Saturday, March 13, 2010

Heroes and villains: food intolerance, hypoglycemia, candida and the Failsafe diet – Part 1 of 3

The following, first in a series of four blog entries, goes into a fair bit of detail about my food consumption and intolerances, and therefore may be boring for all but the most allergy-ridden. I’m on a restricted diet, and once I had mentioned particular foods I wasn’t eating, it seemed necessary to mention all the foods in my diet, otherwise it wouldn’t be clear what I was giving up.

Usually the sudden appearance of itchy welts on the legs, stomach and arms would be a matter of some concern. For me, with my body image issues, it was a disaster of mammoth proportions. After taking a few days to stare in horror at the welts – some of which were admittedly quite creepy, starting off red then turning into bruises – I finally faced the fact I’d been avoiding for the past five years: I was probably intolerant of a number of food chemicals.

My dietary life at the moment appears to be grimmer than ever before. Not only can’t I eat dairy, gluten, yeast and anything sweet, but I’m also probably sensitive to amines and salicylates, two natural chemicals that occur in many, many, foods (ironically, these chemicals add flavour to the food!). My immune system has turned against me, and I’m in extreme dietary blandsville. Also lost to me is the simple pleasure of eating a meal out with friends.

Why did I come to this grim conclusion?

There really weren’t any other culprits to blame. I’d been more or less avoiding gluten, lactose, yeast and alcohol for over a decade, and been religiously off sugar for about two decades as a result of reactive hypoglycemia (low blood sugar), a condition in which the pancreas can’t deal with concentrated sugar.

Hypoglycemia has been linked with the overgrowth of candida, a natural fungus, in the digestive system. I’ve therefore spent at least the last decade on a half-hearted anti-candida diet, which entails avoidance of any foods that could produce yeast in the gut. However, I couldn’t give up real coffee, which was disastrous for my blood sugar.

I finally managed to give coffee up completely in 2002, but the anti-candida diet’s remained a tad half-hearted, mainly because, in order for me to stay sane, it included tofu, tinned fish, shelled nuts and store-bought hummus. To this day, I can’t tell you if the diet’s half-hearted because it never made me better and I got discouraged; or whether its half-heartedness was why I never got better. Perhaps a bit of both.

At one point I did attack my presumed candida with a course of an anti-fungal drug, Nystatin, and I took vitamin supplements for years, but I never embarked on that full-on assault with probiotics and massive doses of garlic that you’re supposed to. I still feel vague and out of sorts on cold, cloudy days, and I’m reactive to any hint of carbohydrate, even the complex carbohydrates that occur in grains and vegetables, both of which suggest some kind of lingering yeast problem.

Apart from the exceptions outlined above, I had already made some additional food sacrifices. I got rosacea five years ago, and that’s when I stopped eating the flavoursome foods I loved – most of the time, anyway. Most herbs and spices were out, as well as garlic, onion, red meat, treats like tinned tomatoes, and eventually even fresh fish. But there were also perfectly harmless-seeming vegetables that inexplicably gave me a red face, like zucchini. However, I still ate these forbidden foods occasionally when I was willing to put up with redness. Coffee and alcohol are common causes of rosacea, but I was already off those.

My rosacea and candida food lapses (practitioners sometimes call these ‘dietary indiscretions’) had been getting worse in recent months. I’d started eating roasted cashews a few times a week, as well as tomatoes. I was also eating out once a month or so, picking the safer options at vegetarian and Asian restaurants. Store-bought hummus was becoming a weekly treat, and once in a blue moon I would eat a whole 250 g block of cheddar cheese for lunch. When I look back, my diet was becoming steadily higher in amines, natural chemicals that tend to be in aged and preserved foods.

I could ignore occasional red cheeks, but not these horror hives. So when they sprang up, almost two months ago now, I was forced to research foods that were low in amines and salicylates, and sure enough, the treats I’d been allowing myself were full of them. So I gave up anything that wasn’t low in amines and salicylates. And the hives have mostly gone, suggesting that the food chemicals were to blame.

Interestingly, though, the rosacea hasn’t gone, so the picture is probably even more complex. I still believe that there is a connection between rosacea and food chemicals, however, because I inadvertently gave up some salicylates when I first got rosacea and stopped eating herbs and spices, and I’ve got no doubt my rosacea would be worse if I hadn’t.

At the moment I’m trying to get an appointment at an allergy clinic at the Alfred Hospital (a whole other story – the hospital has so far not even been able to confirm that it received my referral, now faxed to them four times). I need to know for sure whether I am intolerant of these chemicals, and whether or not there’s a way of making me less intolerant, for example an underlying digestive weakness that could be fixed, or even a thyroid problem, said to be a cause of food intolerance.

At the moment the only foods I’m officially eating are chicken, brown rice, tofu, eggs, cold-pressed safflower oil, chickpeas, quinoa (a gluten-free grain), celery, raw cashews and cabbage! (Fruits that are low in amines and salicylates are out because of my blood sugar problem.)


Learning to tolerate food intolerance
Food intolerance differs from food allergy in a number of ways. True allergies are the body’s immediate immune response and occur as a reaction to proteins in foods. With food intolerance the digestive system is involved, the intolerance is to particular chemicals in the food, and there is a longer onset between ingesting the food and a reaction appearing. It is harder to diagnose food intolerance for the latter reason, but there may be an advantage too: some say that if you go without the foods containing the offending chemicals for long enough, the body will no longer produce the antibodies against the chemicals, and you will be able to tolerate small amounts of those foods.

Apparently food intolerance produces an addiction to the food and a craving when it is removed from the diet. While withdrawing from amines and salicylates, I not only felt exhausted but craved amines like never before. It’s a very different craving from the desire for sugar or yeast. The yearning seemed to be for the taste of the food rather than the sugar content, which is what amines are all about I guess.

During this period I wanted, more than anything else, rich tangy hummus with falafel. (This probably sounds like a bland craving to have, but to me these foods are tasty treats!). My whole body wanted not concentrated sugar but concentrated flavour. The cravings have now diminished but, like a dysfunctional relationship that still beckons, I’d go back to amines in a second if I thought I could get away with it.

Having said that, I’m thinking more clearly than before I gave up the amines and salicylates – when alone especially, I notice my brain seems to be working better. I know that sounds weird but it’s the only way I can describe it.

And I do wonder whether this sensitivity could have been the main game all along rather than a side issue. In other words, perhaps it’s contributed to my low blood sugar problems, not to mention my lack of energy. On the other hand, low blood sugar could still be the main culprit, because it supposedly leads to too much insulin washing around in the system; insulin is a hormone, and too much of it can supposedly have adverse effects on other bodily processes.

Stop press: I gave in last night and ate some store-bought hummus, and there were a couple of hives on my knee this morning.

In my next post I’ll look at the Failsafe diet, which is low in food chemicals.


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