Can Aggression be Related to Food?


iStock_000014250604XSmall_aggressionAggression is a difficult and sometimes devastating symptom that occurs in children for varied reasons—some known and some unknown — both nature and nurture.

It’s a difficult area to study/understand for many reasons, especially for children and adults with autism that cannot speak. Causes and triggers of aggression are difficult for any child to understand and describe (Autism or not). It was this very correlation (food and aggression) that initially intrigued me fourteen year ago, and sparked my career as nutrition researcher and clinician focused on ASD and beyond.

Potential causes of aggression:

  • An imbalance of neurotransmitters or hormones.
  • Sometimes aggression is caused by pain (often gastrointestinal), and people injure themselves or others—we know this because parents and doctors report that for some children when serious GI disorders are addressed, aggression have been know to disappear.
  • Low blood sugar can create feelings of anxiety and a sense of urgency around food that can be aggressive.
  • Scientific evidence that certain nutrient deficiencies are associated with aggression.
  • Food reactions have been associated with aggression.

Certainly, aggression can happen from the frustration or anger associated with a child being denied a food.  For the purpose of this article though, we will focus on foods that can trigger /cause aggression from consumption.

Gluten, Dairy and Food Allergens

There is much support for the notion that gluten and dairy can lead to aggression – including published articles and case studies, and a myriad of online anecdotes.

There are many ways gluten and dairy can cause aggression. While not all of the mechanisms have been identified as yet, I do have some theories. If you are eating these foods and your body is creating opiates, opiates themselves can cause mood changes.  Additionally, opiates peak and drop, these “withdrawals” from these opiate-compounds can cause irritability and aggression.  Also, pain from these foods could cause aggression.  Other food allergens can also cause aggression, so there are likely other ways aggression is triggered from food.

Doris Rapp, M.D., explains in her book, Is this Your Child, how aggression can be a symptom of food allergy and describes a variety of child case studies where a food allergen (specific to that individual) caused aggressive behavior.  It could be wheat, dairy, corn, soy, oranges, or other foods.  In these cases, they are associated with allergy or intolerance in the individual.

A gluten-free and casein-free (dairy-free) diet is often a great place to start with dietary changes, as there are so many ways these foods can negatively affect children.

Phenols and Salicylates

In my one-on-one nutrition practice, I’ve found that phenols, salicylates, and amines are the foods that are (by far) the greatest instigators of aggressive behavior.

Artificial additives (most are “phenols”) are compounds that can trigger irritability, sleeping problems, ADHD, hyperactivity and aggression.  Food additives are a well-known cause of aggression—Dr. Ben Feingold and others have been studying this and publishing papers for decades. Dr. Feingold stated in his paper, “Dietary Management of Juvenile Delinquency” that he had 60-70% success with an additive-free diet “for control of behavior.”

In addition to “artificial phenols” there are “natural phenols” in the form called salicylates.  Salicylates have a phenolic structure, or aromatic chemical ring, that occur naturally in fruits, vegetables, nuts, herbs and spices, and other plant foods.  These foods are rich in wonderful nutrients, but if your body has trouble “detoxifying” the salicylates, they can be a big problem for a child causing significant aggression, hyperactivity, and many other symptoms.

Salicylate Foods
  • Grapes
  • Apples
  • Strawberries
  • Blueberries
  • Raspberries
  • Melons
  • Tomato sauce and ketchup
  • Oranges
  • Honey
  • Almonds
  • Herbs and Spices: Cinnamon, cumin, turmeric, rosemary and more

One of my client’s children, a boy 10 years old, had daily aggression toward his family and therapists.  It would happen dozens of times per day, seemingly out of the blue.  People were getting hurt and it was a scary situation for everyone involved.  I suspected salicylates as the culprit, and after a dietary trial removing them, his aggression virtually disappeared—it went from 50 times per day to one time a month (and likely that was an accidental exposure)!

Amines and Glutamates

Amines are a different natural food chemical that is processed by the same detoxification pathway, and therefore, often create similar reactions, and people with salicylate sensitivity are more likely to have amine or glutamate intolerance.  Amines and glutamates are found in fermented foods including sauerkraut and yogurt, salami, smoked meats and fish, bacon, canned fish, and broths.  Some times I find it is amines, not salicylates, that is the main culprit.

Glutamate, also comes in the additive-form of MSG (monosodium glutamate).  One client I worked with was a teenager—he was very aggressive and only wanted to eat certain things.  When I looked to see what they all had it common, it was MSG as an ingredient. For him, removing both MSG and a food sensitivity made a huge improvement and his aggression diminished dramatically.

