A doctor once told me that allergies are imagined, they did not exist. Allergies are very real, they can cause a wide variety of responses and a lot of discomfort, frustration and pain. Even today many doctors do not consider allergy as a possible cause of an illness until they have first eradicated many other possibilities, leaving the allergy option as the last consideration.
I suffered with allergies for many years when I was younger and the word suffer is not lightly used, I had pain and discomfort for four or five days most weeks, had difficulty concentrating at times, I was easily irritated and short tempered so I wasn’t the only one who suffered, those around me also suffered at times.
I think that unless you have been down this road yourself it may be difficult to understand the impact that allergic reactions can have on your life. It’s not just a case of sneezing a little in hay fever season, it can impact on your mental health, your relationships, your temperament, your willingness or ability to socialise. You may have little respite between bouts of reactions and sometimes that respite period may be fraught with anxiety about when or why the next bout is going to happen.
Between the years of my early teens and my mid twenties I had regular bouts of sinusitis and/or chronic rhinitis, there were times when I had more days of being unwell than I did good days. There were days when I sneezed and sniffled all day long which was not just uncomfortable, it was also very tiring and dehydrating. My face would get a rash from the irritation of nose blowing so I often used nappy rash cream to ease it. Sometimes my nose would just run as though a tap were left turned on and I had no control over it, I could not stop the drip which was extremely embarrassing, all I could do was use tissues as a stopper until it ceased.
At other times the sinus headaches were very debilitating, I usually had a headache on the right side of my head only, my ear, my teeth and my cheek bones hurt, even the skin of my face was at times sensitive to touch. It was difficult to concentrate on school/college work, exam time was always especially difficult as it usually coincides with hay fever season and in later years it was difficult to concentrate at work.
The family doctor always prescribed antibiotics, I think they were a panacea for my parents as they never provided me with any relief and when I was old enough to be allowed to monitor my own pill taking I stopped taking them. The length of time that a bad bout of sinus pain lasted never changed whether or not I took the antibiotics so I reckoned that I was better off not taking them – I was always a stubborn kid.
The doc also sometimes mentioned surgery as an option, thankfully he was frank about the chance of success being only about 50%, also letting us know that if the surgery was not successful there was a chance that the discomfort would actually be increased. I am thankful that he never pushed this idea and very glad that I never went down that route.
We are talking about the late 70s here, into the early 80s. Allergies were not common knowledge. While we knew about hay fever very few people knew anything about food allergies and doctors certainly never mentioned them in my experience. Even many years later I had a doctor tell me that allergies were make believe, they did not really exist. I put up with the discomfort, taking pain killers when they would help however they often didn’t help at all and I seemed to develop a sense for when they were worth taking and when they weren’t.
As I got older I learned to live with the symptoms, it was just part of my normal existence. I was not social when my head hurt badly and would just spend time alone as it was easier, noise often hurt as did trying to engage in conversations. I could sometimes tell when a bad sneezing bout was imminent and if I was driving or cycling I would pull into the side of the road until it subsided as it was not safe to be driving when sneezing explosively or for an extended period.
Towards the end of the 80s my elder sister returned from a few years in America where she had learned about food allergies. She had skin prick testing done herself and felt that life was improving for her so she persuaded my parents to make an appointment for me with an allergist that she found about an hour away from my home town and I was persuaded to return from London where I was living and working at the time. Frankly I was skeptical, I had become accustomed to living with the discomfort and accepted that nothing was going to change however I decided to give it a try on condition that it did not involve skin pricking. My sister had had similar nasal problems to myself and she had gone on to develop asthma so I was keen to avoid this outcome. The methodology used by this allergists was Vega testing which I was assured was non-invasive and so I went along with the plan.
I thought the whole procedure was like something out of “The Twilight Zone” as the machine being used was quite strange. The diagnosis was that I was allergic to damp moulds, potatoes, eggs, citrus fruits and a number of grass and tree pollens, I was also told to strictly avoid all dairy products and MSG as they worsened my symptoms. Instructions were to begin a detox period immediately which I don’t remember much about only that it involved epsom salts and I was advised to be conveniently close to a toilet in the early days!
