Our Story of Transformation
The Wakeup Call
It was August of 2013. Seeing my daughter Pia writhing and screaming on the floor of the Seattle Children’s Hospital emergency room forced me to reconsider a thought I had been stubbornly refusing to confront for years: This could be food allergies.
As a busy mother, chef and blogger, wife to a carb-loving Greek husband, and fun-loving friend whose career and social life revolved around food, I found the idea of food as a “health hazard” SERIOUSLY threatening, both personally and professionally. But standing in one of the most respected children’s hospitals in the world, seeing our little girl in so much pain, and everyone around her so apparently helpless to bring her relief, snapped me into another reality.
The attack, which consisted of severe abdominal pain and dry heaving, started at my parents’ house. I was freaking out, but I knew I could rely on my parents to tell me objectively if I was overreacting—after all, they had raised four children, had five grandchildren, and are totally no-nonsense. When I saw that they were panicked, too, I raced Pia to the ER.
After several hours of testing, Pia’s pains subsided, but the test results came up completely inconclusive. In the end, the ER doc literally shrugged and said, “Maybe she needs to poop more?”
Seriously?! At that moment I just set my jaw and “channeled my mom instincts,” wracking my brain for an explanation. It’s natural to look to our own experiences to look for answers, so I thought about anything that had ever caused me terrible stomachaches as a child. And suddenly the light bulb turned on: dairy.
Pia was five then. My goodness she had been sick a lot since she was born, almost always had an earache or a sinus infection, and had suffered through multiple trips to the ER and urgent care center for all types of problems. We were serious regulars at the pediatrician’s office, and she was prescribed antibiotics six to eight times a year for serious ear and sinus infections.
None of her doctors could agree on what was wrong with her. I was told she had eczema (now we know that eczema is an auto-immune disease) for which she was given steroid creams. Her stomachaches and constipation “had to be” because she was not consuming enough fiber—so we should give her fiber supplements (later realizing that she was allergic to psyllium husks.) Or maybe her stomach was hurting because she was “stressed out” (cue the gross mom-guilt). Her sinus infections and earaches were due to “seasonal allergies” and it was recommended that she take Claritin—every day for the rest of her life. And when that didn’t work and the symptoms overwhelmed her, they would just prescribe antibiotics, again. She eventually became allergic to half of them from overuse, so they would have to try another. Each symptom was treated individually, but we were never given an overall diagnosis for why this little girl simply never felt entirely well. We felt terrible for her, and as parents it was just completely exhausting and overwhelming.
There in the ER room, I began to put the pieces together. I had been diagnosed “lactose intolerant” by my own pediatrician when I was about Pia’s age. In the early eighties, though, this “trouble” with milk was seen as just an annoyance, a trivial detail to accommodate when possible. It mainly meant my poor mom might have to cook a different meal for me than what she was cooking for my three siblings (which wasn’t going to happen), or that occasionally she would drop a container of very expensive Mocha Mix (fake milk) into the shopping cart. Mostly people just told me to “toughen up.” There was an industry-fueled pressure in the air, too. Remember the slogan: Milk. It does a body good? If I didn’t drink cow’s milk, I would never “grow tall and strong,” so more often than not I would find myself drinking the glass of milk set before me despite my body’s protests.
And so I spent a lot of time as a child crying with stomachaches after dinner (I vividly remember this). In my late teens and early twenties I was plagued with a fresh influx of terrible stomach pain and constant heartburn. I was put on the B.R.A.T. diet: bananas, rice, applesauce, and toast (I would later learn I was allergic to toast and bananas so that was just great) and then had multiple endoscopies to identify the source of my pain and the inflammation they found in my stomach and esophagus. After five years with off and on digestive problems and without a definitive diagnosis, discomfort became my new normal and I just went on with my life. And in all that time, not one doctor ever suggested it could be due to what I was eating. But now, all these years later, watching Pia go through something similar, a lightbulb turned on. Hindsight is 20/20, right? It suddenly seemed obvious that it was diet related.
Back home, I started writing down everything she ate and her reactions, and it didn’t take long for my suspicions to be borne out: dairy definitely give her stomachaches, but when combined with gluten (think macaroni and cheese, grilled-cheese sandwiches, quesadillas, pizza- pretty much ALL kid food) it was even more intense. To be honest, it did not even occur to me that there were other foods that she could be having trouble with initially. I knew dairy was common and that gluten was everywhere in the press so that was where I started.
In September of 2013 Pia started kindergarten and was beginning a whole new adventure in her young life. I was so motivated to help her feel good at this critical stage and fix what was going on with her that I completely cut out dairy in her meals and started experimenting with cutting gluten here and there, too.
