I wrote this blog to help people research and solve health issues they may have and to know they are not alone in their struggles. Empathy is better than sympathy. I feel your pain. Read on but I always suggest talking to your doctor or nutritionist before you make any dietary changes.
In 2009, I was in my living room enjoying some seedless red grapes. I’d eaten them on numerous occasions and loved them. But, this particular time I noticed about 15 minutes after eating the entire bag, I felt a strange burning sensation in my stomach as my body temperature rose. I ignored it, continuing to watch TV. After a few minutes I felt extreme pressure behind my eyes as if they were about to explode and pop out of my head. I sat up and turned to my wife, who was cooking in the kitchen. “Hey hon, I feel weird, I’m going to go lay down”. She looked up from what she was doing and with an expression of a person staring a grizzly in the face, blurting “Oh. My. Gosh…what is wrong?” That did nothing to calm my nerves. I asked what she meant and she began to stutter something about my face being red and totally swollen. At that point, my body was telling me that something was drastically wrong; my heart began quivering with arrhythmias. I told her, “This might be a heart attack. Call 911!” We waited for the paramedics (which seemed like years), my mind racing about what could be the culprit. Were all those stops at Burger King and Poppa John’s during college catching up to me? Were the sins of my past binge drinking nights out to even the score? Or was my type AAAA personality telling me that my time was up? I was scared.
The paramedics arrived and checked my vital signs, which were pretty normal. They said I appeared to be ok but they’d take me to the hospital if I would like to go. Then one of them asked, “Are you having trouble breathing? There’s welts all over your neck.” I noticed my breathing had become very labored. They took me to the emergency after realizing I was in “anaphylactic shock”, a potentially fatal allergic reaction to…something. It turned out to be the red grapes I ate. I didn’t fully comprehend how this was possible because I’ve eaten them so many times without an issue. During a follow up trip to the allergy doctor at a major university in Chicago, I was tested for a grape allergy. After the results were in, the Doc advised that my reaction didn’t happen because of the grapes. In my heart, I knew it was the grapes. He said it was not possible to be allergic to only a certain grape and I had experienced idiopathic anaphylaxis, which in layman’s terms means there is no known cause. But, my gut believed otherwise.
When I got home I took one of the remaining grapes and performed my own allergy test, scraping my arm and rubbing the grape onto the open skin. BANG. My arm swelled with welts. On my follow up visit, the doctor still insisted I was wrong. I brought the grapes in and asked him to test me right there. To his amazement my arm blew up. He said this was a rare case and he hadn’t seen anything like it in his 25 years of practice, calling all his “allergy fellows” in to witness the “rare” circumstance.
In my opinion, my circumstance was not rare. I believe doctors think they know more about people’s bodies than the people themselves; this is why many people suffer more than they need to. A lack of knowledge and dependence on doctors attempting to learn all there is to know about their patient in a 15 minute schedule block. Treating a template instead of coming up with an individualized plan. As patients we feel hopeless and depressed.
The truth is, you know your body better than anyone. Allergies to foods and various environmental factors can affect us in one of two ways. It can be immediate and without question that something is wrong or it can be like a festering sore that won’t go away. If it is the latter, many times it can be difficult to determine what the exact cause is and why you may have an unrelenting head ache, feel tired, itchy, have a runny nose, eczema, body aches, joint pain, a stuffy nose or a stomach that feels like an angry relative that won’t go away. These are all low-level symptoms of allergies or intolerances. They don’t cause anaphylactic shock and can be extremely hard to determine what is the exact culprit. Many of us just chalk it up to aging or an unrelenting cold or something else, hoping it goes away on its own. In addition, most reactions don’t stop even though the allergen has been removed. There is a residual reaction in which the body continues to react sometimes for even weeks after. This too can make figuring out what caused your symptoms even more complicating.
As I reached my forties I notice my joints were really stiff. Stretching helped but the stiffness was back the next day. I would have good days and bad days, searching and paying for the wisdom and touch of physical therapists, doctors, acupuncturists, chiropractors, naturopaths, gastroenterologists, endocrinologists–even herbal specialists. But, there was no relief; all of them sang the notes to the same tune—it was the result of aging combined with years of excessive weight lifting. No magic solution. Basically, I was relegated to managing my pain until I reached Moses’ side of eternity.
But the search went on well into my fifties–with no relief! I almost began to accept it as something I had to deal with. Every now and then I would see someone else from my past who also performed the same athletic activities I did. They, too had been doing them they’re entire life and yet, miraculously, they were just fine. I knew there was an underlying cause and I was determined to get to the bottom of it.
