peeling the onion, layer four

Continued from layer three

Back in the analog days I used to get my nutritional information from
books I would buy in health food stores. That must be how I first
learned that someday I should do an elimination diet, to figure out my
food sensitivities. Dr. Zbylot encouraged it in 1999. Then Michael Moore
and Paul Bergner while I was at herb school in 2006. And then it was
mentioned on the herbal email lists and at conferences over and over again. Somehow it
always felt daunting, beyond my capabilities.

January of 2014 I was sick and tired of feeling sick and tired and
inflamed all over. I listened to Paul Bergner’s “Treating Systemic
Inflammation” from the American Herbalists Guild’s 2013 Symposium and
faced the reality that an elimination diet was imminent. I made a
customized list of the most common food allergens and the foods
that I have the strongest emotional reaction to. If the thought of
giving it up was terrifying, it went on the list. I created an excel
spreadsheet. All of my little symptoms listed down the left, date across
the top, with a row for any accidents and/or intentional
reintroductions. I looked for recipes that would fit my diet. I stood at
the edge, peering over, afraid to take the leap. I
researched. I waited. I wasn’t ready. I tried to build up the courage.

Lent 2014 was looming. Now or never! I would ride on the camaraderie
with millions of other people around the globe giving things up at once.
On Fat Tuesday I ate wheat and cheese and tomatoes at each meal, wine
with dinner, chocolate in the evening, and steeled myself for the weeks
to come. I feared the deprivation, yes, but more than that I feared what
I may discover. What if…?

I became completely and totally obsessed with food. Of all the phases of obsessive and weird eating I have had in my life, nothing has compared to this. I was absorbed by it entirely. Every spare moment was time to plan what I would eat. I tracked every weird twinge and sniffle, every possible trigger that might have caused it. I tried my best to avoid everything on the list for two weeks. Sure
enough, my symptoms abated. My chronic sinus congestion was
gone, this weird gurgling sensation that I get in the backs of my
calves, gone. The shooting pains down my left arm, also gone. My mood
felt stable, my energy was good. Each food I reintroduced was a
potential enemy that might ruin it all! When I consumed certain foods, my trend
graph showed a spike. I tracked symptoms on a 0-3 severity scale and was
amazed to see how distinct the trends were. I saw patterns that I never
could have noticed from casual observation. I allowed three days to
check each food, because I had read that there can be a lag in certain
types of immune reactions. It felt like it was taking forever to get
foods back into my diet. I felt, though, that I was on to something, that
this, combined with what I already had, made my herbal practice

Then one day I went to a gluten-free restaurant. I haven’t been much of a bread person for years, even
since I became aware of the glycemic index. On such a limited diet,
though, the idea of a sandwich was thrilling. I ate some salad and a sandwich and then went into the
worst allergic reaction I’ve ever had. My belly was not happy. I was glad I was at a place where everyone was so sensitive to food allergies. I
went up to the counter and asked for the ingredient list of the bread
I’d eaten. The waitress presented it gladly, sorry to hear I’d had a
reaction. She told me of her troubles with gluten and empathized
completely. I looked at the list and I had already tested everything on
the list except for xanthan gum. What the hell is it anyway? I had barely ever even noticed it.

Over the next couple hours, things just got worse. I turned bright red
and hateful. I felt simultaneously exhausted and super-charged. I was
pacing and sweating and wanted to crawl out of my skin. I got on my
running shoes and went for a run – sprinting my usual jogging route. I
returned home not feeling any better. I hated everyone and wanted to be
violent, to attack and hurt people. Every small wound on my body pulsed
red and my eyes were wide. I was a monster, or possessed by one.

