Can food sensitivity trigger heart arrhythmia?

Anna Jacobs writes historical novels (she has had over 80 published) but she also suffers from severe intolerances to both wheat and corn/maize. Unusually, although not uniquely, the tiniest contact with either wheat or maize can trigger an arrhythmia or atrial flutter in which her heart beats at twice its normal rate. In this short piece she responds to Dr Michael Radcliffe who has written about corn allergy on this site and elsewhere.

The possibility of an intolerance to corn causing a heart arrhythmia had arisen in a correspondence with Dr Radcliffe and he had said:

My other memory concerns non-IgE food reactions and cardiac arrhythmias.  Many years ago, during my time as a GP, I had a patient who linked palpitations to the ingestion of certain types of cheese, whilst she suffered no symptoms from any other foods including milk. 

I arranged a 24 hour cardiac monitoring device for her and she deliberately ate tiny amounts of various kinds of cheese during a three-day period.  Palpitations occurred as predicted, and the trace recorded these as brief episodes of atrial fibrillation.  But my local cardiologist seemed to think that this was unsurprising, and the observation was not published.  At the time, I wondered if this was due to 'amine' effects, but now I am not so sure.  IgE-mediated allergy without circulating IgE is known to occur and there may be other unexplored mechanisms.  

I assume that Ms Jacobs has had a conventional corn/maize allergy test.

To which Anna Jacobs replied:

I would never undertake a conventional corn/maize allergy challenge test because it might give me a stroke.  I refused one when I first found out I was severely wheat intolerant, too. They wanted me to eat wheat for six weeks! I couldn’t go back on wheat/corn without risking killing myself. Mine are not allergies, but they’re very severe intolerances and always start my heart going crazy these days.

The corn/maize aspect all came to a head in 2012. I had had minor episodes of arrhythmia for years but hadn’t realised what they were. But my corn/maize intolerance must have increased, as my wheat intolerance had done over the years. I have several other food intolerances, but only fish is as severe as the wheat/corn/maize. That’s been lifelong.

I was hospitalised as an emergency in 2012 for what was discovered to be atrial flutter when my heart beat double time for over 24 hours and nothing they did would slow it down. This was due to an inadvertent ingestion of corn/maize carrying the flavouring on potato crisps/chips. I’d eaten more crisps than usual at a party because I’d missed a meal. It hadn’t even occurred to me then that crisps might have corn/maize carrying the flavouring and I notice nowadays that most crisps sold in the UK use potato or cassava flour, or a similar root flour.

At the hospital they finally did a test where they stopped my heart to find out whether it was atrial flutter (scary test) and fortunately for me they also found out afterwards that the old-fashioned drug flecainide stops the rapid heartbeat within the hour. Beta blockers had had no effect. So I was referred to a cardiologist, who did a great many tests and then suggested I carried flecainide as an emergency pill but didn’t need to take it every day, as the hospital had suggested. He didn’t even want to see me again as a patient, as my heart has only minor irregularities which can cause atrial flutter if I eat wheat/corn/maize.

Since then, the only times I’ve gone into arrhythmia have been after inadvertently ingesting food that was supposed to be safe eg at restaurants which assured me there was no wheat/corn/maize in the food they were serving. I’ve come to the conclusion they don’t really understand food intolerances, especially that maize/cornflour can be as bad as wheat intolerance. This year I went to my daughter’s birthday party at a restaurant I didn’t know and watched the others eat while I drank diet ginger beer!

Later this year I went to an Indian restaurant I had considered ‘safe’ for years and had an attack. I found that they’d changed the chef and the new one didn’t understand such problems.

I’m not stupid and I can tie every single episode of arrhythmia to wheat/maize/cornflour since 2012. I saw a cardiologist after the hospital incident, remember, and I don’t need a doctor to test me to understand  what has happened since then. My own GP and cardiologist both fully accept my understanding of what triggers an attack without needing a test. 

I put my reduction of episodes down to only a couple of minor ones per year to being very watchful indeed of what I eat both in restaurants and in food I buy. Other cereals like oats/rye give me ‘only’ an almost instant headache and a dopey blurred reaction for 24 hours. Rice I eat in moderation only. I’m lactose intolerant but OK once milk turns to cheese, by the way, so I don’t think I have a problem with amines, as your other case study might have had.

January 2018

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