What Is an Elimination Diet…and Why Your Mental Health Needs One

What Is an Elimination Diet?

The foods you eat can have a major impact on your moods, anxiety, stress levels, thinking, behaviors, and cognitive function. Subtle but important food allergies may result in brain inflammation that contributes to many issues that people view as “mental health” problems. And it’s more common than you may think with over 20% of the population suffering from a food intolerance issue or food allergy, according to research in The Differential Diagnosis of Food Intolerance.

These food allergies can be delayed, in the sense that bodily reactions to the food items may occur up to several days after consuming the item. Because of this, many people don’t make the connection between something they ate a few hours or days ago and mental or cognitive issues.

Conventional medicine has tended to ignore these reactions to foods. However, a growing body of evidence, as well as over three decades of clinical practice at Amen Clinics, shows that food allergies/sensitivities create a metabolic disorder that can lead to many “mental” symptoms, including:

Over 3 decades of clinical practice at Amen Clinics show that food allergies/sensitivities create a metabolic disorder that can lead to many “mental” symptoms. Click To Tweet

To find out if food allergies may be involved in your issues, it’s a good idea to follow an elimination diet.


An elimination diet temporarily removes potentially allergenic foods and beverages from your diet. After a specific period of time, the foods are re-introduced one at a time to see if they trigger reactions. Foods that cause unpleasant physical, mental, cognitive, or behavioral issues can be eliminated permanently to avoid those problems.

The concept of elimination diets isn’t new. Dr. Doris Rapp, a pediatric allergist and environmental medicine specialist, began describing the benefits over 25 years ago when her pediatric patients with ADHD, aggression, and even autism saw remarkable improvements when they eliminated these foods. Since then, elimination diets have emerged as one of the most important weapons against brain health and mental health issues. It’s part of what has led to the development of an entirely new field of nutritional psychiatry that uses food and supplements as interventions for mental illness.

At Amen Clinics, when patients try an elimination diet for just one month, it often makes a dramatic difference. At this time, food allergy lab tests remain unreliable. The best way to see if you (or your child) are sensitive to certain foods is to eliminate all the potential culprits and add them back one at a time.

(See instructions below detailing how to follow an elimination diet.)


An increasing number of studies are emerging that show elimination diets can be helpful. An example of how effective an elimination diet can be comes from researchers from the Netherlands, who showed a highly restricted diet brought about rapid, lasting improvement in ADHD and oppositional defiant disorder (ODD) in children. The children ate only rice, turkey, lamb, vegetables, fruits, tea, pear juice, and water. No milk products, wheat, or sugar products. No food additives or artificial colors.

In the study, 85% of children who followed the diet showed an improvement of 50% or more and no longer met the criteria for ADHD, and 67% who had ODD no longer met the criteria for that condition. They repeated this study and found similar results. In another study in the European Journal of Pediatrics using the same diet, physical symptoms (headaches and bellyaches) and sleep also improved.

Food additives and colorings can cause hyperactivity in children with no history of the problem, according to a study in the prestigious journal The Lancet (and the neuropsychiatrists at Amen Clinics have found that adults may be affected, too). The study, involving nearly 300 children, found that additives caused symptoms of hyperactivity in both young and older children. These effects occurred not just in children diagnosed with ADHD but also in those with no overt behavior problems.


Here are the steps to follow an elimination diet.

  1. Cut out the following potential food allergens for one month: sugar, gluten, soy, corn, and dairy, as well as artificial sweeteners, dyes, and additives.
  2. After a month, slowly reintroduce food items one at a time every 3-4 days. Eat the reintroduced food at least 2-3 times a day for 3 days to see if you notice a reaction.
  3. Look for symptoms, which can occur within a few minutes or up to 72 hours later. (If you notice a problem right away, stop consuming that food immediately.) Reactions to foods to which you have allergies can include:
  • brain fog
  • difficulty remembering
  • mood issues (anxiety, depression, and anger)
  • nasal congestion
  • chest congestion
  • headaches
  • sleep problems
  • joint aches
  • muscle aches
  • pain
  • fatigue
  • skin changes
  • changes in digestion and bowel functioning
  1. If you have a reaction, note the food and eliminate it for 90 days, or in some cases, permanently.

If you or your child are struggling with issues that aren’t responding to traditional treatment, it’s important to investigate further. The neuropsychiatrists, functional medicine physicians, and nutritionists at Amen Clinics can help.

At Amen Clinics, we’re here for you. We offer in-clinic brain scanning and appointments, as well as mental telehealth, remote clinical evaluations, and video therapy for adults, children, and couples. Find out more by speaking to a specialist today at 888-288-9834 or visit our contact page here.


  1. My Cholesterol is totally under control, with medication from my Physician…..and has been for many years.

    Comment by Marvin Negrin — December 6, 2020 @ 11:46 AM

  2. Another allergy elimination treatment to try would be N.A.E.T.
    Nambudripad Allergy Elimination Technique…!!!

    Comment by John Szewczyk — December 7, 2020 @ 3:27 AM

  3. Ever since I read dr. Amen’s book, Change Your Brain, Change Your Life, I have been a follower and refer has practice and his books too many of my clients as I am an addictions psychotherapist. Keep up the good work and I love these newsletters.

    Comment by D.J. Diebold, CAC, LISAC — December 7, 2020 @ 4:36 AM

  4. What if medications you are taking cause the brain fog and you have to have them as in hypothyroidism?

    Comment by Paula — December 7, 2020 @ 8:09 AM

  5. Allergy Associates of LaCrosse ,Wisconsin have been treating these sensitivities for years, as an outgrowth of Dr. Rapp’s work. They test each antigen one at a time sublingually to assess for a response, in addition to recommending the elimination and rotation diets. This changed my 4 year-old daughter’s life,. She had multiple sensitivities, and her behavior and thinking were extremely disordered . Instead of special ed, she was an honor student without behavior challenges. It takes consistent effort to maintain a special diet, but it’s worth it. With desensitization (again sublingual drops) , she was able to gradually re-add foods and was eating normally by the time she was in junior high. This is worth it!

    Comment by C. Swanson — December 7, 2020 @ 8:16 AM

  6. Wouldn’t it be easier just to take a food allergy test to determine heard you are allergic to?

    Comment by Russell Motter — December 7, 2020 @ 3:51 PM

  7. For Paula: There is a thyroid medication which has ONLY levothyroxine, (T4) no colors, additives, preservatives. It is in a capsule. It is called Tirosint. My patients who have not tolerated the various levothyroxine tablets have done well with Tirosint. Otherwise, some people seem to do well with one brand and not another (Synthroid, Levothroid, etc.) Hope this helps!

    “Tirosint is the brand name for a form of levothyroxine designed for people with allergies to fillers and dyes found in standard formulations. The soft gel capsules contain no dyes, gluten, alcohol, lactose, or sugar. Besides T4, Tirosint contains only three inactive ingredients: gelatin, glycerin, and water.”

    Comment by Kristin — December 8, 2020 @ 8:54 AM

  8. Heart racing or palpitations can also be a symptom of food allergies.

    Comment by Butterfly — December 8, 2020 @ 7:08 PM

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