June 7, 2010

When food hurts – The Boston Globe

Filed under: Allergies, Food, Health, Personal Blog — marcstober @ 1:00 pm

It remains a mystery why, in some people, the immune system responds like a fly swatter to a food allergen while in others, the cavalry is summoned, cannons blasting.

via When food hurts – The Boston Globe.

The “fly swatter” resonates with me. It is indeed a confusing mystery as to whether some itch or tingle is an allergy, something else (which still wouldn’t explain the positive allergy tests), or just me being overly sensitive. Or God forbid, a warning of a worse reaction, which I’ve never had but is in my family history. It’s just good to see the popular media acknowledge this. Everything you find online (including from the food-allergy advocacy groups, unfortunately) tends be along the lines of “kids can die from food allergies; and if it doesn’t kill you, you’re just making it up.”

My only issue that this doesn’t cover is trying to keep kosher but ordering the steak because who knows what combination of nuts and seeds the veggie burger will be fortified with (and I don’t really want to go into it all with the server).

November 24, 2009

Two Weeks on a Vegan Diet

Filed under: Allergies, Food, Health — marcstober @ 12:06 am

At the urging of a health care provider, and armed with a new copy of Veganomicon: The Ultimate Vegan Cookbook, I tried an essentially vegan diet for two weeks. This means no mean, poultry, fish, eggs, or dairy. It also means no cream in my coffee, and rules out most commercial baked goods, which usually contain some egg or dairy ingredient.

How did it work out? I feel great! Then again, I expected I would; for whatever reason, I’ve never particularly enjoyed a lot of meat in my diet. I feel more relaxed and energetic, and may have even started to lose a little weight.

Of couse, I can’t tell if I’m actually reducing my risk of diabetes or cancer, as Colin Campbell claims of no-animal-protein diets in The China Study. I’m not sure anyone can conclusively prove that one long-term diet is better than another, and discern its impact from genetic and other factors that cause disease. But it seems right, and it doesn’t make sense to ignore reasonable evidence when it’s impossible to have a conclusive proof.

I feel that the whole exercise was a bit of a Trojan Horse. For two weeks, I did a lot of cooking from scratch, ate more and better vegetables and less junk food, and rarely ate from restaurants. I think I would have been healthier than usual on that plan even with a piece of fish or even a hamburger added in.

This experience did cement in my mind the uselessness of an ovo-lacto vegetarian diet. There was a period in my early 20’s when I primarily ate “kosher dairy” that included fish, dairy products (lots of cheese), and eggs. I don’t think this is particularly healthy, especially as it’s pretty easy to follow such a diet eating processed junk foods (which was its appeal to me at the time. 🙂 And, from a moral perspective, did your egg-laying hen really have a better life than its cousin in the oven? And does not eating them maybe acknowledge them a little less?

(I should mention that I don’t have a moral or ethical desire to be a vegan to not harm animals. I do make some efforts at keeping kosher, out of respect for God and what He’s created; and as a very general moral principle don’t want to leave a larger “footprint” on the planet than I have to. But I consider humans eating meat just part of the whole circle of life.)

So, do I continue? I timed the suggested two-week trial period to fit in between two trips out of town. Yesterday, the two weeks up, I put some cream in my coffee when I was out of the house, rather than taking it black. Then, I decided to cook a chicken that had been in my freezer for at least two weeks, but I let the rest of the family eat it and didn’t have any myself. This is the hard part: it’s great to eat a plant-based diet when I can cook at home, but I don’t always want to have to cook at home, or seek out special food everywhere. I want to be able to travel and eat meals with people in restaurants or as a guest in their homes (plus, I still need to worry about foods I’ve tested allergic to). I expect I’ll keep putting soy milk in my coffee and trying to bake without eggs at home, but I’m not sure I’ll avoid Dunkin Donuts completely.

October 17, 2009

If you want to know a guy, get to know his mother

Filed under: Allergies, Personal Blog — marcstober @ 9:36 pm

Fortunately that won’t be too hard now that my mother has started a blog. If you know me well, you probably already know about her peanut allergy or accomplishments as a working mother. But now you can read them for yourself:

I am not by nature, a perpetually cheerful person. I kvetch, I complain, I argue, I yell. I try to see my life in melodramatic terms: after struggling to build a career in a male dominated firm, I am felled in my prime by chronic degenerative illness. But to be honest, it's not that bad.

via Perspectives of an Inadvertent Optimist: The Fragility of Life.

July 9, 2009

Food Allergies Unsimplified

Filed under: Allergies, Food, Health, Personal Blog — marcstober @ 1:34 am

A few months ago I was diagnosed with some food allergies. These days people tend to associate food allergies with children, but food allergies have always impacted me, since my mom is allergic to peanuts and some other things. Reading labels on food packages and worrying at restaurants has always been part of my life.

Here are the foods I’m avoiding, along with the allergy test results and some comments.

