You’ve seen this post coming, haven’t you? 😛
Before I say anything else I want to tell you something about me. I feel like I am, fundamentally, a scientist. I am deeply suspicious of anything remotely hippy, self help related, or alternative (I have reasons for this, but I won’t get into them in this post, it’s a long story!). When I was studying occupational therapy and we covered mental health topics I’d be the one arguing for genetic causes, medication as treatment and research studies, while another very out spoken guy on our course argued right back about Freud and Bowlby (cue me: but they are hopelessly outdated, not backed by research and Freud was a sex obsessed cocaine addict! *rantrant*). So, it’s an endless source of frustration to me that I have all these blasted food intolerances. Sensible, logical people do not have food intolerances. Actresses and neurotic people have food intolerances. Yes? I mean, food allergies are different, they can kill people. Lactose intolerance is at least medically recognised and well researched, and coeliac disease isn’t an allergy at all, it’s an autoimmune disease. But I don’t have anaphylactic responses to foods, lactose free milk makes me just as sick as regular milk, and I’ve tested negative for coeliac disease twice.
The public perception of intolerances seems to be that it’s all in someones head. It’s not that serious. In fact, they probably don’t exist at all, it’s mostly people imagining responses to things because they want to get skinny by not eating wheat. But that’s just not true.
This last week I have been feeling awful. My digestive system was playing up, my anxiety was a lot worse, my blood sugar was all over the place and a couple of days ago I started feeling really depressed again, in a way I haven’t experienced for eighteen months. I started having thoughts of suicide and self harm again, thinking that life was pointless, the eating disordered thoughts got louder and more frequent, and my startle response went completely haywire. I was having palpitations, my tics increased (have I ever mentioned that I was diagnosed with a tic disorder a couple of years back?), I started going dizzy, I couldn’t sleep. I just felt all wrong – confused, lethargic and exhausted. But having suddenly realised that if my pea protein powder was made from split peas I was probably intolerant to it, seeing as I am to lentils, and so not eating it yesterday or today – I feel 95% better already. This morning I woke up feeling much more optimistic, the eating disorder hasn’t given me any hassle all day, the idea of hurting myself feels wrong again, the palpitations and tics have calmed down and the dog barking doesn’t make me want to hide behind the sofa anymore. This has come as just as a bit of a shock. I haven’t eaten anything that I’m really intolerant to for eighteen months, and it was a surprise to notice how my psychiatric and neurological symptoms got so much worse and then so much better over the course of a few days. I wasn’t expecting that at all.
According to my parents, I screamed for the first ten months of my life, almost constantly. I barely slept, and so neither did my parents. They didn’t realise at the time that I had a milk allergy. I showed atypical symptoms – constipation instead of diarrhoea, for example – and so it was a good few years later that anyone realised. Milk didn’t make me throw up or stop breathing though, so no one thought to cut it out of my diet. These early problems probably contributed to my difficulties today. I screamed for ten months solid because I was in pain, and being in pain for the first ten months of your life will quite successfully hardwire anxiety and hypersensitivity into your brain. Continuing to consume cow’s milk despite the allergy and the constant stress of being in pain probably also did some damage to my digestive system.
I developed the first symptoms of anxiety disorders when I was four or five, and obsessions and tics a couple of years later. When I was nine I started getting palpitations and by the age of 11 I was seriously depressed and considering suicide. The depression was a response to being bullied, but the anxiety was unexplained. I wonder now if it was linked to my change of diet when I was nine. It was then that I decided to become vegetarian. I didn’t have the most balanced veggie diet – no one else in my family was vegetarian so we were shooting in the dark rather – and I was recently diagnosed with a B vitamin deficiency. Symptoms of B12 deficiency include depression and fatigue. Obviously the bullying triggered the depression, but why didn’t I tell anyone? Why did I internalise everything that was said to me and become convinced that it was my fault? Why did I become so incredibly mentally unstable so quickly? By the age of 13 I was actually experiencing psychotic symptoms as well. My depression and anxiety don’t respond to medication (in fact it makes me even worse) and I’ve seen countless therapists over the last eight years, but nothing seemed to help.
I know I’ve already shared the story of how my intolerances were finally diagnosed. I was hospitalised in early 2007 because I was suicidal, and during the next six months I was taken off of citalopram and put on effexor; taken off effexor and put on moclobemide, taken off moclobemide, taken off that and given sodium valproate, that made me physically unwell so then carbemazepine was prescribed, and all the time I was also taking diazepam, beta blockers and quetiapine. The citalopram failed to stop and maybe contributed to the suicidally low mood; the effexor made me extremely suicidal and then manic; the moclobemide just plain didn’t work; the valproate and carbemazepine made me sick and dizzy; beta blockers sent my blood pressure crashing; diazepam had me suffering from sleep paralysis and even on the very lowest dose of quetiapine I slept for 12 hours a day. Finally my mood stabilised, through some miracle, and I’ve not taken any psychiatric medications for eighteen months now. But then my digestive system shut down. I experienced a whole range of bizarre and unexplainable digestive and neurological symptoms for about six months, until I was very underweight, malnourished, suicidal again and exhausted because I couldn’t eat or sleep, I was so sick and dizzy. I was so desperate I forked out for a private food intolerance test, and it turned out that I was intolerant to milk (I have both an allergy and an intolerance to milk; I can’t digest lactose but the big problem is the milk protein, casein, which makes me sick and wheezy), wheat, yeast, lentils, hazelnuts and millet. In the first few months I couldn’t eat soya, gluten, onions, garlic or chillies either. Once I got my results I cut out all of those foods immediately.