When I was clear-headed enough to begin researching, the
pieces of the puzzle started clicking together. The worst similar
incidents in my life had been reactions to medicines. I read that the
time-release pill that had brought out the monster was made time-release
by xanthan gum dissolving slowly in my gut. The other time was a
liquid-form painkiller following oral surgery, thickened by, you guessed
it, xanthan gum. I’d always had a mysterious form of “lactose
intolerance” that only seemed to be triggered by certain dairy products.
Those that had been thickened by xanthan gum? It’s in ranch dressing
and creamy dips, cake frostings, oyster sauce and barbecue sauce and
cole slaw dressing. Sriracha! I had been exposed to this stuff almost daily for years, and never paid
any attention to it. At the gluten-free restaurant I’d probably
gotten a double dose, in the grossly thick raspberry balsamic
vinaigrette and in the chewy gluten-free bread. I called my mom. She
confessed “I always thought you had social anxiety that kicked in a half
hour into a party and made you aggressive, but all this time you were
allergic to the dip!” Had so many of my symptoms been getting worse
because gluten-free items were such a common fixture in my life these
days? I hadn’t been eating them intentionally, but I travel in circles
where there’s usually something gluten-free on the snack table, sometimes even the pizza crust. Wow! I’m
allergic to gluten-free!

With great relief, I felt a layer of self-loathing melt away. That
‘mean streak’ that I had worked so hard to understand and manage for all
these years was an allergic reaction! My perspective on the relation of
emotion to physicality shifted profoundly. No amount of therapy was
ever going to outwit my immune system. My hateful tendencies had a
clear, tangible cause that had nothing to do with my upbringing or some
idiopathic brain chemistry. I empathize now with mean people in a way I
never imagined possible. Maybe they don’t suck, maybe they are just
sick. Maybe they wish they weren’t mean, but their body is in freak-out

I was fairly certain that xanthan gum was the
culprit in many of my health issues – especially mental health issues –
but feared a rechallenge. One horrible aspect of an elimination diet is
the symptoms are so intense. When your body is subjected to allergens
all the time, it calms down its response. When you clear the palate, get
a baseline of health, the reactions are not only more obvious, they are
more intense. I was not at all eager to transform into an evil monster
again. Like so many of my rechallenges, I did this one by accident. I
had been carefully avoiding anything that might possibly contain xanthan
gum. And then I ate at a barbecue restaurant. A little bit of cole
slaw, a little barbecue sauce, a little potato salad: how much can
really be in there? How bad can it be? Within a half hour, I snapped.
Sorry, I was possessed by evil Lord Xanthan for a moment there…  

so life went on, more peaceful, with less fear that I may suddenly
shapeshift. Nothing else seemed to cause these massive reactions, but
many things seemed to give unpredictable, annoying symptoms. It was one
of those layers of onion that seems to peel off completely, but turns
out to still be stuck on the other side – a dark side of the moon
problem, out of view at first glance. I tried to eat really clean,
carefully avoiding anything that ever seemed like it might sometimes
cause some minor problem. I made myself some lunch – a “healthy” salad
of spinach, tomatoes, avocado, tuna, with a nice lemony dressing,
nothing that could possibly set me off.

Within an hour I
was flat on the couch, barely able to stand I was so tired. In
frustration I googled my symptom, together with the whole string of
everything that I had on my problematic list with everything I had just
eaten for lunch “fatigue bacon sausage cheese wine nuts cherries lemon
citrus avocado tomato spinach tuna”. Boom, lists of high histamine foods
popped up. It seemed so strange that this pattern came clear as soon as
I moved to one of the few countries where it is considered an actual
medical condition, complete with tests. I thought of Rupert Sheldrake’s
morphic fields and wondered if being in a region where the morphic field
for “histamine intolerance” is strong made the idea possible in my
mind. Perhaps.

The descriptions I read of histadelia,
as it is sometimes called, matched my experience exactly – it’s a
threshold thing, not an on/off. That is, none of these things will
necessarily cause a reaction. Too many of them too often, though, and my
skin begins to bubble. I read up on the enzyme that breaks down
histamine, how it is low in people with this problem. I read that it
requires magnesium. I had been struggling to find epsom salts here and
felt the ragged feeling I get when I need magnesium. I went to an
apothecary and bought magnesium supplements and took four doses over the
course of a few hours before I started to get any digestive problems.
Wow, I was depleted. Magnesium levels back up, my problems subsided. By
keeping my Mg levels up and avoiding the high-histamine foods I can keep
the eczema under control. Start to indulge, and it comes back.

such a relief, to have a good list of what my triggers are and a sense
of how they work. Zero tolerance for xanthan and managing my intake of
high-histamine foods, I can maintain a fairly even keel. I think I may
have peeled this onion all the way down to the good stuff, past the
papery levels!

One comment

  1. […] Continue to layer four… […]

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