Tuesday, June 21, 2011


I've been thinking about this a bit lately. When I first discovered non-dairy products, I went a little crazy on the soy. While soy still makes up part of my diet, I've definitely worked hard to find alternatives.

Part of the reason is that I'm always a bit worried that I'll develop a new allergy and I want to make sure that I do as much as possible to prevent that. So, I switch up my meals and try new things whenever I can. That can be tricky, but I've found little ways of getting around some of my allergies and sensitivities.

One thing that I've recently discovered is that while I can't eat instant oatmeal or even oatmeal cooked for a few minutes on the stove, I can eat baked oatmeal. It takes about 40 minutes at about 425 F, but it is totally worth it. I add about 10 ml of maple syrup (the real, pure stuff), 10 ml of brown sugar to about 125 ml of oatmeal and one cup of soy milk or almond milk. I've used rice milk and the consistency didn't quite do it for me, but if that's what you can use, it was still good. I'd probably cut the amount back though. I've also put a bit of agave syrup and cut back on the other sugars as well. Not as amazing, but still good. It makes the real stuff a treat. (I think you can see why I can never run a food allergy recipe site!)

And a quick explanation, I do have a nut allergy, but not to all of them. Almonds and I get along fine.

Essentially, trial and error are my friends in the kitchen. I have a good awareness of my allergies/sensitivities and I'm able to work around those safely. I experiment mostly with whole foods since there are generally no hidden ingredients.

However, this comes easily to me. I've grown up in a Indian household in Canada. My parents immigrated here decades ago and integrated well into society. So, my mother is just as likely to cook curries as she is an awesome Thanksgiving feast or lasagna. I've watched both of my parents experiment with new foods and tastes in the kitchen and I recognize that not everyone "knows" how to do this.

I think there are some great options out there.

1. Cookbooks. While I'm not vegan (I just prefer vegetables), some of the books I love the most are the Veganomicon (Isa Chandra Moskowitz and Terry Hope Romero) and the series of cookbooks from Fresh Restaurants in Toronto. If nothing else, they will inspire you and I think that's one of the most important qualities in a cookbook. If the recipe calls for nuts and you can't have them, experiment! I once came up with an odd but yummy replacement when a recipe called for feta in a salad. You should definitely take notes, since I've never been able to recreate what on earth I did.

2. Look for a good nutritionist, especially if you've been newly diagnosed or your allergies have changed. This field has grown and changed since I went to one a couple of decades ago and a good nutritionist can really help you out of a food variety slump. You may not take all of their advice, but like a cookbook, they can be inspiring and help you think about your abilities, not your disabilities.

3. Pretty grocery stores and markets. There is nothing I love more than walking around a Whole Foods Market or a great weekend farmer's market with some cash to spare and not a clue in the world what I want to do for dinner. But, then I see some gorgeous corn or a beautiful cut of fish and I start putting things together. Even better, I see a vegetable that I've always wanted to try (but never have) and start working around that. I've no idea how it will work, and sometimes it doesn't, but either way I've got something to work on and improve.

4. Have flavour on hand! I can't stress this enough. I have friends (who will remain nameless) who own nothing beyond pre-ground pepper and salt! To a Canadian-Indian girl this is unthinkable! Don't buy the cheap stuff that's included with the spice rack from WalMart or wherever. If you want the containers, fine, but toss the stuff when you get home - it's old and bland. Try growing fresh herbs. They're pretty easy and you can buy them (already grown) from grocery and home gardening stores. Or, buy the ones in the grocery store that look pretty. They often cost more, but you can actually tell the difference. Keep them in a cool, dark place. They may look pretty on the shelf, but oxygen and light are not their friends. And, of course, experiment!! Flavour applies to a lot of herbs, spices, sauces, etc. Soy sauce, balsamic vinegar with a bit of lemon to brighten things up (in just the right mix) are amazing on some sauteed vegetables and spaghettini.

In conclusion, I can't say that I eat beautifully and wonderfully all the time. I'm definitely the girl who'll eat lime & salt popcorn for dinner if she's exhausted enough. But, I love food and having food allergies has really made me appreciate all the lovely things I can eat in the world. So, I'm determined to keep on changing it up and looking for more things that I've never tried before!

Monday, June 13, 2011

Looking For Emerg Advice

I'm interested in compiling a list of tips from various people with allergic and atopic conditions (i.e.: anaphylaxis, asthma) for dealing with those unexpected trips to the Emergency Room. I'd love to hear about both horror stories and great experiences. I really want to hear about what you think you could have done better, what you think you did right and what you wished you could have said to the staff - good and bad, but no profanities!

I don't need to hear any specifics about your condition and I will not publish any patient names (unless requested to do so in writing by the patient). I will not publish any health care worker or hospital names.

If you'd like to contribute, please leave a comment below or email me at atopicgirl at yahoo dot ca.