I started to pour over every tidbit of information on pain and inflammation I could get my desperate type A hands on. One day I happened upon an article describing food intolerances (not allergy) as a possible culprit for many of pain symptoms. I didn’t think I could have a food allergy or intolerance because I’ve eaten extremely well and clean for many years; pretty much eating the same things with an occasional box of Dove bars (yes a whole box—don’t judge) or perhaps a box or two of little Debbie snack cakes. (but they’re ‘Little Debbies’…) My sweet tooth is the strongest muscle in my body. I experimented with an elimination diet, getting rid of the usual suspects. My diet wasn’t heavy on dairy, gluten, soy, GMO (genetically modified organism) or MSG (Monosodium glutamate) to begin with so cutting these out wasn’t a big hoopla.
I still felt the same, which was very discouraging. I looked good on the outside, but my body felt like it was 80 years old. This went on for 10 years, until I was 53 years old.
During one of my search and destroy missions I located a book written by doctor William E. Walsh, an allergy specialist located in Minnesota. His book- “Food Allergies, The complete guide to understanding and relieving your food allergies”. This amazing book helped me understand the cause and effect of what was occurring in my body and why. Learning the ‘whys’ makes change (and carrots) easier to digest. As I mentioned I tried an elimination diet with no luck. Never in a million years did I consider that foods like: coconut milk, onions, garlic, lentils, tomatoes, oatmeal and fruits such as, apples, bananas, avocados, and plums, coffee, almonds and eggs which I’ve eaten for years, would be the cause of my body feeling as if it was fighting a constant low level flu. Those items were not eliminated in my previous attempt because I always considered these “healthy foods”.
I was amazed that many of the things I had problems with were foods my dad had trouble with as well. Of course, that never stopped him from eating them; he was at peace with his patchy eczema skin, bloated stomach and intestinal gas, unconcerned with how the rest of the world felt about it. He continued eating the foods he loved. My dad and I are different that way; I prefer to live pain free. Food is not my life—activity is. Whenever I see the previously mentioned foods that was causing such pain and distress, it was easy for me to avoid. My body’s biggest enemies are: eggs, garlic, onions, fruits and some fats (avocados) . Theses foods make me feel stiff and more sluggish especially that velvety green avocado…I won’t even go there…because it hurts too much to think about it.
To determine what was causing my problems, I followed a plant based diet. The only meats I ate were turkey, salmon and trout. This plan was called the ‘Autoimmune protocol’. When I was doing this, I felt like my fantastic, supple self again. My joints felt oiled, my runny nose dried up, the sluggishness was gone.
Many people are allergic to certain plants and it’s important to keep that in mind. Nightshade vegetables cause havoc for me to (tomatoes, bell peppers, egg plant and white potatoes) and when seasonal allergies kick up (Ragweed, crab grass, mold, dust etc), my immune system is in a tizzy. Why do we suffer more during allergy season? Dr. Walsh explained that during allergy season, our body has a limited capacity to combat other histamines’ released from various foods because it’s already working overtime on all that stuff going on in the air. So during allergy season our bodies are taxed to the max. For the immune system equipped to handle Disney’s Lazy River, this is a tsunami of a problem. Another interesting aspect to research. Foods that are from the same family you are allergic to. For me one was camomile tea. I am allergic to “ragweed”. Camomile tea is from that family. Hense, that soothing tea was also an issue for me as well.
I recently woke up with hives all over my body which was later diagnosed as Urticaria. This happened for a couple of months. Every morning my body looked as if angry wasps had ravaged it as I slept. It was alarming. Going to the doctor did not calm me like I thought it would as I learned that approximately thirty percent of the population suffers from some form urticaria and the medical community has no idea what could be the cause of it. Determined not to become one of the thirty percent; I’d find the cause of mine. It was difficult to pin point because the reaction would be found the minute I got out of bed. I wondered how I could have hives if I hadn’t eaten in almost eight hours? I thought maybe I was allergic to my house or bed or even the wool rug so I stayed at a hotel for two nights. I still got the damn hives. I thought, Could it be the laundry detergent? My sunblock? That sticky strip on my razor? I had no idea what was causing it because nothing in my diet was different.
I had a referral with an allergist who refused to see me until my symptoms alleviated. Well that was super encouraging, especially since many people experience chronic Urticaria, which never goes away. Once again, I was on my own. I experimented with the ‘Autoimmune diet’ and the culprits I was consuming turned out to be chocolate and chamomile tea. I know this because I stopped eating chocolate and when I reintroduced it within 15 minutes of eating, a ninety percent cocoa bar, my body was full of hives. I was relieved to finally know the cause…and at the same time, totally depressed. Why chocolate, God? Noooooo… I discovered my body’s beef with Chamomile because that stuff is in the ragweed grass family and I already know that I am highly allergic to that. I took camomile before bed all the time which is why I woke up with hives.
