Aggression 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.
- Tomato sauce and ketchup
- 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.
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:
- Nourishing Hope for Autism, book by Julie Matthews
* Article originally published in The Autism File Magazine, Oct/Nov 2013 issue, Entitled, “Autism and Aggression.”
INTERESTED 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