If you know someone who has a story to tell, please feel free to pass this along.

Thank you in advance!

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

To Botanical or Not to Botanical

Yes, horrible title. If you still kept reading, I'll forgive its existence and express my thanks. Before proceeding, please read the disclaimer at the bottom of the page. If you continue on without doing so, it basically says that I'm not recommending any product or practice and you're responsible for what you do or do not do.

Anyway, I've never met a dermatologist who was a fan of botanical skin care. My first dermatologist was pretty open-minded after decades of practicing and he was fond of telling me that if it worked and didn't do any harm, then why not? But, that was about where his opinion ended. I always took his advice, but as I got older I tried new things.

The big awakening that my skin-care regimen could not remain static occurred when I was 21. After every shower I would break out everywhere. My face and neck were the worst, but it wasn't limited to that area. I thought my shampoo and conditioner were the culprits, which seemed strange because I was using CliniDerm at the time. It's pretty safe stuff. After two weeks of eliminating my shampoo, conditioner, soap and even the water, I realized it was the Vaseline I slathered all over myself after each shower. My dermatologist was shocked as he'd never heard of such a thing. Convinced it was something used to bleach commercial Vaseline he gave me samples of unbleached petroleum jelly. I still reacted. So, he pronounced me allergic to petroleum and I moved on. Since then, I stay away from Vaseline, GlaxalBase and anything related to petroleum.

Around the same time, Phisoderm switched to making products for the acne market, with no warning, which left me suddenly high and dry regarding a skin cleanser since I can't go near Ivory or Dove. As pure as they say they are, they're full of chemicals just so your tub doesn't accumulate soap scum.

So I had to rethink my skin care strategy and I started with Kiss My Face Olive Oil Bar soaps. Since then, I've used botanical products from companies like Kiss My Face, Avalon Organics and Eminence Organics.

I've had doctors since then tell me that I can't possibly be allergic to things like Dove ("But, it's not soap!") or Vaseline, but the indisputable fact remains that I am and can prove it (not that I have any urge to do so ever again). I've also read a lot of articles written by medical experts which say to stay away from botanicals (lavender, rose, etc.) because they can sensitize the skin and cause more reactions. Seems to me that's exactly what happened to me after using Vaseline for 21 years.

Well, here's the thing. The whole "natural is good and artificial is bad" argument is just a silly as the "natural is ineffective and science is your only hope" argument. It's all too black and white.

Arsenic occurs naturally. So does a host of lethal bacteria. Eggs and cashews are pretty damn natural, too, but at the very least I'll end up in a hospital bed hooked to an I.V., if not dead. Hey, guess what? Petroleum is natural, too. Vaseline's claims to having a "natural" product crack me up to no end. Cue the eye rolling.

Natural isn't the be all and end all, but neither is stuff cranked out from a lab. DDT, Agent Orange - brought to you by the very smart people of some lab who thought they were helping out mankind.

There is a happy medium. I've found lavender to be very soothing for my skin, but of course, if I were allergic to it, I wouldn't. Despite my love of the smell, I stay away from products with peppermint oil because peppermint is an irritant (I really wish companies would stop using it in everything). When I have really rashy spots, I use a corticosteroid cream because the "natural" eczema cream I bought last year doesn't do anything except for make me smell kind of nice, though it's a great moisturizer.

A couple of years ago, I had a horrible rash on both ankles for over six months. First, I eliminated everything I thought could possibly have caused it, but no luck. Then, I went the scientific/medically-approved route and absolutely nothing happened - corticosteroids were powerless against this rash. So, I tried a wrap of Swedish Bitters for a few weeks. One ankle completely cleared up, but the other didn't. So, I soaked the other ankle in a hot bath of neem leaves for another few weeks, every single night. And that cleared up the other ankle. At the end of it all, who can say what worked? The vodka used to make the Swedish Bitters? The act of bathing my ankle in the hot water in which I'd steeped the neem leaves? I haven't the foggiest - I am not a scientist and it was anything but a medical trial - but it worked and it did no harm.

When I try new things, I'm not stupid about it. I don't use Dove, even though I have a doctor who tells me to. I don't use Vaseline even though the entire medical community seems to think it an innocuous substance (and I always have to do a bit of convincing when I meet a new doctor). I also don't buy into "natural" eczema cures (there is no cure), nor do I hold any stock in homeopathy. As a child I went through years of it (like all parents, mine were desperate for a cure) and even then I found it illogical.

Like a lot of things in my life - politics, values, beliefs - I've found a happy medium and I hope others can, too. Your body is yours, and yours alone; so, what works for you is what works. End of atopic story.

If this post has made you start thinking, here are some links to help you get started. As with all things, please have an educated discussion with your doctor before trying anything new and read my disclaimer at the bottom of the page. The links tend to skew towards an anti-botanical view since I don't use sites that make claims of cures or are anti-pharmaceutical.