Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Out of the Darkness: The Positive Side of Food Allergies and Celiac Disease

I know you've all experienced it. That sweet nostalgia of picking up Taco Bell just before they close since they just so happen to be the only thing open. Or those memories of going out for late-night pizza after a club or night out with your besties. You might think that with multiple food allergies or Celiac disease your gluten-free and allergy-friendly options are severely limited. And yes, to the outside world, they are. But the truth is, with a little creativity, anyone can become a 'Kitchen MacGyver' and never feel deprived.

If Macgyver could do it with three ingredients, so can you.
Those of you in your twenties and below might not know Macgyver, but growing up, I watched his show on USA in wonder at his ingenuity for resourcefulness. Seriously, MacGyver was the God of DIY projects having to do with survival. If you're curious, the show is now on Netflix.

We have the resources nowadays to even make shrimp lo mein gluten-free, soy-free and whatever else free your food needs to be.

You just have to find it...or a variation of it and tweak it to your diet.

The other night, I came to an epiphany.

I have zero willpower when it comes to food and am no stranger to putting on weight. My pictures from middle school and high school prove it. I wasn't extremely large but I was a bit on the chubby side and my jeans fluctuated between a 31-34 waist and size 11-12 dress. I would order chinese food with my friends and eat like a champ; sesame chicken, shrimp fried rice and chicken with broccoli in a garlic white sauce. It was pure heaven.

One time I even went into anaphylactic shock about five hours after eating while I was trying to go to sleep, probably from cross-contamination from peanuts. Of course as a teenager, that didn't stop me. I took risks, many of them and it honestly is a miracle I'm alive. I wasn't going to let an allergy stop me from enjoying this food that I was deprived of as a child. I was a bona fide foodie, and fatty because no matter how many times I went to the gym, it wasn't going to stop the fact that I loved my pizza, Chinese food and all-you-can-eat buffets.

 I went from being able to only eat chicken, broccoli and bananas as a toddler to in my teens being able to eat everything except peanuts, tree nuts, all types of peas and lentils. I could even eat soy back then and I remember the only symptom I had when I drank soy milk was an itchy throat, which would cause me to make strange, gutteral noises with my throat to try to 'scratch' it.

But just about ten years ago, things began to change. First, my soy allergy got worse. I went into anaphylactic shock from pureed tofu in dressing at a Japanese restaurant and it took me years to figure out my 'mysterious' allergic reactions and numerous other health issues were from hidden soy derivatives.

I cannot eat at buffets anymore. Too risky.
I went from being able to eat soy and all soy derivatives, gluten, tomato sauce, and dairy to becoming so sensitive to all of those that now, I cannot even eat meat, fish or dairy fed with soy or gluten or else several various allergic symptoms or gluten issues ensue. But I don't want violins, no. Quite the contrary.

This is a celebration! Why?

  •  I got off all mental health meds, which were causing numerous side effects, from weight gain, to anxiety and even thyroid issues. 

  •  I lost weight without trying. Nuff' said.

  •   I cook like a top chef. Or so I'm told.
1. I got off all meds, which were causing numerous side effects, from weight gain, to anxiety and even thyroid issues. I was on antidepressants for over a decade due to severe clinical depression symptoms. With my new 'clean eating' lifestyle, I discovered that the majority of my mood swings, depression and anxiety was due to food allergies and possible Celiac disease. Studies show that those with allergies have a much higher risk of depression and suicide, but why?
The answer is found in our body's cytokine response during an allergic reaction. When we have an allergic reaction or inflammation in the body (and yes, this goes for those having a gluten reaction, too such as for Celiac disease), the body releases cytokines which block the brain's production of serotonin. It is no surprise that increased cytokine levels have been linked to depression, schizophrenia and even cancer.