I was very disciplined in following all instructions despite my skepticism reckoning that if I was going to give it a go then the least I could do it properly. I returned to London after a short break and began to learn to read labels in the supermarket. I was lucky to be living in London as the world of food there was so much broader than it was in Galway in 1989. Apart from occasionally dreaming about cooking Spanish omelets which I never got to eat as I always woke up just as the fork was on it’s way to my mouth, I adjusted to my new diet. Of course I missed the food I was no longer eating and was surprised how may things contained eggs. I could no longer accept food socially unless I saw the package so I mostly stuck with “real” foods, after a time I learnt what foods were safe and what weren’t, I was even able to tell with one bite if a biscuit contained egg, sometimes I could smell it! This was quite astonishing considering that for years I couldn’t depend on my sense of smell at all.
There were times at the beginning when I wondered whether my improvement just a matter of believing that I was allergic to these foods rather than an actual allergy however that notion was quickly quashed when I accidentally ate some potato starch in a vegetarian mushroom pate and within an hour had an explosive sneezing fit. I thought it was quite funny actually as I was in a health food shop when I felt the heat run though my body and quickly began to strip off jackets and jumpers all the while sneezing explosively, the poor guy at the desk was understandably concerned but I was able to ensure him that I was fine when it abated.
It took some time however my life improved beyond my imagining and my temper improved so much that family and friends commented that I was becoming a really patient person – patience had never been my strong suit. Relationships were easier as was socialising. People noticed how restrictive my food choices had become however I always said that it was worth it for the quality of life I now had – I know that is something that paleo and primal eaters will agree with.
I still had trouble with hay fever and damp moulds and occasional sinusitis problems but nothing like before. Of course by paleo standards my diet was pretty bad as I ate lots of pasta and tvp, dranks lots of soya milk but also ate rice often, only occasionally eating real meat however as I was highly active and fit the weight didn’t start to pile on until I reached my late thirties.
One time in the early 90s I ate some yams thinking that as they were not the same family as potatoes I should be fine, I really enjoyed eating them as I had missed that texture in my food however I became severely depressed for two weeks which was astonishing. During all the years that I suffered the discomfort of rhinitis and sinusitis I never succumbed to depression so I had to consider that the yams were connected to this strange episode. Six months later I decided to try again in order to ascertain if it had been the yams and sure enough, I became depressed again, a very bad case of the blues lasting just two weeks. I guess that my allergist had not tested me for yams as they would not have been a common food and I’ve not tested for them since but I do avoid them now.
Thankfully my allergy to eggs seems to have abated over the years, some years back I slowly added them back into my diet starting with allowing myself a little bit of cake containing egg and monitoring my reaction or lack thereof. Eventually I worked up to eating an actual egg, having no more than one egg for a week or two but oh, the joy! Eggs now tasted so good and luckily I seemed to have no reaction, these days I often eat 3 or even 4 at a sitting without any problem. Buoyed up by the egg experiment I went on to try citrus fruits and I can still remember the excitement when I ate my first orange after almost twenty years – it was like an explosion of taste sensation in my mouth.
I avoid all nightshades now in order to reduce joint aches and perhaps my early years of food discipline stood to me when I changed to eating a paleo diet as I just decided what I was avoiding, what I was eating and seemed to not much trouble adjusting. I eat butter regularly however I don’t take milk, yoghourt or cow’s cheese on a daily basis as I still notice an increase in nasal unhappiness if I indulge too often.
My experience has taught me that the foods we eat can affect our bodies and our minds. I know that many people are skeptical, as I was, that food might have an impact on mental or physical health and so although I may mention my experience I don’t try to convince them. However it is difficult when you know that someone is suffering from something that may be alleviated by diet changes and they can’t see it themselves or their doctor may not be open to the idea of food being medicine.
It’s possible that in being unwell you become so impatient with the whole experience that you just don’t want to hear anyone’s opinion and are eager to believe that the quick fix is the answer when mostly it’s not. Mostly it takes some time, your body needs time to adjust to dietary changes and if your gut is not healed then dietary changes may not have much impact so it takes longer and requires more patience.
It is not easy but it is worth it, if only you can believe that it is worth trying and sticking with the changes.
Do you have an allergy story to share? How did you cope and have you found a way to ease the reactions? Please share in the comments, I’d love to hear from you…