For children with aggression, I always explore the possible role of salicylates, amines, and glutamates for causing or contributing to the reaction, as I have seen many times in my practice that removing these foods reduces aggression for those that don’t tolerate them.

World of Difference

Aggression can have so many various causes, and food is not the cause for everyone. However, what is clear is that if foods are triggering aggression for a child, removal of those foods can make a world of difference in decreasing aggression, and huge improvements in the quality of everyone’s life.

Further Resources

For a more in depth discussion, a list of common reactions and symptoms, foods containing salicylates, amines, and glutamates, as well as supplement support see my book, Nourishing Hope for Autism.  If you suspect salicylates and phenols, below are some additional resources to get you started:

  • Feingold.org
  • FedUp.com.au
  • Allergy.net.a
  • Nourishing Hope for Autism, book by Julie Matthews

* Article originally published in The Autism File Magazine, Oct/Nov 2013 issue, Entitled, “Autism and Aggression.”


NH_SupportClubChalk1INTERESTED to LEARN MORE on this topic?  Then JOIN our Nourishing Hope Support Club for this month’s session on Behavior Challenges and Food…  more information below.

JANUARY: Behavior Challenges and Food – Julie Matthews

  • Aggression, anxiety, irritability
  • Phenols, salicylates, amines and glutamates
  • Pain-related behaviors, inflammation and oxidative stress, and relevant diets
  • Gut health, dybiosis, and nutritional choices
  • Supplementation: amino acids to build neurotransmitters
  • Diet options related to behavior: Feingold, Failsafe, and others

Open to a select number of committed parents and professionals, this membership club aims to advance individual success with specials diets and nutrition, and share the latest science and clinical experience among practitioners.  LEARN MORE HERE

13 Comments

Leave a comment
  1. Meredith January 29, 2014 at 1:46 am #

    My son had terrible aggression and self harming issues as an infant. He would bash his head and bite his tongue open as well as have raging tantrums that were very disturbing. He didn’t sleep and we were beside our selves. We attended a sleep clinic who told us to leave because my son was considered to be a risk to himself. We felt so alone! Removing phenols was amazing for us. We also used Epsom Salt baths and gave him magnesium. The difference is incredible. We are still working on increasing diet but the nightmare of sleeplessness and self harming has finally stopped.

    • Julie Matthews January 29, 2014 at 8:17 pm #

      Meredith, when I hear how alone and “abandoned by the system” you were, it makes me frustrated. When others didn’t know what to do, they ignore it… and children and families suffer. Thank goodness you kept searching and found a solution that helped your son so dramatically. I feel it is my mission to legitimize food and nutrition in the eyes of healthcare. Your situation is the perfect example – something so simple as food offered such profound results for you. Thanks for sharing so other families can see the power that food (adding or removing) can offer. All the best to you, Julie.

  2. babyfoodsteps January 29, 2014 at 3:31 am #

    Thank you Thank you Thank you for writing about these VERY important food/aggression connections!!
    Especially SALICYLATES…

    those sensitive to alicylates in food I hypothesize may have an underlying mitochondrial disorder or dysfunction:

    more here:
    http://babyfoodsteps.wordpress.com/2011/07/25/s-is-for-salicylate/

    • Julie Matthews January 29, 2014 at 9:24 pm #

      Kristi – thank you so much for sharing this! It’s excellent and I appreciate your work. Let’s stay in touch. Julie

  3. Meredith January 29, 2014 at 3:44 am #

    I also now notice with my son some minor symptoms that he develops prior to an aggressive outburst. Now if he eats too many phenols he develops slightly red and swollen ears. He also gets slightly flushed cheeks. This is how we know to pull back on the diet before the aggression and tantrums develop.

  4. jamie January 29, 2014 at 10:12 am #

    My daughter expresses anger after eating pasturized dairy. A friend of ours has a son the same age as our daughter who expresses depression after eating dairy or wheat. Both children have spent substantial time on the GAPS diet. I use Pulsatilla on my daughter and it seems to calm the anger in time.

  5. Susie February 16, 2014 at 6:57 pm #

    I get so discourages when I read information such as the above. Now we may need to take fruit out of our child’s diet?? He is already on a GF/CF diet and it is so very difficult (and expensive!) to find any foods that he likes that don’t have some sweetener or concentrate or additives. We have to hide veggies in sauces or casseroles. He cannot be reasoned with and will even go without dessert to avoid many foods.
    I am surprised that such a delicious, natural, healthy food such as fruit can be such a detriment to a child’s health and behavior. One of the main fruits I notice not on the list is bananas, which he will not eat. Between the phenols and salicylates AND the amines and glutamates, I don’t know what all is left for us to feed him that he will eat!
    I understand that these suggested triggers have to be eliminated one at a time to find out which may be affecting behavior, but is there a list of “acceptable food” for my child to subsist on while we are removing these others from his diet? Our child is not aggressive, but extremely hyperactive.

