As far as Rosemary Hanson is con-cerned, the only thing better than sliced bread is no bread. Same goes for sugar, dairy and any kind of highly processed foods. Like a growing number of people, Hanson is intolerant of many of the primary ingredients the rest of us take for granted when preparing meals or dining out.
Hanson was diagnosed with food allergies when she was only two. She grew up knowing precisely what she could and could not eat, but it wasn’t always easy abiding by her diet. Imagine not being able to go for pizza on a cold Sunday night when the last thing you want to do is cook, or having to pass on your best friend’s birthday cake.
“The social aspect is the most difficult,” says Hanson over lunch at the Heartwood Cafe, “and growing up it was really hard. I remember elementary school just coming home in tears because people would make fun of my food. My mum would always cook lunches for me, and I got a lot of ‘Ew, what’s that, that’s really weird’; people not understanding what I was eating, or why I couldn’t eat bread. I think bread is probably the single hardest thing because so much is made out of sandwich bread.”
Awareness of food allergies has improved dramatically since Hanson was first diagnosed. The number of instances of food allergies has also increased, however, and the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology estimates that over 50 percent of adults in the Unites States are positive for one or more allergies.
Food allergies have gone from being a medical anomaly to affecting a significant portion of the population. This wasn’t always the case, and depending on when you attended elementary school, chances are good that not only could you eat peanut butter sandwiches everyday, but no one in your class had ever heard of an EpiPen.
“Allergies in general have increased over the decades,” says allergist Dr. Gina Lacuesta. “I would say the most predominant theory as to why allergies are increasing is the hygiene hypothesis.” In other words: Kids aren’t getting enough dirt in their diets.
“Kids today are sanitized to death,” says Sandra Murphy, a naturopathic doctor at Nurture Therapeutics on Quinpool. “They’re putting the gel on, all of their toys are wiped down, but kids are supposed to eat dirt, they’re supposed to get frequent colds. It all primes the immune system. I’d say 80 percent of your immune system lines your intestines.”
Other factors that contribute to an allergy-prone body include “mono diets” (eating the same or similar foods day after day), improper chewing, eating on the run, stress and low stomach acid (“your stomach should be like battery acid, but it’s often more like dishwater with a little bit of lemon juice in it,” says Murphy), all of which hamper digestion, cause inflammation of the intestine and allow large particles of food to break through into the bloodstream where they will be treated as invaders, not nutrients.
An allergic reaction occurs when an allergen (a particle of peanut or shellfish, for example) enters the bloodstream, where it is attacked by specific antibodies. The antibodies then bind to a mast cell full of histamine, causing it to burst open and release the histamine that in turn unleashes a chain of potentially fatal reactions, from dilating blood cells to increased mucus production and constricted bronchioles.
“It’s all to protect you,” says Murphy, sketching an angry mast cell like a spiky orange. “ thinks there’s a foreign invader so it’s trying to stop ways that invader can get in by closing air passages, making mucus. The body’s actually being very wise, but it’s doing it too much.”
Food allergies differ from food intolerances in that allergies are more violent and can result in hives, swelling, headaches and anaphylactic shock, while food intolerances often result in moodiness, joint pain, bowel trouble and fatigue.
“Food allergies is a very specific immune system response,” says Lacuesta. “Only certain foods are known to be culprits, and it’s a very rare condition. Food intolerances is just a grab bag of symptoms where someone drinks milk and they get diarrhea. It’s a completely different thing.”
Lacuesta says the incidences of food intolerances aren’t measurable: “I think anybody can name some type of symptom they get from some food. It’s the difference between what’s immunological- based, what’s potentially life-threatening and everything else.”
Based on this definition, Hanson suffers from food intolerances, but the distinction means little to her. It comes down to the fact that if a food affects her adversely, she knows she shouldn’t be eating it. “I remember once I ate microwave popcorn and I almost passed out I was so dizzy,” she says. “I was reacting to a chemical in the popcorn. It was really, really scary.”
Murphy does not diagnose food allergies (naturopaths are not allowed to diagnose in Nova Scotia, and patients must visit allergists like Lacuesta if they want a skin-prick test performed), but she can determine and treat food intolerances through trial and error.
“I take away everything out of your diet that could possibly be an allergen for three weeks, until your immune system calms down,’ says Murphy, “and then you one-at-a-time have some wheat, and see how you feel for two or three days. No reaction, maybe it’s citrus, so you try a piece of citrus.”
Hanson is intolerant to wheat, yeast, dairy and “anything chemical like MSG or food colouring,” but she is particularly passionate in her case against sugar. Eating sugar affects Hanson’s motor skills, digestion and perception of the world. It makes her groggy, moody and tired, and depending on the degree of the reaction and how strong her immune system is at the time, it causes sore throats, earaches and blurred vision.
“Sugar is a drug as far as I’m concerned. Cane sugar is a highly processed food and it’s a substance that’s really quickly absorbed into the bloodstream so it really affects your bloodstream,” says Hanson. “It’s also a product that’s completely void of any nutrients and it strips away nutrients and minerals and vitamins from your body, so that’s probably why I can’t tolerate sugar because it completely washes anything good out of my body right away.”
“Our sweet tooth is out of control,” agrees Murphy. “Everything a kid eats has sugar in it, from his crackers to his luncheon meats to ketchup, his favourite ‘vegetable.’ And yet your brain is the only part of the body that needs actual glucose; every other cell in your body is happy with any other fuel.”
An increase in sugar in the bloodstream requires increased production of insulin by the pancreas, which in turn increases the chances of inflammation and allergies. High concentrations also cause white blood cells to become sluggish.
Murphy doesn’t advocate striking sugar (or any food, barring those that cause you to have a true allergic reaction) from your diet: Her goal is to help patients find balance so they can eat anything in moderation.
“They start to feel like a prisoner: ‘I can’t eat this, I can’t eat this, I can’t eat this, I can’t go to restaurants,’” says Murphy. “I have time to sit down and go ‘This is what your intestine looks like and this is what is happening.’ When a patient says, ‘I get it,’ it’s a miracle. They no longer see themselves as being controlled by it.”
As for Hanson, she counts her food intolerances as “one of the biggest blessings of my life. I’ve learned so much about my own body, which I really don’t think a lot of people have knowledge about at all. I can put a certain food in my mouth and know how it’s going to affect me and how I’ll feel afterwards, and make my judgments based around that. It’s given me a lifestyle that I probably wouldn’t have otherwise, and I’ve learnt a lot from that.”