Salicylate Sensitivity?

My little boy just turned three this month. He was born a docile child–almost never cried as a baby (although he was held constantly, and his needs never delayed beyond necessity–so easy when they are so little). I did eventually teach him it was okay to cry, if he needed a release, but never expected that to turn into multiple crying sessions every day. His crying became more frequent as he got older, which is “supposed” to be normal, but somehow didn’t seem right to me…it seemed almost to be related to his weaning–the less mama milk he consumed, the more he cried (and I’ve been letting him self-wean, so it’s not like he’s crying because he wants it). This led me to believe it was related to the solid food he was eating. I was always paying attention to what he was eating. Was he getting enough protein? Enough fat? Enough calories? Enough calcium and vitamin D? He has very rarely been given sweets, his food is organic, whole food, mostly homemade. What’s been going on?

I have wondered everything under the sun. Does he just have cabin fever because we don’t get out every day? Does he need more structure? A different nap routine? A calmer mother? Yeah, sure all these things could reduce his stress, but what was making him have such a hard time dealing with stress in the first place? Why has he been having 5-10 meltdowns every day?

It’s really hard to see your blissful baby turn into a cranky toddler. Everyone says it’s just being “two” that makes them cranky. And now that he’s three, it’s because he’s “three.” But I read this book back when he was two months old, called The Continuum Concept, and it describes the children of a certain tribe in South America as being calm, happy, cooperative, not crying much. What’s different? The author, Jean Leidloff, seems to think it’s all about the parenting. Over time, I’ve concluded that it’s not just parenting style, but many other factors in modern life as well. So I am always thinking about this: If my child is cranky, it means something within him doesn’t feel right. What can I do to help make it better?

Late last fall, his meltdowns increased in intensity and frequency. He had recently had a vaccination, so I wondered if that was the reason, but eventually ruled it out. Then I got this sneaking feeling that he had a food intolerance. But what? And how did I find out? I did some searching on the Internet, but didn’t find anything that helped me. I figured I should get him tested for allergies, but I put it off, because I didn’t want him to get a blood draw if there was another way. I had heard of skin tests and muscle tests, but it seemed like I would have to take him to a naturopath for those, and not only did I have no idea which naturopath to see, but our insurance doesn’t cover them. He got sick so often last winter, much more than the year before. Why was he so sick? He seemed so health as a baby.

I cut back on his carbohydrate intake, and increased protein, but he’s only gotten worse since, so I really don’t think it’s because of sugar sensitivity. I’ve considered gluten and dairy as possible culprits, since those are common. But now we are on raw milk, and that is supposed to reduce allergies rather than increase them, and his behavior is getting worse (more and more meltdowns, becoming mildly aggressive at times, and other stuff that doesn’t seem quite right). I was ready to start eliminating gluten (and possibly all grains) from his diet, but then the issue came up in a texting conversation with my friend Cassie, who started troubleshooting with me. She sent me a link to the Food Intolerance Network.

In a study done on kids with behavior problems, the highest food sensitivity was salicylates, at a whopping 75%. This was followed by 60-70% reacting to preservatives, 55% to artificial coloring, 40% to MSG, 20% to dairy, 3% to sugar (used as a placebo), and 0% to gluten–unless they had IBS, in which case it was 20%. I strive to keep preservatives, MSG, and all artificial crap out of our diet, so I immediately ruled those out. Dairy and gluten were still a possibility, but the one glaring at me was the salicylates.

Salicylates I had never heard of, and yet they were a cause of behavior problems in three-quarters of the children studied. That’s A LOT. The crazy thing is that they are in abundance in foods that are supposed to be healthy: fruit, vegetables, nuts, herbs and spices. I mean, dairy intolerance you can argue that humans are not supposed to consume cow milk, or that pasteurization and homogenation denatures milk to the point that it causes problems, and you can argue away gluten as well, but fresh plant foods? I have heard of people having issues with fruits and vegetables, but it always seemed like this was an uncommon issue, so I never suspected it.

Salicylates are a natural chemical preservative–it prevents food from rotting. It is found in highest concentrations in the skins of salicylate foods. It is also in higher concentration in unripe produce and lower in food that is fully ripe. Thus, commercial produce contains more salicylates because the food is harvested unripe. More fruits contain high levels of salicylates than any other food. In fact, most fruits that have been analyzed contain high to very high levels. It just so happens that many of my son’s most favorite foods are on the “very high” salicylate list.

Salicylates aren’t exactly a bad thing. In fact, they are used therapeutically in many medicines (synthetic, of course), and they naturally prevent food from rotting. But it’s one of those many things in food that, if not kept in check, can lead to intolerance or allergy in sensitive individuals. Those with a sensitivity to salicylates will see their symptoms go away simply by reducing the amount they consume. It usually isn’t necessary to completely eliminate them, unless the individual has an allergy. Allergies can be as severe an anaphylaxis.