For a while it seemed to help, but then a few weeks into the school year I had to pick Pia up early after she had been sent to the school office—with neck pain. Neck pain? After she got home and had a nap, she felt better, so I didn’t read too much into it.
But that night we went to one of our favorite restaurants, which happens to serve the best pita bread on the planet. Even though I’d been limiting her gluten to some extent, after the bad day she’d had I decided to make an exception for that amazing bread. Ten minutes after she dove into the pita basket she was moaning in pain, crying about her painful neck and fuzzy eyes!
I finally recognized that she was describing the beginnings of a migraine headache (for a five-year-old, the base of her skull was her neck; “fuzzy eyes” was her way of describing the auras associated with vision-altering migraines). At that moment it could not have been more obvious to me that she was allergic to wheat or gluten.
Having heard others’ stories about skeptical doctors, I went to Pia’s pediatrician well armed with evidence and examples of her reactions to suspected allergens. To his credit he was surprisingly open to the idea of testing and ordered a preliminary (though not very detailed) food-specific allergy blood test that measured her IgG levels (IgG, short for Immunoglobulin G, is a type of antibody) when exposed to the thirteen most common foods in the American diet. When the results came back a few weeks later, reality started to sink in. She was allergic to twelve of the thirteen tested foods.
But they had no idea how to help us further and couldn’t give a diagnosis or a plan of action because the test it is not approved by the FDA. Due to the lack of information they had at their disposal and their inexperience on the topic, they were uncomfortable giving me advice on how to proceed. I think the pediatrician’s exact words were, “I’m sorry, I don’t know what to say.”
So I cut dairy and gluten completely as well as a few other common allergens that had popped up on the IGg test from her diet, hoping the answer was just that simple. Sadly, things in “Allergy World” are rarely that straightforward. Her symptoms persisted, particularly a chronic congestion and postnasal drip that caused her to clear her throat again and again. In fact, the constant throat clearing had become so reflexive that it was distracting and disruptive at home and at school. When we took her to the doctor to see what was going on, we were told it looked like Tourette’s syndrome and that Pia needed to work with a behavioral therapist! I FREAKED OUT and that was the true turning point. I just didn’t buy that at all! She was clearing her throat because she couldn’t breathe. She couldn’t breathe because she had so much mucus in her throat. I wanted to know what was causing the mucus??? So I started researching MDs, specialists, naturopaths—anyone with an opinion about food allergies—who might be able to help us. Eventually we found our way to Dr. Kelly Baker, ND, at the IBS Treatment Center in Seattle (Now treating patients at Integrative Healing Arts in Seattle), where they treat irritable bowel syndrome and also happened to do food-allergy testing. Filling out intake forms as we waited to see the doctor, I had a real wakeup call as I scanned the list of dairy-allergy symptoms:
- abdominal pain
- canker sores
- ear infections
- gas and bloating
- joint pain
- poor immune function
Check, check, check. And I’m not talking about Pia—that list was me. At the risk of TMI I had most of the symptoms.
Meanwhile, our younger daughter, Coco, had also begun to suffer from terrible stomachaches and facial rashes. At four years old she was the most constipated child I had ever seen, (she will kill me one day when she reads this!) and it had also been suggested that she was developing asthma. Since I now knew that most children’s allergies are inherited from one or both parents, I realized that Coco and I would need to be tested, too. This is where you probably ask, “What about your husband? Didn’t Pete want to be tested too?” Well, no, he didn’t. He still waffles with whether or not he wants to do it, depending on if his heartburn is flaring up or not. I share this with you because it is real life. Not everyone is going to want to get on board. He is really respectful of our diet in the home and is a team player with the kids and our health, but each person has to decide to do this for themselves. He admittedly feels great when he eats “on plan” with us, and terrible when he does not, but he has not made the permanent leap yet.
So right before Christmas in 2013, the three of us went through the extensive and specific blood-3 antibody ELISA testing that assessed our reactions to 160 foods, spices, and herbs. And then, doing what any normal person facing the knowledge that she might never be able to eat certain foods again would do, we gorged over the holidays.
January found us all sick and exhausted, not just from our holiday binge but from the shocking test results.
Pete and I were sitting on a sun chair on the beach in Mexico for a much needed vacation when I got the email with our results.
