One of my strongest memories at boarding school was the excruciating pain of my regular migraines, and trying not to cry in the dormitory. The pain was too much to bear and my migraines crescendoed in violent vomiting.
All this went on until my late teens, by which time I had also acquired a face like a lunar landscape from acne. At one point the tissue inside my nose had become so inflamed that I couldn’t breath through my nose and had an operation where they burn the tissue away. The day after I was as high as a kite, breathing in all this extra oxygen. No one mentioned the possibility of allergy.
I loved milk and cheese. My boarding school was attached to a dairy farm and we used to guzzle the stuff and have milk drinking competitions. This was in the days of the ‘pint a day’ ads. Macaroni cheese, cheese fondues, cheese on toast – these were my favourite things.
Then, at the age of 19 I met the Wrights (who set up Green Farm, now Higher Nature) and tried their weird dairy-free diet. Guess what? The migraines stopped, my skin cleared up and my sinus problems virtually went away. I had what is called allergic rhinitis, but it had taken more than 20 years to be diagnosed as such.
My case is minor. There are many people who suffer for decades with much more serious conditions only to discover, sometimes too late, that they were allergic to a common food. I’ve had patients with rheumatoid arthritis, schizophrenia, terrible IBS, migraines, asthmas, eczema, chronic fatigue who have had complete relief when they eliminated their trigger foods. Liz, who was diagnosed as schizophrenic and spent five years on heavy duty tranquillisers, is no longer schizophrenic as a result of eliminating her allergens.
I learnt that, whenever I have dairy products (sometimes I can get away with pure fat butter) I can feel the blood vessels in my nose start to pulse, then I’m producing more mucus, then a dull headache appears, which can develop into a full-blown migraine. I later had an allergy blood test measuring both IgE and IgG antibodies and, sure enough, I react to dairy products by both measures. The testing process is the same, involving something called an ELISA test.
Antibodies are produced by the immune system and can be tailor-made to recognise a particular type of protein, for example milk or wheat protein. The convention is that food allergies are caused by IgE antibodies, with the exception of coeliacs disease, which is caused by a type of IgA antibody. But growing evidence is showing that IgG antibodies are also involved.
About ten years ago, when the operation had been more or less perfected, I had a procedure to open up the rather deviated channels into my sinuses, and the tiny drainage holes. I was told ‘you’ll never have another sinus infection in your life’. That wasn’t true although the operation did make a significant difference.
Over the years my sinuses have been a real Achilles heal. A few years ago, after an extensive trip off the beaten track in the mountains, desert and jungle of Ethiopia with my daughter, my sinus problems were back. I tried everything I knew but I was still suffering. So I did a YorkTest Food Scan test – a blood test that measures levels of IgG antibodies to foods. I had become sensitive to a whole lot of new foods, including yeast and eggs which we had eaten almost every day in Ethiopia. (Fortunately, this kind of allergy needn’t last for life – if you avoid the food strictly for 3-4 months your body can unlearn the intolerance). I immediately avoided the suspect foods and, within 48 hours, I was better. It was like chalk and cheese. Now, several months on, I am no longer reacting to eggs, but have to be careful about yeast.
All in the mind
The reason I tell you this story is that, over 30 years of visits to doctors and top consultants the majority, not all, have told me that no-one reacts to dairy products, that all this talk about food allergies is rubbish, that the tests are meaningless. It’s all in the mind.
A classic example of this was a report in 2010 that claimed that ‘nine out of ten Britons who believe they have a food allergy or intolerance are perfectly healthy’, researchers say. How did they reach this conclusion? Apparently the researchers from Portsmouth University, did a skin prick test on a thousand children whose mothers had, for one reason or another, kept their child off a food and found that very few tested positive. Dr Carina Ventner, a dietician, was quoted in the Daily Mail as saying: “'Our concern is that people are self-diagnosing allergies which is very unreliable and could even mask a different illness which would remain undiagnosed and untreated.” Cutting wheat out of the diet could lead to a deficiency in B vitamins, while avoiding dairy products will lower levels of calcium, vital in maintaining strong bones, she added.
What is strange about this so-called study is that it doesn’t exist if you search the medical library database. Nor is there any study at all listing this author. Also, if it was based on a rather unreliable skin prick test, and simply selected children whose mothers kept them off a food group, then it is all rather meaningless. But what would the motive be? Well, the report was funded by the Flour Advisory Board. It’s just an attempt to stop people avoiding wheat.
Even the most serious wheat allergy, coeliacs disease, is rarely checked for. It is ......
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