Children who are allergic to food are found to be suffering from anxiety and are increasingly more lonely; One allergic child out of five never attends peers’ parties, while one in four always brings along “safe” food. The burden of food allergies and the risk they can escalate to life-threatening diseases is particularly heavy on children, whose normally active and sociable lifestyle can be severely limited and frustrated by the effort to keep them away from potentially dangerous food.
According to a study presented at the 2011 Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Meeting by the European Academy of Allergy and Clinical Immunology (EAACI), held Feb 17-19 in Venice, Italy, 23 percent of allergic children are no longer curious to try new food to vary their diet, considered too monotonous by most of them. A child out of ten also gives up crucial physical activity for fear of anaphylactic shock triggered by exercise.
“About 17 percent of allergic children, regardless of their age, never go to a party or a picnic with friends, while 24 percent are forced to bring along something to eat,” says Prof. Maria Antonella Muraro, Chair of the EAACI Meeting. The study, headed by Prof. Muraro, was carried out by the Center for the study and treatment of allergies and food intolerances at the hospital of the University of Padua, Italy on 107 young patients and their mothers.
“Also, 5 to 15 per cent of cases of anaphylactic shock can be triggered by physical activity following the consumption of small amounts of allergenic food that would otherwise be harmless, so one allergic child out of ten also stops every kind of exercise,” Prof. Muraro added. “Allergies are often downplayed as a minor problem, but the life of an allergic person can be hell. Allergic children show to be more afraid of being sick and a higher level of anxiety about food than children with diabetes. The constant alarm surrounding them is taking a toll on their development and well-being.”
Another worrisome problem adding to the poor quality of life of allergic patients, especially the younger ones, is the need to carry life-saving devices at all times, such as epinephrine auto-injectors, “loaded” with enough drug to prevent death in case of severe anaphylactic shock. They are easy to use, light to carry and discreet, but one out of three patients still leaves home without them.
“Within 8 or 10 minutes the shot reverses the symptoms, ranging from urticaria to respiratory distress, cardiovascular collapse and gastrointestinal problems including vomiting and diarrhoea,” explains Prof. Muraro. “It can cause minor side effects, such as irritability or tremors that end as soon as the adrenaline is processed by the body, generally within a couple of hours. Patients should not be scared, even those who have a heart disease: the possible side effects are negligible in comparison to the opportunity to save your life.”
The team set out to examine levels of depression and anxiety between adults with celiac disease following a gluten-free diet and in control subjects drawn from the general population.
For their study, the team used the Hospital Anxiety and Depression Scale to measure levels of anxiety, depression, and likely anxiety or depressive disorder, in 441 adult patients with celiac disease recruited by the German Celiac Society. They then conducted the same assessments on 235 comparable patients with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), either in remission or with slight disease activity. They did the same for the cross-sample control group of 441 adults from the general population.
The team used regression analysis to test possible demographic and disease-related predictors of anxiety and depression in celiac disease. Demographic predictors included age, sex, social class, and family status. Disease-related predictors included Latency to diagnosis, duration of GFD, compliance with GFD, thyroid disease.
The team found that female gender (P = 0.01) was the main predictor (R(2) = 0.07) of anxiety levels in patients with celiac disease. Female patients had a higher risk for a probable anxiety disorder (OR = 3.6, 95% CI: 1.3-9.4, P = 0.01) Patients who lived alone (OR = 0.5, 95% CI: 0.2-0.9, P = 0.05) enjoyed a lower risk of anxiety disorder. None of the demographic and medical variables for which the team screened predicted either depression levels or risk for a probable depressive disorders.
Patients with celiac disease showed anxiety levels of 6.6 +/- 3.4, and those with IBD, anxiety levels of 6.9 +/- 3.7, both higher than the general population's level of 4.6 +/- 3.3 – (both P < 0.001). Depression levels were similar for people with celiac disease (4.2 +/- 3.4), IBD (4.6 +/- 3.4) and the general population (4.2 +/- 3.8) (P = 0.3). Rates of likely anxiety disorders in people with celiac disease were 16.8%, and 14.0% for IBD, both higher than the rates of 5.7% in the general population (P < 0.001). All three groups showed similar rates of probable depressive disorder (P = 0.1).
Their results provide strong indications that adult women with celiac disease on a gluten-free diet suffer higher rates of anxiety than persons of the general population. They encourage clinicians to provide anxiety screens for adult women with celiac disease on a gluten-free diet.
To this end, the following emotional variables have been specified: those relative to emotional experience —the frequency of positive and negative emotions, anxiety, low self-esteem and the influence of diet, weight and the body shape on the emotional state—; negative perception of emotions, negative attitude to emotional expression, alexithymia —the inability to identify own emotions and to express them verbally— and the manner of controlling negative emotions.
Moreover, another variable has also been taken into account: the need for control. This variable is not strictly emotional, but has a clear emotional component, given that people with a high need for control, experience anxiety and unwellness when perceiving lack of control.
Study of women
In order to undertake the study, 433 women took part; 143 of these suffered from some kind of eating disorder and 145 in risk of contracting one. The results of the study show that, in general, the majority of the variables put forward can be used as predictive of suffering an eating disorder. The variables which, above all, alert to greater risk of developing an eating disorder are when the emotional state of the person is excessively influenced by diet, weight and body shape, when self-esteem is low, and when, in anxiety situations, emotions are not expressed and the person tends to act in an impulsive manner.
These results have important implications, above all when drawing up prevention programmes for eating disorders. With the data obtained, it can be said that many of the emotional variables dealt with in Ms Pascual's work should be taken into account when drawing up these prevention programmes.
Eating disorders are very serious illnesses that have dire consequences for the sufferer, both physically as well as psychologically and socially, and there are disorders that are evermore widespread. Much research has been undertaken in order to find out the factors involved in their development, but the role played by the various emotional variables at the onset of these disorders has hardly been investigated. This thesis presented at the UPV/EHU focused on this matter more deeply.