NOTE 1: The story below is my own personal experience. Of course, you should visit your doctor for an actual diagnosis, and call 911 in the event of a true emergency.
NOTE 2: Thanks to an alert reader for jogging my memory, and reminding me of my Benadryl experience, and my mother’s odd, but correct, advice! This post has been updated to reflect these two additions.
In my early twenties, I developed an allergy to eggs. I did not determine this by visiting an allergist. My mother, who’d worked for doctors her entire life but refused to do certain things (like visit an allergist or actually get a mammogram), believed that allergists were akin to witch doctors. I will admit that I probably should have found a doctor for my money allergy; maybe it’s not too late.
Perhaps my mother thought I said “alchemist”? Who knows. She was as tough as ever. As for me, no, I did not visit an allergist; I did it the old-fashioned way, by systematically eliminating one food from my diet at a time.
It’s a weird allergy – I can eat things with eggs in them, like cakes, pancakes, etc. Just so long as they don’t have too many eggs (quiche is dicey). But I could no longer consume “straight eggs” – like an omelette, not a homosexual egg. And just to be clear, I have no Monday Malice (or any malice, really) for allergists; I do have Monday Malice for the eleventy billion additives in our food, as you’ll see below.
The “Charley Horse”, Stomach Edition
The allergy symptom was incredibly painful; I can best describe it as a “Charley Horse” in my stomach. You can read more about the “Charley Horse” in Healthline’s piece, “What is a Charley Horse?”. I have no idea if a doctor would have diagnosed this as a “Charley Horse,” but if you’ve ever had one (most likely in the leg, like normal people), you’ll know what I mean. The pain was excruciating and would last for a couple of hours.
As sad as I was to give up my beloved omelette/hard-boiled egg/sunnyside up breakfasts, it was a relief to identify – and be able to avoid – the culprit.
In my late twenties, the pains appeared again; Once, it was so severe that I was carted off to the emergency room. “It’s the broccoli,” my manager advised. “That shit will kill you.”
Ahh, broccoli! Another of my favorites (really), gone, felled by my body’s resistance.
The Real ER trips begin
Several years later, Charley returned, this time requiring a real emergency trip to the E.R. This apparent allergy had weaponized itself, resulting in head-to-toe hives. The hives weren’t so bad, except I began getting them in my throat, which promptly began closing. That was terrifying, and off we went. It being a Saturday night in the D.C. suburbs, I was not seen for hours (my “throat hives” had subsided). By the time I was finally seen, my blood pressure was at dangerously low levels, something like 80/40. “And you’re two hours past the attack!” the nurse exclaimed. Well, that’s just great, I thought. Good to know I made someone’s night.
The next week, I visited my doctor.
“Do you want to see an aller—-?”
“NO,” I snapped, having turned into my mother.
“Well,” he said, “it’s probably something you ate. Did you eat something you normally don’t?”
“Yes,” I replied, “Ribs, at a restaurant.”
“Well,” he said, “it’s probably something in the sauce. All the restaurants probably use the same sauce, so I’d stay away from commercially prepared ribs, and just make them at home.”
No Ribs for Me!
Thanks, but no thanks, doc! I’ve already given up broccoli and eggs; I can live a complete life without homemade ribs. And if you ever want to feel truly weird, have someone ask you, “Any food allergies?”, and find yourself having to answer, “Yes! Broccoli, eggs, and ribs.”
For a few years, things were fine. Then Charley arrived for another visit, but this time, he just would not leave. He visited about three times a week and stayed for hours. It was unbearable and debilitating.
Finally, the Allergist
Having by now grown somewhat of a spine, I defiantly announced to my mother that I was seeing an allergist.
“Fine!” she said. “See what that gets you.”
Here’s what that got me: 415 needles in my arms. OK, not really, but I did endure those “skin test” thingies that they do, where they test for a plethora of allergens.
The results came back…negative. “You know,” the doctor said cheerfully, “it might not be an allergy. It might be an intolerance [for the insanely curious, the Mayo Clinic provides a nice explanation of the difference between a food intolerance and a food allergy]. “And!” he continued, “You might be dose-sensitive, which means a certain level of it causes you to….” I began to think my mother was right. The “allergist” was not helping…
…but his next question did me in:
Doctor: “Do you eat a lot of processed foods?”
Me (virtuously): “No!”
Doctor: “What did you eat yesterday?”
Me: “Toast, bacon, grilled cheese sandwich, then for dinner chicken and Rice-a-Roni, then for a snack I had microwave popcorn.”
Doctor: “Right. You eat a lot of processed foods.”
Me (thinking to myself): “I call BS! If I had to open the box, use a skillet, and add butter, that Rice-a-Roni was NOT processed! And the popcorn – I mean, it’s just corn, right? It’s a healthy vegetable!”
Doctor: “Here’s the thing. It’s probably a chemical or some natural food additive in something you’re eating. And we can’t possibly test for those; there are thousands. So you’re going to have to keep a detailed food diary of every single ingredient in every single thing you eat, and correlate those to these episodes.”
FAN-TAS-TIC. Sighing, I grabbed a notebook and a pen and got to work, creating this absurd matrix and, for the first time, realizing how many ingredients are in, like, everything we eat.
It took me about six weeks to find the culprit: monocalcium phosphate. According to Bakerpedia (which is an amazing site!), it’s commonly found in baked goods, where it’s used as a leavening agent.
News flash: You might find monocalcium phosphate in, really, anything; here’s a small sample of where I found it:
- Half and half (!)
- Frozen meals (even the “healthy” ones!)
I returned to the allergist, simultaneously triumphant and dejected. “Wow!” he said. “That’s impressive. I didn’t think you’d ever find it. And you’re probably dose-sensitive, which means [these are his exact words] that you’ll sort of be playing Russian Roulette with your food for the rest of your life.”*
*Interesting phenomenon: While expecting our first child, my mother suggested that “Maybe you can eat eggs, and brocolli.” I thought to myself (and may have said out loud), “Are you trying to kill me?” My mother’s long experience working for doctors had given her an eerie sixth sense about this sort of thing. Turns out, she was right! (Yes, I tried it; it was impossible to resist.) I cheerily consumed eggs and broccoli while expecting all three of my kids. Sadly, the allergy/intolerance came roaring back about six weeks after each of them were born. Most of the reliable literature discusses the onset of these conditions during pregnancy; I found virtually nothing about their disappearance. To learn more, read “The Lowdown on Allergies During Pregnancy” on Mom Loves Best.
Thanks, doctor, for that encouraging visual. What’s the solution, I asked? His suggestion: “You can completely avoid eating out, take an Allegra every morning for the rest of your life (and eat whatever you want), or carry Allegra with you at all times.” (Note: I tried Benadryl too. It worked really well, as long as I could plan on being out cold for 18 hours.)
I Went for Door #3
I am never without Allegra. And it really is roulette-like to walk around never knowing if the next delicious dinner roll is going to be your downfall. And, sorry, give up bread? Cheese? Half and half? Eating out? For the rest of my life? Um, no.
I’m very careful about the food we buy to prepare at home; I read labels assiduously. As to dining out, if I catch Charley while he’s still knocking at the door, that’s enough to send him packing. We’ve had a couple of dicey moments where I thought I might need to call 911 to have him forcibly removed, but those moments have passed.
Is there a food/drink/unknown additive that’s bothering you? Take my advice, unless it’s debilitating: start with the “Matrix” notebook. That way, when the allergist asks what you might be consuming that’s causing this (since the 415 needles might provide inconclusive results), you can brandish your notebook and say, “Already done, thanks Doc!”⧉