Phenols—How Common Foods Trigger Your Child’s Symptoms
What if someone told you that a particular type of food or food additive was causing your child’s symptoms? It could even be something as simple as the daily apple you child eats. Phenols (salicylates, amines and glutamates in particular) are compounds found in many foods and additives that could be a major contributor to your child’s symptoms. Find out How Common Foods Can Trigger Your Child’s Symptoms and what you can do to identify what foods your child should avoid.
Signs and Symptoms of Phenol Sensitivities
There are many signs and symptoms of phenol sensitivities. As a result, the best way to determine which ones impact your child is to keep a food journal. The onset of symptoms of phenol sensitivities usually happens between 20 minutes and two hours after eating the phenol-containing food.
Signs and symptoms can include:
- Inappropriate laughter
- Red cheeks and/or ears
- Defiant behaviour
- Self-injurious behaviour
- Poor neuromuscular function
- Trouble falling asleep at night
- Night waking
- Cravings for high-phenol foods
- Day or night wetting/incontinence
- Respiratory issues
- Skin rashes
Some of these symptoms can be related to other conditions found in neurodevelopmental disorders such as autism and ADHD, however, phenol sensitivity can be a major or minor contributing factor to these symptoms depending on the child.
What Are Phenols?
Phenols are present naturally in certain foods and are also found in food additives or preservatives in processed foods and food packaging. The types of phenols known to cause symptoms in our children are: salicylates, amines, and glutamates.
Due to the ratio of fat to water in the cell membrane of a phenol, they can easily permeate the blood-brain barrier, which explains how they are able to have such immediate and noticeable effects.
Artificial/chemical phenols, which are derived from petroleum products, are often used as food additives such as dyes, flavourings (even “natural flavours”) and preservatives. These additives can be hidden in the foods you buy for your child and are often not even required to be included on the label.
For example, the liners inside some cereal boxes are sprayed with phenolic preservatives (BHA, or butylated hydroxyanisole) to extend shelf life, but these products are not required to label BHA as a food ingredient even though it is in contact with and permeates the food.
Some chemical phenols resemble neurotransmitters and can, therefore, behave like neurotoxins by binding to, and thus, blocking neurotransmitter receptor sites. This artificial and unintentional brain stimulation or blockage of activity creates a list of undesirable symptoms in our children.
MSG (monosodium glutamate) is an example of a chemical phenolic glutamate that can act like a neurotransmitter and inadvertently stimulates the brain. Dr. Katherine Reid discussed this phenomenon in her widely viewed TEDx talk on how she discovered that MSG (and glutamates) were a significant piece of the puzzle for her daughter with autism. In addition to being added to many foods, MSG is also sprayed on conventionally raised crops.
Natural or plant-based phenols are found in almost all of the foods we eat, so they cannot be entirely avoided. Foods are typically viewed as high-, medium- and low-phenol foods. Again, the three types of phenols naturally found in the foods we eat are salicylates, amines and glutamates.
Salicylates are found in plant foods only and can cause many different symptoms. The telltale sign of a salicylate sensitivity is red cheeks and ears within 20 minutes to two hours after ingesting a high-salicylate food or combination of foods. Examples of high salicylate foods are apples, most herbs and spices, honey, tomatoes (ketchup, tomato sauce, etc.), strawberries and grapes. This is a just a small portion of the list.
Amines are found in plant, meat, and dairy foods. These free amines are primarily the breakdown of proteins. Histamines are one type of familiar amine (note the suffix “amine”). High histamine foods include some of our kids’ favourites, like bananas, chocolate, strawberries and fermented and smoked foods like sauerkraut, salami, bacon, and yoghurt.
Glutamates are also found naturally in certain foods, in some higher than others. Examples include bone broth or stock, gelatin, fermented proteins and soy sauce.
Phenols can also be produced by the body as byproducts of yeast overgrowth or microbial imbalances in the gut, adding to the symptoms your child is experiencing.
Why Do Our Children Have an Increased Sensitivity to Phenols?
If phenols are natural compounds found in many foods that are considered healthy, why do they cause negative consequences for our children when others aren’t affected?
To break down natural and chemical phenols, the body requires an enzyme called phenol-sulphotransferase (PST) along with sulphate.
According to a study by researcher Rosemary Waring, autistic children have a PST enzyme and sulphate deficiency.1 Given the reduced levels of the PST enzyme and sulphate, it is not surprising that most of our children have some level of sensitivity or reaction to phenols in their diet.
Why Are Sulfate Levels Deficient in Our Children?
There are a few contributing factors to low sulphate levels, and it may be difficult to determine definitively which one or combination of factors are the root cause.
Mitochondrial dysfunction, or a dysfunction in the cell’s energy-producing organelles, is common in our children, which means they do not generate sufficient levels of adenosine triphosphate (ATP), the body’s main energy currency. As a result, our kids are typical “sulphate wasters,” identified by high urine sulphate levels, 2 as the reabsorption of sulphate in the kidneys requires ATP.