As I read over the information on salicylate sensitivity, my eyes teared up as I felt this really could be my son’s issue. It fits. I have always felt a little concerned about the amount of fruit he eats. I try to save fruit for dessert, but he knows it’s there and wants it any time of the day (I’ve tried hiding it, but he always finds it). I was concerned about the amount of sugar in fruit, even though I’ve heard it’s not high-glycemic, and also that he would not eat much of other foods if fruit was available. But aside from a slight nutritional imbalance, I didn’t think it was that big a deal. I mean, fruits are natural, fresh, full of enzymes, vitamins, and minerals, right??  Like vegetables, but with sugar!

But like I said, it fits. His emotional imbalance seemed to have increased with his increase in eating solid foods, and of course his increase in solid foods meant an increase in salicylate-containing foods. He ate a lot of fruit last winter, particularly apples and oranges and those have high and very high levels of salicylates. Now it’s summer, and his meltdowns are worse than ever, and guess what? It’s berry season! And melon season! And stone fruit season! And tomato season! (very high! high! high! very high!). And yes, he’s been eating fruit to his heart’s content.

As I read over the salicylate food guide, my eyes teared up again. There were so. many. foods. that he loves on the high and very high lists. It’s like he’s drawn to them. It’s not just fruit, but even his favorite nuts and vegetables. Pretty much all spices are high. I have noticed he gets rashes around his mouth if cinnamon, sweet and sour sauce, or ranch dressing makes contact with his skin, so that’s another connection. He loves ketchup and mustard, and these are both offenders. We will have to cut out a lot of things from his diet to test for this (there is no blood test for it).

The good news is that dairy is fine, and so is meat as long as it isn’t seasoned (although I don’t know if he would even eat unseasoned meat). There are a few seasonings we can use, such as garlic, onions and salt. Maple syrup is fine (honey is not). Cocoa and carob are safe. He can get his fruit fix on banana, ripe and peeled pear, and a couple of varieties of apples (the grossest kinds in my opinion, but maybe he’ll be okay with them). Legumes are fine. There are a few nuts we can use (but no more almond meal in the pancakes! and no yummy pistachios!). On the fats and oils list, the only safe one is butter. The other low-salicylate oils are actually unhealthful (they go rancid easily, probably because they have little salicylate in them). Of course, the oils that are supposed to be the healthiest–coconut and olive oil–both have very high levels of salicylates. So really grateful for virtuous butter here! Grains all have negligible levels. Well except corn, but I really don’t think we should be eating it, anyway–at least not the GMO stuff. I mean, Mexican food is definitely out: can’t have corn tortillas, tomatoes, avocado, or taco seasoning. No mint. No pesto. He doesn’t drink tea, coffee or alcohol, and we restrict juice as it is, so no problems there. Eggs are fine, but let’s not forget he eats them with ketchup.

The other good news is that very ripe fruit has lower levels of salicylates…so he could have a little from our garden or local farms that pick when ready to eat. Theoretically, of course. We still have to test this out. But I’ve been thinking…maybe this would be a good lifestyle change for all of us. See, I really believe in eating in season whenever possible. Well, maybe I’ve been going overboard with the fruit this summer. I really wanted to take advantage of the strawberries, and melons, and strawberries, and peaches, and strawberries while they are in season (did I mention strawberries?). I was just telling my friend Cassie last night how my three favorite foods have always been chocolate, tacos, and strawberries. I’ve cut waaaaay back on chocolate because I don’t think it’s good for me (yes, the dark kind), last night was probably my last taco dinner for a looooong time (I felt sick afterward, and my little boy probably shouldn’t be eating them), and I was telling her how I just hoped I wouldn’t have to give up strawberries. Bah.

But digression aside, I was reading how Himalayan children are docile and happy and how when asked how much fruit they eat, they estimated about one piece per week. I also remember reading something about paleos eating very little fruit, because historically, fruit had not been very common in the human diet. As if it just wasn’t that available. Isn’t that interesting? I couldn’t ever wrap my head around it–why was fruit rare? Even limiting myself to eating fruit in season, there are plenty of apples and oranges in the fall and winter, and fruit galore in the summer. Er, wait. That’s at the grocery store. What’s actually growing around here? Apples in the fall, berries and cherries in the summer. Maybe a little bit of this and that. What if we just ate fruit from our own backyard? Or a once a week trip the farmers market? We would not be eating as much fruit, I can tell you that. And well, even though most fruit, despite having sugar in them, are moderate to low glycemic, the form of sugar they contain is fructose, which is supposed to be damaging to the body in high amounts. So, um…yeah. Maybe fruit is really a “sometimes” food rather than a “two servings a day” food (or like five servings a day if you are my child).

I can totally do this. But can my little boy? It would be a major adjustment for him. But yeah, I am pretty sure I can work around it, so that he’s still getting plenty of food he likes. I think.

Oh, and just to clarify, my little boy isn’t like mentally ill or anything. Everyone will say that some crying is normal. But no one gets to see what his meltdowns are like. He sounds really, really miserable….he sounds just like me when I’m imbalanced (which thankfully is less often these days). I know what a dreadful feeling it is. He doesn’t even have real tantrums–at least not how I thought tantrums were supposed to be. But his behavior is such that it really affects my stress levels, my intuition tells me something isn’t right, and I’ve been worried about him.

