This blog chronicles my life as I try to balance healthy lifestyle habits with my husband's penchant for pizza rolls and my daughter's desire to watch iCarly 8 hours a day. It contains a mostly humorous, kind, and somewhat spiritual look at everyday life and the people who live it.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

What is a dairy allergy anyway? (Let's talk about leukotrienes!)

It's not just the dairy that can make you sick

As I've mentioned before I am allergic to dairy.  Being allergic to dairy is not the same as being lactose intolerant but unlike other food allergies, it can be very similar to "seasonal" allergies.  Lactose intolerance occurs when a person's digestive tract does not secrete enough of the enzyme lactase which is necessary to digest the protein lactose.   Symptoms that you are lactose intolerant include stomach pain, bloating, diarrhea, nausea, and/or gas after eating foods containing lactose (milk sugar).

That's not what happens to me.  When I first consume dairy nothing much happens.  This is probably why I went until about the age of 33 with no idea I was allergic to dairy.  My entire childhood was spent with my throat feeling itchy, my tongue feeling "funny", hives mysteriously appearing and disappearing on my face and upper body, and oh yeah, my stomach cramping and lots of diarrhea too.  I drank milk with at least 2 meals a day, frequently ate ice cream, and loved cheese.  Because dairy was such a big part of my diet it never occurred to me that what I was feeling wasn't normal.  I also had strep throat and tonsillitis at least 4 times a year and tonsil stones all year long. And constant sinus congestion.   Inflammation was my middle name.  Oh, and even my acne had acne.  More inflammation.

As the years went by I was diagnosed with irritable bowel syndrome and seasonal allergies.  Sinusitis and rhinitis.  Things got worse.  My seasonal allergies went all year long, my face was always broken out, my lower abdomen bulged even in high school and college when I thought I looked best when I weighed under 100 pounds.  Believe it or not, the bad skin, bad bowels, and bad sinuses weren't the worst part: it was the endless itching.   Hives would appear in waves from my scalp to my stomach.  That is what it feels like to have a dairy allergy.  Does this sound like you?

So let's talk about leukotrienes (I swear I don't make these names up!)   Leukotrienes are fatty molecules that are part of the immune system and are usually accompanied by histamine and contribute to inflammation.  The production or overproduction of leukotrienes is directly influenced by arichidonic acid, a molecule found exclusively in animal products.  In other words, it wasn't just the dairy products contributing to my overall poor health, it was probably the dairy products, the meat products, and the egg products!  When I decided to become vegan every single "allergy" symptom disappeared and my face cleared up.  Hmmmm...

Over the years I have become a very lax vegan.  I got tired of preparing 2 dinners: one for me and one for Steve and our daughter.  I got tired of being "high maintenance" at restaurants.  I got tired of never being able to just "stop for a burger" -- it seemed like everything took so much planning.  I still don't eat dairy products (mostly because of the hives that I still get, even inside my mouth and throat!) but I've noticed a gradual but persistent return of "seasonal" allergies as more and more animal products have crept into my diet.  I have a feeling I know the culprits: it's those darn leukotrienes!

Now I have absolutely nothing against becoming a dedicated vegan again, but in case you do I have some other suggestions: Omega-3 fatty acids are the most effective at keeping those pesky leukotriene levels in check.  You know the sources of Omega-3s: salmon, walnuts, olive oil, supplements, etc. but did you know about the connection between sugar and leukotriene levels?  Ah yes, the evil warlord sugar rears its ugly head again.  Apparently sugar is so effective at causing inflammation in the body that it puts the immune system into overdrive and kicks those leukotriene and histamine levels waaaaaaay up.  Thus even if you eliminate all animal products and take truckloads of Omega-3 supplements if you also knock back a  few completely vegan Cokes, you're undoing all the good you've done.  Imagine what my former ice cream consumption did to me?  No wonder I spent a week every 3 months suffering from tonisillitis!

It just doesn't seem fair, does it?

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