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Sunday, October 5, 2014

Hyperactivity, Insomnia and Behavior Problems: It’s What’s For Dinner

From Special-Ism

By Sunny Aldrich, ACCPProfessional ADHD Coach
October 3, 2014


Very quietly, and without much fanfare, a study was released in the September, 2010 edition of the American Journal of Psychiatry indicating a link between food dye and ADHD symptoms.

With a name like “The Role of Histamine Degradation Gene Polymorphisms in Moderating the Effects of Food Additives on Children’s ADHD Symptoms,” it’s not surprising the study flew under the radar.

Double Blind Studies, Histamine and Polymorphisms for Dummies

Food coloring causes severe behavior issues for both of my children, so I spent hours scouring the world-wide web of wonders in search of explanations for “histamine degradation” and “gene polymorphisms” in the hope of making this research comprehensible to humans. Here’s a quick run down of what I learned by playing the “Research Medicine Word Game”:

Studies were done in 2004 (Bateman) and 2007 (McCann) by the University of Southampton to test the effects of food additives on hyperactivity in children ages 3 and 8/9. Results (University of Southampton, 2007) showed that additives in food did seem to cause significant behavior changes in some of the children, particularly those with ADHD or known hyperactivity challenges, but not all of them.

The 2010 study (Stevenson) tested some of the same kids from the 2007 group to see if there were physical differences in the genetic makeup of the children who reacted strongly vs. those who didn’t.

Researchers examined genes for chemical transmitters and receivers in several systems within the body including: dopamine, adrenaline and histamine. Past studies had shown a link between genetic differences in the dopamine and adrenaline systems, but histamine had not been tested. They identified genetic differences in the H3 histamine receptors of the children who reacted to the food additives.

Histamine 101

I though histamine was just about allergies, so what is this mysterious H3 receptor and what’s it got to do with ADHD symptoms? Turns out, the body has four different histamine receptors (Sherwood, that control things you’d never think of:

  • H1 Receptors play a role in the sleep/wake cycle as well as allergic reactions such as runny nose, asthma attacks, anaphylaxis and hives. When you’re in deep sleep your body stops making histamine, when you need to wake up or be more alert (like when there’s danger) your body starts pumping out histamine.
  • H2 Receptors trigger your body to produce stomach acid, which can make you feel nauseous. Some of the most common anti-nausea medications, like Phenergan, are actually powerful anti-histamines, both of which make most people very sleepy
  • H3 Receptors signal the body to stop making histamine once there’s enough of it in the blood stream.
  • H4 Receptors regulate the flow of white blood cells to your bone marrow as a function of our immune system.

Are you thinking what I’m thinking? If some folks have a genetic short-circuit in their histamine system that won’t let their body hit the brakes on production, anything that triggers a histamine response can put them on a runaway train. Keep in mind that these were relatively small, preliminary studies so people with ADHD may not be the only passengers on the Histamine Express.

Sorry I’m Late, My H3 Receptor Malfunction Kept Me Up All Night

Now that you’ve toughed it out through my miniature biology lesson, I bet you’d like some ideas about what to do with this enlightening information. Luckily, I made another list just for you:
  • What kinds of behavior should I watch for? Hyperactivity and attention were specifically mentioned in the studies, but in my own children, I’ve seen exposure to food coloring cause severe defiance, rage, violent outbursts, anxiety, immature behavior and even suicidal thoughts on one occasion.
  • What other problems could be caused by food additives? The potential exists for food additives to trigger other symptoms related to histamine, such as upset stomach, nausea, insomnia and memory or cognition problems.
  • Which food additives should I avoid? At a minimum consider avoiding artificial food coloring, sodium benzoate, aspartame and BHT.
  • Which foods most commonly contain additives? It’s everywhere; in gum, mouthwash, tooth paste, even in”white” marshmallows (Walker, 2011). Red #2 was banned from food use but approved for use on orange rinds, so think twice before making “zest.”
  • What should I look for on labels? FDA requirements (2007) specify some colors must be listed by name, like Yellow #5, others can be listed simply under “color added” or “artificial color.”
  • What about natural color? Reactions to natural colors are fairly rare, but allergic responses can occur with just about anything. Caramel color is actually derived from corn syrup, so it’s considered natural. Other natural colors generally considered “safe” are annatto extract and tumeric among others
  • What about accidental exposure? It happens sometimes, no matter how many precautions you take. I have had good results with dye-free antihistamines. Yes, even the antidote to dye-induced histamine response usually contains dye. They take effect after 15-30 minutes and last for several hours.

The fact is almost anything we put in our bodies could contain additives, including medication. It’s exasperating to realize that the medication your child takes for hyperactivity and inattention likely contains dyes that could trigger hyperactivity and inattention. Buying organic can take a lot of the stress out of grocery shopping, but realistically there may be other foods or substances you or your child are sensitive to.

Though time-consuming and tedious, elimination diets and food/behavior journals can often be the most effective and least expensive way to get off the Histamine Express and back to relaxing Saturday afternoons!


“The effects of a double blind, placebo controlled, artificial food colourings and benzoate preservative challenge on hyperactivity in a general population sample of preschool children” by Bateman B, Warner JO, Hutchinson E, Dean T, Rowlandson P, Gant C, Grundy J, Fitzgerald C, Stevenson J. Arch Dis Child. 2004 Jun; 89(6): 506-11,

“FDA Panel Nixes Food Dye-Hyperactivity Link” By Emily P. Walker. MedPage Today, 31 Mar 2011.

Food additives and hyperactive behaviour in 3-year-old and 8/9-year-old children in the community: a randomised, double-blinded, placebo-controlled trial” by Donna McCann PhD, Angelina Barrett BS, Alison Cooper MS, Debbie Crumpler BS, Lindy Dalen PhD, Kate Grimshaw MS, Elizabeth Kitchin BS, Kris Lok MS, Lucy Porteous BS, Emily Prince MS, Prof Edmund Sonuga-Barke PhD, Prof John O Warner MD, Prof Jim Stevenson PhD. The Lancet, Volume 370, Issue 9598, Pages 1560 – 1567, 3 November 2007.

“How Does Histamine Work?” by Chris Sherwood.

“How Safe are Color Additives?” FDA US Food and Drug Administration, 10 Dec 2007.

“Major study indicates a link between hyperactivity in children and certain food additives.” University of Southampton, 06 September 2007.

“The Role of Histamine Degradation Gene Polymorphisms in Moderating the Effects of Food Additives on Children’s ADHD Symptoms” by Jim Stevenson, Ph.D.; Edmund Sonuga-Barke, Ph.D.; Donna McCann, Ph.D.; Kate Grimshaw, M.Sc.; Karen M. Parker, M.S.; Matthew J. Rose-Zerilli, B.Sc.; John W. Holloway, Ph.D.; John O. Warner, M.D. American Journal of Psychiatry Vol. 167, No. 9, 01 Sept 2010.

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