Methylation and transsulfuration impairments are commonly identified in our children. Impairments in the sulfation pathways are a consequence as they are downstream from the breakdowns in the methylation and transsulfuration biochemical process. If it sounds like a mouthful, it is. Just know that these impairments are basically metabolic mishaps that prevent the body from functioning as it should. They can be identified through symptomatology and genetic testing.
Insufficient sulfation found in our kids causes multiple problems such as impaired digestion and detoxification as well as reduced gut and blood brain barrier integrity.
Digestion requires sulphate to trigger the release of gastrin, which stimulates the release of stomach acid (HCl) at the top of the digestive cascade. 3 In the Sabotage of Poor Digestion I explain this process and it’s impact on your child’s health, in particular how it can lead to leaky gut and impairment of a key detoxification pathway, the gut.
Leaky gut can be caused or perpetuated by a sulphate deficiency. Sulfation of the mucin proteins in the gut lining is required to continually repair the lining (once every 3 days). Insufficient sulfation leads to gaps between the mucin in the gut lining, creating a leaky gut.
A weakness in the gut lining predisposes the gut to pathogenic bacteria, some of which can convert sulphate into sulphide making it unavailable for the sulfation of the gut mucin, further weakening the lining of the gut. It’s a vicious cycle.
When the gut is leaky and foods aren't being properly broken down and/or are leaking into the bloodstream through the gut wall, then our kids develop additional food sensitivities, amplifying their symptoms.
Blood-brain barrier integrity is also impacted by insufficient sulfation resulting in a “leaky brain,” similar to a leaky gut. The glycosaminoglycans (GAGs), long unbranched polysaccharides that play many roles, including sustaining the gut and blood-brain barrier integrity, require sulfation in order to work properly. A leaky blood brain barrier results in inappropriate molecules and toxins entering the brain and causing impairment or damage.
How Do I Address Phenol Sensitivities?
1. Trial a low/reduced phenol diet for your child. Keep a Food, Mood, Sleep and Poop Journal to track the changes in symptoms. The Feingold Diet (low phenol/salicylate) and the Failsafe Diet (low phenol/salicylate/glutamate/amine) both focus on reducing phenols. Grab your resource guide here with information on these diets and how to implement them.
2. Take enzyme supplementation to support the breakdown of phenols. As all diets will include some level of phenols, in addition to reducing dietary phenols, you can give your child enzymes to help in the appropriate breakdown of the phenols that still remain. Houston Enzymes No-Fenol is one such product that supports the breakdown of phenols.
3. Increase sulphate levels with Epsom salt baths. Sulphate is best absorbed through the skin, as it can not always be easily absorbed in high doses through the gut. Epsom salt baths three times a week can be helpful to increase sulphate levels. When implementing Epsom salt baths for the first time, increase the amount used slowly (start with ¼ cup or less and work up to two cups, depending on the amount of water used and the age of the child) to see how your child reacts. Every child is different. Some will feel ill with too much Epsom salts from the start due to the increased detox activity.
4. Increase sulphate levels with diet. There are many sulphur-containing foods that can be added to increase the amount of sulphate available in the body. This is a natural and continuous way to replenish your child’s sulphate levels. Ensure the sulphur in the diet comes from both meat and plant sources, as plant sources contain a special type of sulphur called organosulphur compounds, which are particularly beneficial. Examples of foods that contain sulphur include:
- Broccoli and broccoli sprouts
- Eggs, poultry and meats (contain sulphur-rich amino acids)
5. Support the methylation cycle. Sulfation is downstream from methylation and transsulfuration pathways, so it makes sense to address the root of the problem and support these pathways. Methylation and transsulfuration pathways are complex, so I’ll address them in a future post, but know that for our kids, it is also always helpful to support sulfation directly by applying the two suggestions above. Your child's symptoms should reduce as you are putting in the necessary supports to help things along while you work on methylation with your child.
6. Address gut infections or imbalances and leaky gut. As mentioned earlier, phenols can be produced by dysbiosis, or gut imbalance, which overloads the sulfation of the gut mucin, contributing to leaky gut. It is essential to address dysbiosis and heal the gut to stop this vicious cycle. The process of healing the gut starts with optimizing digestion.
The best place to start is to write down what your child eats and observe their reactions to different foods, making modifications as you go. And give your child an Epsom salt bath at night before bed, which will also help them relax and fall asleep due to the magnesium in the salts. This doesn’t have to be an overwhelming process. Take it step by step and the path will become clear.
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- Enzyme and Sulphur Oxidation Deficiencies in Autistic Children with Known Food/Chemical Intolerances B. A. O'Reilly and R. H. Waring. Orthomolecular Journal, 1993.
- Sulphur Metabolism in Autism, R.H. Waring and L.V. Klozuar Journal of Nutritional & Environmental Medicine Volume 10, Issue 1, 2000, pg 25-32.
- Importance of sulfation of gastrin or cholecystokinin (CCK) on affinity for gastrin and CCK receptors. Peptides. 1989 Jul-Aug;10(4):785-9