This was a huge discovery and a turning point in the way I dealt with my emotions and moods. Instead of accepting that I'm depressed from my own brain chemistry and wallowing in misery, going deeper into a moody state of mind which makes me hate everyone, I remind myself that in my case, it's likely allergies or gluten. My brain chemistry changes as a result of inflammation. 

Along with dealing with my allergies first, I also found out from my doctor that I was vitamin D deficient. Vitamin D deficiency causes major depression symptoms as well as the symptoms you will see in the graphic below. After about two weeks of 5,000iu BlueBonnet Vitamin D along with my Natural Calm magnesium drink I felt a thousand times better.

Allegra and a gluten-free soy-free probiotic are my first step whenever I start to feel a negative mood shift. Taking both covers my bases and helps calm the cytokine response a bit (with water, never juice since any juice will reduce it's efficacy). Then I go take a shower making sure to rinse out my nose and wash hair thoroughly (to remove any pollens or dust mites). Then I leave the house for awhile, whether that's to go to Starbucks, Barnes and Nobles or the gym.

After about an hour and a half, my mood completely shifts to a better mood, which to me is proof that allergies play a major role in how we feel. When I'm home, a HEPA air purifier follows me around the house wherever I go.

I also requested that my dad to change the central heating/AC units in the house because upon coming home from my little trial on my own, my allergies became bad again and I realized I was reacting to the house, somehow. This was after I demanded they take down the textured painting reproduction in the living room, which (GASP!) had a suede fabric inner lining thick with dust. Every time I went to cover the couch with clean sheets to lounge on, I'd accidentally knock the painting, sending probably thousands of dust mite carcasses and their feces flying in my face onto my just washed cotton sheets.

microscopic picture of a dust mite
One gram of house dust could contain thousands of dust mites.

 How Do You Know If It's An Environmental Allergy?

I know that ever since I was little, my blood panel at the allergist showed I have severe allergies to dust mites, pollens, ragweed, mold and dogs. Sometimes you won't have the usual hay fever or eczema symptoms right away, so it's hard to tell whether you're reacting to your environment. If you cannot get to an allergist and want to know right away if your reaction is from the environment, here is my trick:

Over the years, I noticed when I'm beginning to have a bad allergic reaction to dust mites or anything else in the environment, my nose itches pretty badly. When I make a long drawn out face like when you say the 'o' sound in the word "long" look closely in the mirror at the inside skin of your nose. Are you having what looks like 'hives' inside your nose? You might see tiny bumps that look like goosebumps that aren't normally visible. Although I couldn't find any research on this online, I do know that when I see those bumps, I need to move to a different environment.

 The thought occurred to me that the house filters might not have been changed in a while. Of course, I was right. What I didn't know was that most heating filters are supposed to be changed every month if you have severe allergies to environmental allergens; ours hadn't been changed in a year! It's an easy thing to forget and right now, indoor allergies and dust mite allergies are high. This simple thing could make a huge difference in allergy relief. If you're reacting from something you cannot figure out, begin with changing the filters!

Sure, I'm an artist. And sure, I might think differently than most. And some of you might be surprised to know I was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder many years ago along with symptoms of bipolar disorder. Even though doctors were not fully aware of the scope of my allergies or the connection between allergies and mental illness, I was prescribed the whole gamut of antidepressants and even an antipsychotic; Zoloft, Wellbutrin, Lexapro, Prozac, Risperidone (low dose for anxiety) and probably a few others I don't remember. However, how many psychiatrists or therapists team up with allergists? When does that ever happen?

Never. So instead of treating the problem (which might be allergies, hay fever, dust mite allergy, ragweed allergy, pollen allergy, etc...) they are skipping over it and going straight to antidepressants. Then what happens? People with allergies or severe gluten intolerances are taking antidepressants which might help their mental state temporarily, make them even crazier than when they first started or even cause a reverse effect. Or, they might be on antidepressants for years and then suddenly develop slight hypothyroidism, like I did.