Sesame seed (Skin prick test reaction. In hindsight, this was probably a main source of problems for me, as I can recall several incidents of mostly mild but disturbingly unexplainable irritation in my mouth, face and lips after eating hummus [with tahini – Trader Joe’s now has a tahini-free version!], Asian sesame dressing, sesame seed bagels and Kashi cereal.)
Sunflower (Skin prick; surprisingly, this was my most severe skin prick test reaction for a food.)
Hazelnut (Skin prick, class 3 RAST [blood] test reaction.)
Almond (Skin prick.)
Walnut (Skin prick.)
Peanuts (Negative, but avoiding them anyway based on family and personal history.)
Cherry (Skin prick, class 2 RAST.)
Peach (Class 2 RAST.)
Apricot (Class 2 RAST.)
Plum (Negative test, but had an episode of severe itching at the back of my throat to eating a fresh plum a few years ago, and in the same family as the above 3 foods.)
Nectarine (Not in the doctor’s orders, but similar to plum and peach, so I’m avoiding it.)
Apple (Class 2 RAST and an equivocal skin prick test – I’ve definitely eaten apple, although I’ve never enjoyed whole apples much, maybe that was a sign.)
Black bean (Class 1 RAST – I’ve definitely eaten them so this test is equivocal, but why not eat pinto beans instead?)
Corn (Class 1 RAST – although it’s nearly impossible to avoid corn as an ingredient, I’m going to avoid whole corn; corn-on-the-cob always sounded better than it was anyway. Heavy cornmeal coatings like on the bottom of some bread or used as breading seems to irritate me a bit.)
Green beans (Skin prick – again, never enjoyed them much as compared to other vegetables – these days we tend to do more broccoli, cauliflower, or sometimes squash.)
Lobster (Skin prick, haven’t eaten in years for religious reasons anyway.)
Clam (Ditto.)
Eggs (Negative, but I have a long history sensitivity of some sort that results in gastrointestinal symptoms rather than throat/mouth reactions, as confirmed by increased avoidance over much of the past year. Still eating them as an ingredient but avoiding whole eggs and mayonaise, although I’ll still order a tuna salad sandwich sometimes [at home I make it without mayo now, though].)

I also was tested for environmental allergens by a skin prick test. I was also tested for these as a child, so I pretty much knew about these, and for the most part had much larger reactions to these than to the food allergens:

Grass (Various types.)
Dust mite
Cat pelt (Nothing personal, Molly and Pepper!)
Aspergillus mold
Hormodendrum mold

(I didn’t clearly react to dog, which I did as a child. I’m not sure if this means we can get a dog.)

The earlier diagnosis of environmental allergies and oral symptoms to food seem consistent with something like oral allergy syndrome although I don’t exactly fit the plant/food pairings (no problem with tomatoes!) and don’t want to diagnose myself on Wikipedia.

What made me go to an allergist? In addition to personal and family history, I felt my environmental allergies had been getting worse over the past few years, and that it included stuffy noses and sore throats that didn’t really follow any allergy season. (This site suggests that could be a mold allergy, which probably explains some of it, and why I’m allergic to damp basements.) I sometimes had irritation around my lips and the roof of my mouth that wasn’t consistent with benign effects such as from salty, spicy, or acidic foods, but couldn’t pinpoint the offending food. Also, Hannah has been tested for allergies several times starting with a concern raised at day care when she was 1, with consistently inconclusive results.

Results have been mixed. I’ve been avoiding foods and taking non-drowsy over-the-counter antihistamines (Claritin or Zyrtec, or more likely the store brand) on a regular basis with good effect. Along with a medication for migraines prescribed by my primary care doctor, I’m feeling better than I have in years. I really feel “clear,” like on the Claritin and Zyrtec TV ads. With the exception of corn, which is an ingredient in everything but I’m barely allergic to it, all of the food allergens are pretty easy to avoid. Essentially, I have some environmental allergies and some fortunately mild food allergies, and I can feel better by avoiding the foods but probably won’t have any bad reaction if I somehow consume one from cross contamination.

However, I have a lot of anxiety now. My allergist prescribed an EpiPen, which I was told I’d probably never need. I should think of it like a life insurance policy, that I don’t often think about and can relax knowing I have it, but it serves more as a reminder that there is a small but clinically significant chance I could die from this. I’ve had a panic attacks that were most likely caused by my (psychologically) overreacting to some insignificant, non-allergy itch, like one time when my tounge felt itchy after eating some salty pretzels. I may have even been reacting to general stress–the incident with the pretzels happened during a particularly stressful time at home and work. Unfortunately, taking Benadryl, which can be indicated for a real allergic reaction, can make you jittery, hypertensive, and unable to concentrate all at the same time; in other words, it makes a little panic attack much worse. Rationally, my anxiety is out of proportion to the reality of the allergies, but that’s not how it feels sometimes. So, I take a deep breath, remind myself that I’m not having trouble breathing, and that there are people around who would take me to the hospital or call 911 if I needed it.

I write this in the hope that it will explain to friends and family (who might see me picking at food, etc.) what’s going on; and also in the hopes that it will be useful to someone else with similar issues out there on the Internet. (Note: This is a partial description of my patient experience; feel free to compare notes but more importantly get advice from a good doctor.) Plus, it’s a good way to deal with the issues in my head. There is more I want to write: about what I eat; social/political issues of food allergies; allergies vs. kashrut and other physically and spiritually healthy ways to eat; and maybe even some recipes. But I so rarely get a chance to write as it is, so I’ll save rest for some other time.