    • Julie Matthews February 16, 2014 at 11:07 pm #

      Hi Susie. Sorry to hear you are discouraged. These may or may not be an issue for your son. You are correct, they are very healthy foods so if they are not causing problems there is no benefit in limiting them. The key is to find out. If they are, parents often find the restriction worth it. The lowest salicylate fruits are fairly limited: peeled pears, peeled golden delicious apples (the yellow apples), and mango. But there are lots of healthy foods to eat.

  6. Ramona Ryker February 28, 2014 at 4:29 pm #

    My son had temper tantrums from the time he was an infant and they just got worse as he got older, sometimes lasting up to 2 hours when he was finally so exhausted he couldn’t continue. I had to restrain him for the duration or he would injure himself, me, or destroy things. By the time he was 6, I was beside myself and didn’t know where to turn. Friends were sympathetic but just thought he was a “strong willed child.” I was suspecting there was something really wrong with my child but, of course, was trying to avoid coming to this conclusion. When he was six, I diagnosed myself with gluten sensitivity and read about gluten’s affect on children and behavior. Knowing that gluten sensitivity is hereditary, I had him tested with a stool test through Dr. Kenneth Fine’s Institute for Intestinal Health in Dallas (which I highly recommend, http://www.enterolab.com)and it was positive for gluten antibodies. I took him off of gluten and he never had another temper tantrum. He became a happy and loving child and I was finally able to enjoy being his mother. I suspect that if I had not removed gluten from his diet, he would have eventually been diagnosed with a behavior disorder and put on medication. It breaks my heart to know that so many other children have this same sensitivity but no one knows and they go through life with a label and dependent on drugs when a simple diet change would change their lives. I tell everyone about my experience with my son. Unfortunately, most do not listen. They either don’t want to change their lifestyle to accommodate a diet change or they just can’t believe that a common food could cause such extreme behavior. I couldn’t believe it either but I lived it, so I had no choice but to believe it.

  7. fred obimbo April 26, 2014 at 1:23 pm #

    one of my parents gave her autistic child carmeal milk and goat milk the boy is not agressive now days
    fred obimbo

  8. valeria May 7, 2014 at 8:38 pm #

    My son is 9yo a week ago I checked his neurotrasmitters because He was super aggressive He has super high leves of glutamate, glycine dopamine norepinephrine epinephirine and low cortisol. We put him on free glutamate diet very strict diet, He was allready gf cf.
    He went from 10 times daily episodies to 1 so far.
    My question is Kids with glutamate problems are also salicylates sensitives.
    The Igg help to see if We need to take salicylates out of the diet.
    Thank you!!!

  9. Elaine May 16, 2014 at 8:56 am #

    Hi Julie

    I need some help please – like many other parents I am being ignored by my GP (UK) We have a lovely 5 year old who is very loving and considerate and at the right level at school etc, but he has started exploding but no reason that we can see !!. he has very dry rough skin which we have been given diprobase for and he diet is pretty healthy in terms of veg with meals etc. We are really falling apart as a family as we are lost ! I dont believe he knows or intends to be this awful so i try to cuddle him trhough which somethimes works and sometimes doesnt as he wants to hit me. I have 3 days ago removed dairy and im guessing i wont see immediate results but my head is spinning from all the things it could be i just need to know how to start and what i should be looking for . Someone above mentioned they had their childs neurotransmitters checked how and why would I go about this. sorry for the long question but we are struggling at the moment. thank you ps i have just ordered Digest Spectrum to see if this can help – have you tried digestive enzymes in your work ?

  10. Josie June 19, 2014 at 9:53 pm #

    Hi I too need help please with my son- to cut a long story short- very placid content baby but around 7 weeks old started with screaming fits which I suspected were colic, however GP told me there was no such thing. From around ten months old tantrums escalated and he also suffered a lot with hives and many other skin rashes. Over the years we’ve had ups and downs but at the moment his aggression is at a high (he is now 8) and lashes out with temper for no apparent reason at school. Seen a paediatrician- no diagnosis they believe no adhd or autism or anything else. I suspect it is food related but don’t know where to go..he was tested for coeliac at 2 but negative. He is a very very lean child, always hungry, often complaining of headaches and tummy aches. Where so I start taking things out of his diet? thank you

Leave a Reply