Something really odd has happened since then. Although the relapse into anorexia was triggered by the accidental weight loss, my other mental health problems have gotten an awful lot better. I am calmer, I am more optimistic, the physical symptoms of depression like the extreme exhaustion have disappeared, my tics have lessened dramatically, I sleep better, I am nowhere near as impulsive or self destructive, I stopped self harming completely. Aside from all of that, I’ve stopped suffering from unexplained bouts of nausea – I used to be woken up in the middle of the night feeling like I was going to throw up at least a couple of times a month, and far more frequently as a young teenager. From the age of 9-13 I felt sick almost constantly. My palpitations have virtually stopped as well, and I’d had them since I was nine too. I didn’t even realise until I started ticcing and feeling like my heart was trying to jump out of my chest this week.
This is the explanation I’ve been given for the development of multiple intolerances: somehow, through stress, caffeine, alcohol, eating disorders, whatever, the lining of your digestive system becomes damaged. Large food molecules which should be broken down further before being absorbed escape through these holes into your blood stream. They are recognised as foreign bodies by your immune system and attacked. From then on, you have an immune response whenever you eat certain foods. Fungal infections can also set up shop in your poor damaged digestive system, like they did in mine. I was quite lucky, my immune system was shot to pieces so my fungal infection spread throughout my whole body, my doctor could see that my tongue had gone a nice shade of brown and prescribed me antifungals, but many people have them lurking in their intestines without realising. Fungal infections make you bloated, constantly hungry and crampy, nauseated, exhausted and generally feeling like you’ve been poisoned. And finally, I didn’t know this until my nutritional therapist told me a few weeks ago (and I did double check this) – most of your bodys neurotransmitters, including serotonin, are manufactured in your gut. Why don’t psychiatrists tell people this?! So if your digestive system isn’t working properly then depression and anxiety are actually quite logical complications.
I don’t know why mainstream medicine finds all of this so hard to accept. I suppose I would, if I hadn’t had it happen to me, but it still infuriates me that doctors will prescribe antidepressants which are known to carry the risk of increased self harm or suicidal thoughts before considering suggesting B vitamin supplements or a casein/gluten free diet. The casein and gluten free diet even has research backing it up – it has helped many children with ADHD, autism, OCD and other behavioural disorders and get this: some schizophrenics have experienced a significant reduction of symptoms on cutting out milk and gluten. But no. Even a lot of medications contain milk or wheat – I remember, two years ago, reading the ingredients on the effexor packet and seeing milk protein listed. That really couldn’t have helped. In eating disorder units patients with damaged digestive systems and weakened immune systems are made to drink cow’s milk by the half pint as standard, for the calcium and phosphate, but there is evidence to suggest that calcium from milk isn’t well absorbed and might even contribute to osteoporosis, and it’s certainly not doing anyone’s digestive system any good. It’s not a natural food for humans.
It was really hard giving up milk, wheat and yeast. It would have been easier if I had only been intolerant to two of them. If I could still eat yeast I could have at least had gluten free bread. But I seem to be extremely intolerant to yeast. I can’t take B vitamins which have been extracted from yeast, and so enriched dairy-free milks and spreads and vegan cereals are off limits. I can’t have anything with vinegar, alcohol or malt in it, because they are all fermented. Fruit skins and dried fruits have natural yeasts growing on them, so I haven’t eaten grapes or raisins for eighteen months and I have to peel other fruits and veg. Sourdough bread is OK for some people with yeast intolerances since the yeast is naturally occuring, but it doesn’t agree with me at all. Many gluten free products use wheat which has had the gluten extracted, so I even have to read the labels on them. A staple source of protein for many vegans is lentils, so a lot of potentially edible ready meals and veggie burgers have been ruined for me by that one.
It’s gotten easier though. I don’t miss the taste of milk at all – I never really liked milk on it’s own, and although most of my binge foods as a teenager contained dairy products and wheat (milk chocolate, porridge with milk, bagels with butter, custard, ice cream, cakes) I found that after a month without them I didn’t crave them at all anymore. There is a theory that if you crave or binge on particular types of food there’s a good chance that you have an intolerance to them, because when you eat them your body releases adrenaline and endorphins as part of the immune response, and you get hooked on your own opiates. I’m pretty sure that this was true for me, because I don’t miss them at all anymore. The main problem wasn’t missing certain foods, it was working out which foods contained them in the first place. Milk protein and lactose get into EVERYTHING, and yeast extract is a very common flavour enhancer in vegan foods.
So, I have to make most of my food from scratch. So I’m always going to have to read the labels on everything I do risk buying from shops. So, even though I’ve avoided lentils entirely for eighteen months, this week proves that the intolerance hasn’t gone away – and this doesn’t bode well for reintroducing other eliminated foods any time soon. I can’t drink alcohol. I still have that bloody yeast infection hanging around in my digestive system. I can’t eat out unless I’ve grilled the restaurant staff on whether their sauces contain yeast extract or vinegar, or their chips were coated in milk and wheat batter (seriously, McDonalds does this), or their baked beans contain wheat flour, or…etc. I still think I’m better off having been forced to eliminate all those things from my diet. The intolerances might have contributed to unexplainable, uncomfortable, embarrassing and painful illnesses for the rest of my life without my realising it if my body hadn’t decided to go into meltdown. And my depression, anxiety and neurological problems have improved significantly since changing my diet. Now, really, all I have to do is come to terms with the fact that I – whilst loving everything logical and scientific – have such a terribly hippy-ish and ‘alternative’ problem 😛
Three good things about today:
1. The obvious: not waking up horribly depressed again. Thank God for that.
2. I made some more coconut flour brownies earlier, and they were far more successful than the first lot! I am getting closer to the perfect brownie, I know it 😛
3. My competition – if anyone still wants to enter, comment on the post in the next…fourteen hours (which is when I will be online next!), and I’ll pick two winners tomorrow! I’m rather excited 🙂