So yeah. We’re going to be doing a salicylate elimination for a couple of weeks (starting next week, because we are going to a reunion this weekend where we won’t have much control over meals). I’ll let you know how it goes.

*UPDATE* 11/28/11

I just read something very exciting today! I know a lot of people read this article, so I wanted to quickly post here what I’ve learned. I’ve been reading Gut and Psychology Syndrome and wow! what an enlightening book! I will definitely post more on it, but for now I have to tell you what I just read about salicylates. Salicylates are phenols, and phenols actually detox the body. The symptoms my son has been experiencing from salicylates are detox symptoms!!! Sadly, that means he’s toxic, but the good news is we can fix the problem. I will definitely be posting more on this.


12 thoughts on “Salicylate Sensitivity?

  1. Hi Lisa,

    I’ll be really interested to hear the outcome of the two week experiment. I was reading this thinking that maybe I have a salicylate sensitivity. Maybe I do, but clearly that wouldn’t be the extent of my sensitivities! Good luck with your son. Sounds like he’s been uncomfortable for some time now. I know that is so hard to watch.

  2. I too have a little one with Salicylate sensitivity…. it was soo hard to figure out but we saw a dramatic improvement in her health when we removed them….or lessened them.
    I wrote a blog post here with some of my resources (and research)….

    I would love to learn from you some of the salicylate tips and tricks you have discovered for the younger crowd!


  3. My son is a puzzle…asthma, allergies, strange rashes and allergic reactions to medications. By now (5th grade) it’s learning disabilities, inattentive ADD, depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts, rages, behavior problems, sobby crying and moodiness. I tried Feingold and we know that he’s super sensitive to artificial colors. We’re doing the elimination diet for dairy, gluten and salicylates now. I pray that we find an answer because I feel like ripping my hair our while he tells me about how he hates his life and wants to die. Sometimes he’s great and nice and happy. These reactions come on out of nowhere. What happened with your son?

    1. Grace, I am sorry I didn’t see your comment sooner, and I am so sorry to hear about your son’s health struggles!

      My son, three years later, is still having issues. After I had written this post, I found out about the GAPS diet, and we tried it out. It wasn’t a good fit for us. You might want to look into it, though, since your son has the classic symptoms.

      I hadn’t done anything special for my son’s health, other than feed him a traditional foods, nutrient-dense diet. He was doing okay, though I suspected he still had leaky gut, which I believe was a root cause in the food sensitivities. When he was four years old, we saw a homeopath/naturopath about a strep infection, and he advised that my son likely had allergies and should go on a rotation diet. Sadly, I did not follow his advice. Now he is allergic to wheat, dairy, eggs, almonds, cane sugar, peanuts, and a few other things–I noticed a decline in his health when I was pregnant with my daughter and was not able to feed him the usual nourishing foods that I had been providing. We are on a rotation diet now!

      Here’s what I’ve learned in a nutshell: leaky gut can cause food allergies which can cause most of your son’s symptoms. Also, many of your son’s symptoms can be due to nutritional deficiencies, which are likely caused by both an insufficient diet (unless you are following a nutrient-dense diet like paleo or WAPF) and poor digestion (which won’t let all the nutrients be absorbed. I recommend finding a doctor or nutritionist who really understands gut issues and can prescribe a gut-healing diet. I wish you and your son the best. I know it is so hard!

  4. Thanks for such a well-written article. I just found out about salicylates just over a week ago. My kids are in their teens and twenties, but having the classic high salicylate problems. So, it’s a challenge to convince them to change their diet, but I’m noticing a great effect on myself-less hyperactivity and more energy.

    I wanted to add another “sleeper” issue to the salicylate one that I think will help. I have found that excess arginine in the diet causes many of the same effects as salicylates: higher glutamate, less GABA, increased blood flow, less ATP (energy), more ammonia, higher insulin and gastric acid production (which histamine from allergic reactions already stimulates). I have been limiting my arginine and increasing lysine, the competing amino acid, for a year now, and have had a lot of good effects from this. I put up a lot of information about all this on a website:

    All the best to you and your son-I also read “The Continuum Concept” before my first child was born. I thought all I had to do was carry the baby and nurse all the time-well, there’s a little more to it!

  5. I agree! I wanted to add that arginine really contributes to food sensitivities, because one effect of arginine is to increase permeability in membranes (I explain this on the website). Then, excess arginine in the diet causes a leaky gut, which causes food sensitivity. So, it’s really important to lower arginine to stop contributing to this problem. Yet, so many health writers encourage eating a lot of high arginine foods-soy, nuts, grains, and seeds (which, as a vegetarian, I ate a great deal of for decades, and which probably caused my problem). Instead, probably the most helpful food is goat or sheep milk yogurt, which has very digestible A2 casein, plus is one of the foods highest in lysine.

    1. Interesting information, thank you. I’ve actually started giving him goat and sheep milk yogurt the last few months. Been meaning to get back on kefir, too. That’s supposed to be really helpful.


  6. Hello,

    I just read your post; did you have any success with the GAPS diet healing your sons salicylate intolerance? I’m hoping you did, because I need some hope!!

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