Below is a list of some of the complex food allergies people may experience but have no idea what is the cause. I won’t go into too much detail here because everyone is different and it can be time consuming. It’s up to you to determine what may be causing your discomfort. This list will NOT include the more common irritants like: peanuts, dairy, gluten, and shell fish. Dr. Walsh calls the main culprits- M.A.L.S. An acronym for the list below.
- Monosodium glutamate or MSG as it is known. It gives food it’s flavor and is prevalent in many things. MSG or anything that has glutamic acid in high amounts can trigger symptoms. Glutamic acid can be hidden in labels as glutamate. Other foods like peas, corn, mushrooms and tomatoes are naturally high in glutamic acid but they are bonded differently than pure MSG so many people have no problems with them. Added to the list are fermented foods like cheeses. The fermenting process breaks down the foods into its constituent amino acids subsequently releasing glutamic acid producing MSG. What else is fermented- think alcohol? More specifically wine. Wines have citric acid and tartic acid. When their amino acids break down during fermentation we form glutamic acid. Hence, this combo (acid and MSG) is what is probably causing that hangover after your wine tasting.
- Acids like aspartic acid (Think aspartame), glutamic acid (MSG), phosphoric acid (Think soda pop), citric acid (vitamin C) and malic acid (think fruits) and Tartic acid (think wines) Note: Aspartame, which is made from aspartic acid is an artificial sweetener. Along with glutamic acid, they are also considered neurotoxins. They can aggravate nerves especially ones under the skin. The capillaries swell and place pressure on the nerves and by this mechanism they can cause eruptions in the skin. Another interesting aspect is that a potato is related to a tomato. They grow from the same plant. Tomato grows up and a potato grows down. Both are acidic.
- Low calorie sweeteners, and the most commonly used ones are aspartame and saccharin. Why? Because they are the cheapest and they are just about in everything that claims to be low calorie or sugar free. Aspartame is made up of two amino acids, which are in most foods. Aspartic acid and phenylalanine. The problem lies in their protein bonds. We get these same amino acids in foods, however their bonds are more complex and take far longer to break. Also, remember they are acids and in the form of low calorie sweeteners their bonds are broken much quicker and released in large amounts into the system. Bang- we got overload, especially if you are sensitive to acidic foods. Along with glutamic acid, aspartic acid is what’s called an excitotoxic acid because of its ability to excite and stimulate nerve cells. In this case over excite them. In excess quantities this may lead to nerve degeneration according to Dr. Walsh. Serious stuff.
- Sugar refined. This is the category for me that hurt the most. I love sugar and it was really hard to cut it out completely. However for me the pain overrides the pleasure especially since the pleasure is short lived and the pain lasts a lot longer! It seems according to Dr. Walsh that sugars main effect seems to be on the nerves of the body and in particular the brain. Can you say hyperactivity? Many of the reactive symptoms are similar to other toxins affecting the nerves like MSG and other acids. I was shocked to see how many sugars are disguised in food labels with exotic and healthy sounding “natural” names like brown sugar, honey, maple sugar as well as molasses and the obvious ones like corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup and granulated sugar. On another note– most stevia, is usually not pure stevia. If you look at the ingredients more times than not it contains dextrose and if it’s the first ingredient on the list it has a lot of dextrose. Dextrose is genetically manufactured from corn and the process is long and complicated. So read labels folks.
In closing I can’t emphasize just how important it is to become more aware about what we put in our mouths. I do feel many of the food allergies today are a result of what Dr. Walsh outlines in his book. The biggest reason people rarely find relief is it’s extremely hard to stay committed to the dietary changes that need to be made. Most people don’t want to change, accept defeat and claim it didn’t work. A body requires at least thirty days of TOTAL abstinence. Then begin reintroducing suspect foods. Consider doing the whole30 diet in place of the ‘Auto-immune protocol’. Both are good temporary plans for healing. I also believe many suffer from what’s called leaky gut. This is a disorder in which the stomach lining weakens, “leaking” food proteins into the blood, triggering an immune response. More often than not if you take time to heal the gut, you will fix the problem. But, this is an entirely different topic and my irritable bowel blog has some points regarding the gut.
The issues I’ve discussed are only the tip of the iceberg. I highly suggest reading Dr. Walsh’s book “Food Allergies, The complete guide to understanding and relieving your food allergies”.
The food available today, including many fruits and vegetables, are nothing like the food our grandparent’s produced. In addition, our soil is not the same and much of the mineral rich dirt has been lost to urban development and pesticides and toxins.
I hope this article gives you hope as your search for relief and healing. Let me assure you, no matter how alien you feel as you ask the waiter if your dish has garlic in it, you’re not on this journey alone.