Many people suffer from allergies. If you’re lucky you can identify the food or substance causing the problem without too much trouble and then take steps to avoid it. However, for some people, the solution is not so easily found.
Julie is 22 years old. She can’t remember when she last felt really well. “I have more than 1000 allergies,” she says. Her friends are scared to ask her how she is – in case she tells all.
Many of us are allergic to something: a food, such as shellfish, chocolate, wheat; or something in the environment such as pollen, house dust, diesel fumes. The healthiest of us may turn pea-green after eating one smoked oyster or develop a pounding headache from breathing in the fumes of fresh paint.
If you know from experience what disagrees with you, you can use your commonsense and try to avoid the particular food or substance.
Some people are very unlucky because it can take weeks, months, or even years to identify a particular irritant. More and more people are suffering “mystery” diseases caused by an increasingly industrialized and sophisticated society. There are chemicals in the air. There are preservatives and colorings in food. Aerosols, pesticides, and chemical dyes abound.
Dr. David Bryant, Senior Lecturer of Medicine at the Garvin Institute of Medical Research, St Vincent’s Hospital Sydney, explained: “Allergy is poorly understood by both general practitioners and specialist physicians. Very frequently it is the doctor who first suspects an allergy. He suggests tests, but he hasn’t the skill to make a diagnosis or order treatment.”
Julie is an example of both her own stupidity and a degree of improper medical practice. She suffers occasional attacks of asthma, hives, stomach cramps, and pains. She is prone to headaches which she says are migraine.
Her handbag overflows with medications: antibiotics to prevent a mild head cold “going to her chest” and causing asthma; and bronchodilators, in case it does. She has ointments for a rash, sedatives to help her sleep and vitamin pills to make up nutrients she imagines are missing from her diet.
Extensive tests have shown that she is allergic to eggs, cheese, milk – any form of dairy produce except goat’s milk – to wheat and yeast, beer, red wine, mushrooms, shellfish, chocolate, tea, and coffee. Some brands of soap and cosmetics have caused rashes. Nylon, especially stockings, makes her itch.
Attacks of sneezing and watering eyes, sometimes followed by asthma, can be triggered off by dogs, cats, aerosol sprays, dust, feather pillows, fluffy blankets, upholstery unless made of foam rubber, grass and flowers.
The list of forbidden foods is long but Julie can frequently indulge in them with no ill effects. But sometimes “out of the blue,” her eyes and nose begin to stream; or stomach cramps begin; or she feels sick and dizzy or an itchy rash breaks out.
Health is now her obsession. She drifts from one doctor to another. Because of headaches, she had a brain scan. No abnormality was found. Because of stomach pains and cramps, she had an appendectomy and an investigation of the Fallopian tubes. Again, no abnormalities.
Depression, fatigue, personality problems, and repeated friction with both colleagues at work and bosses resulted in Julie seeing a psychiatrist. The psychiatrist referred her back to her doctor. Her boss, exasperated by constant “sickies,” sacked her. Julie, now unemployed, has found a new doctor and is about to undergo further tests.
Dr. Bryant explained: “All these tests can indicate that somebody is mildly sensitive to a great number of substances. But they are not necessarily suffering any disorder. Without undergoing tests they could be unaware of any allergic reaction. But for the chronic sufferer, with a variety of symptoms which are not due to physical or organic causes, the top priority is to find out and isolate the substance or substances causing the problem.”
The most common foods which may cause allergies are chocolate, nuts, wheat, fish – especially shellfish – and dairy produce. Red wine is risky for migraine sufferers. So is dust for the asthmatic. “But doctors must learn to distinguish between substances that may cause mild symptoms and those which bring on very positive allergic reactions,” said Dr. Bryant.
Occasionally the identification of the problem may mean moving house, job, or both. “For instance, somebody found to be allergic to new plastic working in a plastics factory would be advised to seek alternative employment,” said Dr. Bryant. An interior decorator allergic to the smell of paint might be advised to do the same.