Now I'm not saying all antidepressants or anti-anxiety medications are bad. But I truly believe that many people are not being treated properly for the possible cause of their depression or mood disorder. Although I am not a medical professional I believe the more responsible way to treat mental conditions in someone who has a history of food allergies or sensitivities is to, "treat the allergy first." Omit those allergenic foods from your diet completely. No cheating.  Go on allergy meds if you have environmental allergies. Do everything necessary to avoid allergic reactions or getting 'glutened'.

If you are already on medications, don't just stop them. Speak to your psychiatrist and explain the scope of your allergies and food sensitivities. If the illness is severe, stopping medications suddenly could be downright dangerous. Instead, see an allergist while on the meds and get tested for environmental allergies and the top 8 food allergens. 

My doctor now prescribes 10 mg hydroxyzine when I feel anxious...nothing else. Although it is used as an anti-anxiety, it is actually an antihistamine; it's Atarax, the same pill prescribed by every allergist I ever had since I was a toddler and the same med I take in higher dosages if I'm having an allergic reaction.

2. I lost weight...without even trying.

Don't want to cook? Make a smoothie!
It's a known fact that allergies make people hold on to weight. Allergic reactions and gluten reactions mess with everything from hormone levels to your immune system. They completely change your head-to-toe physiology and once again, this goes back to the cytokine release I spoke about earlier. Learn all about cytokines and you will truly get a sense of the effects food allergies and Celiac Disease has on the entire body.

Not to mention, I don't like to cook every single day (I don't have time to; who does?), so smoothies and salads account for most of my meals.

3. I learned to cook. By trial and error. After error.

When I do cook and have the time to, it sometimes takes me between 2-4 hrs, depending on the dish. I don't play when it comes to my food.

And I also am a bit of a food snob so if a restaurant can't cook it better than me, I won't bother. Unless I'm far from home and famished.

I love to cook. And YOU can, too. Just practice. Watch videos on YouTube. I watched my grandma cooking dishes from all over the world and picked up little techniques which turn me into a mad scientist utilizing the nerdy scientific methods of Alton Brown and the convenient tricks Rachel Ray has in her bag...only I use gluten-free and soy-free alternatives. For example, substitute regular beer with gluten-free beer for cooking! Or add a tiny bit of tamarind paste to your homemade soy sauce recipe to create your own Worchestire sauce! The possibilities are endless, just think outside the box...

Deprivation does not exist for me, anymore. Why?

Because every single food you want, whether it's Oreos or Milano cookies you can still make them at home with a couple of tweaks! I sub regular flour with King Arthur (my favorite) gluten-free all-purpose flour and usually decrease the amount of flour by about 1/3 (check the dough consistency and add if needed accordingly). I use Enjoy Life dark chocolate chips and add Madagascar Bourbon vanilla extract to practically everything baked that calls for sugar.

Need to do the impossible? Sub milk or dairy? There are ways. It just all depends on the recipe you are making and what ingredients you can have.

If you don't ask the answer is always no. If you don't go after what you want, you'll never have it. If you don't step forward you're always in the same spot.
For every dish I've ever had at Cheesecake Factory and was glutened from or had a reaction to, there is a copycat recipe on Google. The almighty Google is the end of deprivation, I promise. Simply type 'copycat recipe' next to whatever the restaurant chain is and the name of it on the menu and 95% of the time you will find it. You can even do this for Starbucks drinks and bakery items!

The kitchen is like my laboratory and yes, looks like a disaster during and after the process...but the results are rarely anything less than unbelievable.

And this is the brighter side of food allergies and Celiac Disease. You are more resourceful. You will figure out tweaks that not only can taste better than the real deal, but that are actually healthier! And the fact that you aren't going to cook all your meals every day makes you appreciate those dishes you do make, so much more. We develop a gratitude for what we can have as opposed to what we can't. A perspective that nobody else could understand, that is unique to you and your own personal experiences. Use this. Relish in it. And smile, knowing you know something many others don't.

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