration, or FDA, recognizes nine foods as significant food allergens we should watch for. Milk, eggs, fish, crustaceans, shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat, soybeans, and sesame. So, commercial food products that use these items must be labeled on their packages.

4) Try eliminating certain foods to see if your mood improves

Kumi noticed something interesting when she was reading a few clinical reports. Doctors described that their patients’ moods and behaviors improved when they removed certain foods from their diets. Within these particular patients, they didn’t experience the signs one would look for when eating foods in suspicion. Still, to Kumi, this was a group to look into further since reactions wouldn’t happen immediately. 

So, she developed a mouse model of milk allergy without severe symptoms. This model was a group of individuals who did not react severely. So, just mild symptoms and even no symptoms at all. She chose a milk allergy because it’s common in children, but many become tolerant as they age. Some studies have also shown an association between milk allergy and behavioral changes. Interestingly, allergic mice eating food containing milk allergens did not exhibit any visible reactions but had increased immune cell activities, showing inflammatory mediators such as histamine, and other molecules called cytokines in their blood. They also have increased antibodies against milk, proteins that can attack the milk proteins that get into your system, and they have signs of inflammation and damage in the brain.

5) Understand what settle inflammations can cause in the body

Cytokines are biological molecules or proteins released by immune cells and immune cells when they come into contact with a specific environment, such as an encounter with invaders or foreign invaders like pathogens, bacteria, parasites, and viruses. They can become activated, and it starts to release proteins. These proteins act as signaling molecules and can float around in a nearby environment or travel through the body in blood circulation. It can be a contributor to neurodegenerative diseases such as multiple sclerosis and Alzheimer’s disease especially.

Chronic inflammation is thought to be the common denominator in these neurodegenerative diseases due to decreased myelin in the brain. Myelin is the coating of neuronal fibers that can maximize their signaling ability, and it’s reduced in neurological diseases and was seen to decrease in mice experiencing silent reactions impacting the brain. The best example of such a disease is multiple sclerosis. Still, at this point, they don’t know the exact connection between what was seen in the allergic mice regarding their milk allergy and multiple sclerosis in human patients.

6) Consider a food journal if you notice signs of behavioral issues in you or your kid

These findings are correlations, and it’s hard to say that food can cause behavioral manifestations. Still, for parents who see their children struggling with their emotions or acting up after eating certain foods, these findings could be an excellent reason to avoid certain foods to see if their mood and behavior improve. The only way to do that is through a food journal and to see if specific issues you notice slowly disappear.

The findings Kumi found was that when the mildly allergic mice were given foods with mild reactions, they instead experienced anxiety and depression-like behavior. There was also a decline in cognitive function, like short-term memory loss. If your child or even you experience unexplained anxiousness, depressive mood, or so-called brain fog — you may want to review what you’ve been eating. It could be as simple as making an alternate food choice.

7) Trust your observations

Like our kids and activities episodes, parents are responsible for being general contractors and at the helm of their kids’ health. Part of this is trusting your observations. You’ve watched your kid longer than anyone and know what your child’s normal looks like. You can ask your child’s doctor about any suspicion you notice. Still, unfortunately, not everyone will be receptive to the idea since the research on these inflammations in the body is still very early. Trust your observation instinct as a parent. It’s a constant juggle of benefits to your child versus risk. If you choose to eliminate some foods, ensure they are receiving those particular nutrients in another safe way. But with the uptick in anxiety and depression in kids, it could be another angle worth exploring before jumping to other means.

Final Learnings on What to Watch Out for Regarding Kids’ Mood and Food

Testing for a week and consulting a doctor on your learnings to any hypersensitivities is a great place to start. Keep a food diary and be aware of any changes to overall health. It’s also great to get a dietician involved. I’m constantly looking for ways to change it up, not lean too heavily on processed foods, and ensure our family gets healthy foods to maintain energy and activity levels.

Check out the full episode 102 on Food Is Mood, or share your learnings with Kumi at the University of North Dakota School of Medicine and Health Sciences. She’s received so many supportive emails from people who suspected or even identified a food that could be a culprit in their child’s mood. So, if you pay closer attention to what your child eats, you may also be able to find the solution you are looking for. And, of course, not all mood and behavior problems are caused by the diet, but at least it’s worth keeping in mind.