Sometimes the problem is simpler. Fumes from a domestic gas stove have caused nausea, dizziness, or headaches. Symptoms have disappeared when a new stove has been installed or the sufferer has switched to an electric one.
There is no easy solution. Trial diets to find out which foods are causing problems have a slow response and are time-consuming for all.
One course of treatment involves the gradual withdrawal of a suspect food. After a time that food is very slowly reintroduced to work up a tolerance and enable doctors to establish just how much of this particular food a patient can tolerate.
Sublingual desensitizing is an approach used to reduce reactions to items to which a patient appears sensitive. Drops of selective items placed under the tongue are used to “dampen down” the sensitivity and produce a degree of immunity – a process somewhat similar to inoculations given to provide immunity against diseases.
Unlike the traditional “jabs,” there is no positive evidence that this treatment will help all patients.
An allergy specialist in Sydney whose practice is perhaps the largest in Australia, said it had been estimated that about 30 percent of the community has an allergic diathesis, which means the inborn tendency to develop symptoms of allergy. In a family, if both parents have allergies, the chance of their child developing allergic symptoms is 75 percent. If one parent has allergies, the chance is between 25 and 30 percent.
He emphasized the importance of skilled diagnosis in recognizing the “concept of the total allergic load.” This means that allergic reactions to inhalants and foods tend to peak at certain times of the year.
For instance, on a day when there is a large amount of pollen or dust mite particles in the air, a patient, after eating a food to which he is allergic, could experience an attack of hay fever or asthma because the total load has exceeded personal limits.
“I have a patient who believed she was allergic to avocadoes,” he said. “Tests proved she was allergic to chocolate, corn, and eggs. During a week when she cut out these foods an avocado did no harm. But an avocado together with these foods brought on an attack. The avocado tipped the scales.”
It seems easier by far to be allergic to chocolate, beer, or wine than to wheat or milk, but patients learn to cope and most children are able to adapt. “Very often they remind their mothers,” said the allergy specialist.
“Goat’s milk or soy milk are substituted for cow’s milk. Patients allergic to wheat have rye bread and use rye flour and potato flour in cooking. Of course, it can be hard for people who travel a lot or have to attend many business lunches and dinners. These people must be especially careful about what they eat.”
Lists of milk-free breads are available, as are wheat and milk-free recipes.
Asthma, migraine, and hives are disorders considered by the layman as symptoms of stress.
“They are linked to emotional stress but stress is not the entire problem,” Dr. Bryant said. “Stress will irritate asthma but it is unlikely to start it.”
Some 10 percent of Australians suffer from asthma at some time in their lives. Dr. Bryant heads a team investigating the presence of a chemical known as SRS-A (Slow Reacting Substance of Anaphylaxis) during asthma attacks. The team is analyzing the substance and hopes to develop drugs to fight it.
“About 20 percent of asthma sufferers are middle-aged with no history of respiratory disorders and these people may not respond to existing treatments,” said Dr. Bryant. “Research is revealing why these people suddenly develop asthma and how their conditions can be properly controlled.”
In Britain, a physician is working on the theory that a favorite food taken in large quantities can cause physical and mental disorders. He says people can be addicted to certain foods, suffering withdrawal symptoms when they stop eating them.
Another British physician, Dr. Richard Mackarness, author of “Not All In The Mind” and “Chemical Victims,” writes of a 21-year-old girl who was allergic to eggs and suffered allergic eczema as a child. She was treated unsuccessfully for depression for several years and finally attempted suicide in a hostel for the mentally disturbed. Dr. Mackarness supervised tests for food and chemical allergy. He reported that she reacted strongly to all meats. Now, she appears to be completely normal, living a happy, active life on an un-chemically contaminated vegetarian diet.
Is it possible that some foods can cause mental problems in some people, just as alcohol can cause behavioral and mental disorders if taken in excess?
Some doctors overseas believe this theory and some are skeptical. Dr. Bryant commented: “Well, maybe, but I think we will have to do a lot more research before we express any opinions on the subject.”