Among my more severe allergens:
- cow and goat dairy
- pineapple, bananas, passion fruit, kiwi (highly, triggering, bordering on anaphylaxis)
- coffee beans, vanilla beans (there go the lattes)
- whole wheat, gluten, flaxseed
- black pepper, bean sprouts, lima beans, navy beans
- clams, scallops
Pia tested positive for these:
- cane sugar, eggs, cow and goat dairy, ginger, curry, and garlic
- oranges, grapefruit, pineapple
- gluten, whole wheat, rye, flax, spelt, barley, Kamut (a variety of wheat)
- psyllium (think of all those fiber supplements)
- hazelnuts, peanuts
- string beans, lima beans, navy beans, coffee beans, soy
And Coco had her own list:
- gluten, whole wheat, spelt, Kamut
- eggs, cow and goat dairy
- oranges and cranberries
OMG. Total Panic. Cue the Margaritas, and right away! No, wait, make that shots.
All I could think was “with so many foods to avoid, how was I possibly going to feed my family?” Pete! What would he do? What about all of my Greek husband’s traditional family foods! And what about my blog readers? Some of my most popular posts that year were recipes for Cheese-and-Cream Baked Potatoes, Skillet-Baked Stuffed Rigatoni, cheese-dripping Caprese Soup, and Slutty Halloween Brownies. Another round of shots please, wait! These are gluten free, right?
As upsetting as the prospect of living without all those foods was, I knew I had to find out what would happen if we did. Having been openly skeptical about the very existence of food allergies—I had been known to smugly smirk at those who went on about what I privately dubbed their “New Age” allergies—I knew I might have to eat crow. I had to put our health before my ego. I channeled my “mama bear” and got to work. Drawing on my skills as a chef and recipe developer as well as the determination of a mother who loves her children, I vowed to dismantle our routines, habits, and social lives, and then rebuild them on a new, sturdier, healthier foundation, piece by piece.
January of 2014 we went cold turkey on all of the items on our Elisa test. The whole family went gluten, dairy, egg, soy and cane sugar free and then we had various other ingredients that we individually avoided based on our results.
Amazing Results Within Eight Weeks
Within three days, Pia’s stomachaches stopped. Within a week, her skin rashes had cleared up and she had no more headaches. Within two weeks, her eyes were no longer puffy and their dark circles had faded, normal healthy bathroom habits resumed, and her nasal congestion and constant throat clearing began to wane.
At the six-week mark I took her to an ear, nose and throat specialist at Childrens Hospital who could not find a trace of inflammation left in her previously chronically infected sinuses. He said “just keep doing what you’re doing mom!”
I also noticed that her wild emotional swings, which I had chalked up to “being a little girl,” seemed to even out. While she would normally cry every afternoon and be drooping with exhaustion after school, she started coming home in a great mood and full of energy. She was a different girl.
Sound hard to believe? All I can say is, I began this journey as a nonbeliever who considered food-allergy weirdos to be fussy, demanding, and self-absorbed, whereas I was all about cooking with abandon and eating with passion and loving life through all the senses! Uhhh, I was wrong. Little did I know I was actually dulling our senses by chronically stressing our systems and that I had been taking our bodies and health for granted.
As for the rest of us, the benefits of avoiding the foods on our “reaction lists” were astounding:
- My eczema and rosacea cleared up.
- My twenty-year affliction with cystic acne cleared up. (hello dairy and corn)
- My monthly migraines, which I had suffered since the age of twelve, and had always been blamed on “hormones” went away and I have not had one since.
- The swelling, soreness, and restriction in my hands that had been diagnosed as pre-arthritis subsided.
- I started sleeping eight to nine hours at night (and yes, those were in a row!) which had not happened since before I had kids.
- My ADD symptoms retreated to the point that I am no longer taking medication for it.
- My heartburn is gone and my digestive health is on point! I had gotten so used to discomfort that it seemed normal.
Coco felt relief from stomachaches and chronic constipation within a few days on the new regimen. Three weeks in, the mysterious bumps and rashes on her face and neck were gone. Her “asthma” symptoms only come on if she accidentally stumbles into some dairy.
Pete, just along for the ride, lost 25 pounds in three months, even though he was actually eating more food than he had been before. (Leave it to men!) He also stopped snoring—thank God!—and no longer suffers from heartburn and indigestion when he eats on the program.
In our family, everything improved: our moods, the quality of our sleep, our energy levels, mobility, focus—the changes were dramatic and undeniable. We laugh more, have more energy, and spend much less time (and money) at the doctor. Being sick is now the exception rather than the rule.
Sound good? Are you ready to say good-bye to many pesky health irritations? Sleep better, look better, feel better? I humbly hope this story helps you make the adjustment, and encourages you to get out there and live your best life.