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As our son grew older he started exhibiting behavior problems. We thought they were just part of normal development. Hyperactivity, lack of focus, impulsiveness, emotional outbursts, we thought it was a phase he was going through, something that he would grow out of. But it became apparent that this was not the case.
When our son was in second grade he had problems concentrating on his homework. One day I asked him if he could just please sit still and concentrate. He said "I can't concentrate mom, my brain buzzes." I was stunned! His brain buzzed?! I have a PhD in Cognitive Neuroscience. If I had learned anything in graduate school, it was that brains aren't supposed to buzz. I started researching books, published research articles, and antidotal stories. I found that Red #40 could cause hyperactivity in some children (Arnold et.al, 2012, Aungst, 2011, Bateman et. Al, 2011). It made them hyper, fidgety, and impulsive. One personal anecdotal story even mentioned how her 15 year old daughter complained of brain buzzing. So we removed the Red #40 from his diet, and within a couple of days, the brain buzzing stopped. But, we let him continue to consume foods with other dyes like Yellow #5 and #6. That would prove to have been a huge mistake.
Within a few months he started becoming agitated and emotional. Our son is a very sweet boy and for him to become combative, angry, and emotionally temperamental was strange. He started having emotional breakdowns and throw temper tantrums over minor things like putting clothes away or turning off the television. We didn't think it was a major problem until the meltdowns became more frequent. Their occurrence went from once a week to several times a day. They also became more intense, from crying to hitting and self-hurting behaviors like scratching. Then, he became suicidal. Yes, our son was suicidal at age seven.
It had been a long day. Our seven-year-old was sitting in front of the television unwinding when I asked him to turn off the TV because it was time for dinner. Instead of turning the TV off he started to become upset. He began to cry and to pull at his clothes and then he began to scream. I told him this was unacceptable behavior and sent him to his room. Once he got to his room he started throwing things, screaming, becoming extremely emotional and aggressive. I went in to talk to him and he started hitting me and crying uncontrollably. I asked him why he was so upset he kept saying, “I don't know I don't know.” Through the tears and the sobs he looked up at me and begged, “Mom just give me a knife so I can kill myself, I just want to die.” I just sat there holding him, trying to console him. Honestly, I did not know what to do. My heart would break every time he got like this. I wish I could say that this was the first time I had heard him beg for me to let him kill himself. It wasn't. Looking back, my husband and I can't count how many times he got so upset and then pleaded to be able to end his own life. We didn't know what was going on but I knew I had to figure it out.
That night I went back to looking for answers, searching and researching. I found an article that suggested that some children became agitated after ingesting Yellow #5 (Rowe & Rowe, 1994). I made the decision to remove all artificial food dyes from our home in an attempt to see if that would help reduce some of the emotional reactivity. I went from cupboard to cupboard and read every ingredient in everything we had. I was surprised at just how many things contained artificial food dyes. Red, Blue, and Green are nearly obvious in the foods that they color. We know there are no blue raspberries. Bright red food doesn’t exist unless they are fresh fruits or vegetables. Electric green isn't even found in edible nature. But Yellow dyes are different, they are used to make foods look more normal. They are placed in things that aren't even yellow, like sauces, pickles, breakfast cereals, condiments, meat marinades, and the list goes on. To this day Yellow seems to be the most difficult to avoid.
After I cleaned out the house I went and bought food that didn't contain artificial food dyes. It took a while at the store. I read a lot of labels, but I found many of the items that contained artificial dyes had competing brands that did not contain artificial colors. I restocked our house and our dye-free living began.
The very next day our son woke up exhausted. I thought that he was just emotionally wiped from the extreme temper tantrum from the day before. This was not the case. His body was not getting the artificial dyes and he was detoxing. He went from his bed in the bedroom to the couch in the living room and stayed on the couch all day. He was so tired. All he craved was glasses of milk and chunks of cheese. For the next few days he came out from his bedroom and went back to his place on the couch. He was tired and groggy asking for more cheese and milk. He complained that his body hurt. When I touched his arm he winced. It was as if his body was bruised from head to toe. He ached. His eating cheese and excessive sleeping continued for an entire week. Fortunately, it was during the summer break and he could do this without missing school. The neighborhood kids would come to play but he could only play outside for more than five or 10 minutes before he became really tired. He had very little stamina. Can you believe it took three months before he could play with the kids outside for more than 30 minutes? Fortunately is only took two weeks for the negative behaviors, like the aggression, combativeness, and excessive emotionality, to go away. However, it took six months before he felt like himself again. Thankfully, he has never again felt like he wanted to kill himself.
I was astonished that artificial food dyes could change and affect my child's mind and body so strongly. It was hard for me to believe that an artificial dye could do this to him. But over the years he's accidentally ingested artificial dyes and those behaviors come back. Time and again he unknowingly eats something with Yellow #5 or #6 and within four hours he becomes moody, irritable, combative, argumentative, and extremely agitated and emotional. We're often confused by his behavior because neither he nor we knew he ingested food containing artificial dye. He is extremely cautious and reads every label in order to avoid ingesting artificial dyes but not all foods contain labels. For example, he went to a local fast food restaurant with grandma and had two cheeseburgers. We didn't think to check the cheese for Yellow food coloring. Within a few hours he was combative and agitated. He even became extremely angry with me for making him stop vacuuming so we could go to the store. What kids gets mad at having to stop vacuuming? It wasn't until the next day when I started back tracking in order to figure out what he had eaten the day. I called the restaurant and found out that their cheese does in fact contain Yellow #5 and #6. Time and again when he acts out of the ordinary we can trace it back to an accidental ingestion of artificial food dyes. I like to refer to those times as our own “double blind research trials”.
Interestingly, one thing we have learned over the last 4 years is that he doesn't react the same to each artificial food dye. Different artificial dyes correspond to different behaviors and behavioral disorders. Red dyes make him hyper, fidgety, impulsive, and causes brain buzzing. He acts like he has ADHD. Green makes him manic, like he has Bipolar disorder. Yellow causes agitation, aggression, defiance, excessive emotionality, emotional meltdowns, and suicidal thoughts. He acts as if he has Oppositional Defiant Disorder and Conduct Disorder. Blue makes him agitated and tired. As of now, there is no disorder for that.
I want to remind you that not all kids have this type of reaction to artificial food dyes. But for those that do, it can be devastating. These kids do not know that they are having a reaction to dyes and this makes life very difficult for them. They keep eating the very thing that is causing the problem. Many are even put on medications to control the behaviors. Ironically, most of the medications they are put on contain artificial dyes.
There is an easy way to check and see if a child is having a reaction to artificial food dyes. Remove all food that contain artificial dyes/colors from their diet for two weeks. Just two weeks. You will know within five to seven days if their behaviors are due to the ingestion of artificial food dyes. If they are “food dye intolerant” then without the dyes in their diet their behaviors will change. If there is no change then they are not having a reaction to artificial food dyes. It really is a simple test. I understand that having your children completely avoid artificial food dyes for two weeks is no easy task, however, it is worth it. Just tell them that this is an experiment and that you need their cooperation. Most kids who are experiencing behavioral problems do not like the way they feel and are pretty cooperative when it comes to finding answers and solutions.