Kate Lawrence – our new 'research reporter'
Kate Lawrence has just taken up a post as our new research reporter – and what excellent credentials she has for the job – both professional and personal!
I am really excited to be joining the Foods Matter team to help keep you all at the cutting-edge of any research developments in food allergy and related fields. I am a Psychologist at St Mary’s University, Twickenham, having previously worked at the Institute of Child Health and Great Ormond Street Hospital for ten years. My research focuses on social and emotional development in children and adolescents, including children with developmental disorders such as autism. (See here for more on what I do.) More recently, I have begun working on research looking at the influence of diet and nutrition on physical and emotional well-being.
My interest in food, nutrition and allergies began abruptly back in 2003. Having recently returned from our honeymoon in Malaysia, my husband and I both discovered that we had brought home some rather interesting holiday souvenirs… giardia parasites! These parasites had chosen to stow away in our small intestines wreaking havoc with our digestive systems. After strong antibiotic treatment to eradicate these parasites, I developed an intolerance to milk and then, over the coming years, one-by-one, to various other foods including wheat, oats, rye, gluten, maize, rice, soya, egg and oranges and fructose.
My husband was fine to begin with, but several years later had a severe anaphylactic reaction to ibuprofen and now has reactions to numerous foods (notably milk and gluten and, much to his annoyance, beer and wine!). He has to eat a diet low in salicylates and carry epi-pens.
In amongst all these fun discoveries and culinary challenges, we had two boys who, yes you’ve guessed it, are also affected by numerous food allergies and intolerances. When our first son was born, he was so sensitive to various foods, he reacted to even miniscule traces of these that were passed on in my breast milk from foods I had eaten. As a baby, he had constant diarrhoea, infected eczema and never slept. At six weeks, in a moment of exhaustion and desperation, we decided to try him on some infant formula – maybe he was not sleeping because he was hungry? He had a severe violent reaction with vomiting, red burning skin, and a flare up of diarrhoea and eczema and we knew immediately that he couldn’t tolerate milk. Gradually we noticed that he reacted to numerous other foods in my diet, which one-by-one I excluded – until my weight dropped so much that my milk dried up and we eventually got an emergency referral to a wonderful dietician who prescribed hydrolysed formula for him. He was violently allergic to this too but was able to tolerate Neocate (an amino acid based, hypoallergenic formula) and, at about seven months, was finally comfortable and full enough to sleep for periods of more than a couple of hours at a time.
We were initially referred to a local paediatrician to help manage his diet but, after being advised to get his calcium from yoghurts and ice cream instead of milk (!!?!), we realised that we needed some more specialist help and fought to be referred to a specialist allergy clinic. Here, skin prick and blood tests confirmed severe allergies to all nuts, milk, egg, soya, sesame, kiwi, with an intolerance to gluten and now to all grains and high fructose fruits. He has to carry epi-pens with him at all times.
When we fell pregnant with our second child, we had read everything we could about allergies and prevention. I was taking probiotics daily, eating a healthy diet and excluding all the things to which I was allergic. When he was born, he too reacted with diarrhoea and eczema to foods that I ate and I had to exclude various additional foods from my diet. Second time round, we found it much easier to get his symptoms under control and we were fortunate to have the support of the allergy clinic from the start.
Things over the years have been up and down and we have encountered lots of challenges, like many of you, on our journey of food allergy discovery. We quickly realised how sensitive the boys were to even small amounts of their allergens – just a crumb of bread, for example, that falls into their lunchbox is enough to cause a reaction. And it’s not just eating food that causes them problems. A kiss from a relative who had drunk a cup of tea with milk can cause hives and itching on their skin. Being in a room where baking is taking place and flour had become airborne can set off gastrointestinal reactions and tongue ulceration that last up to two weeks. Picking up an egg box can trigger swelling of the face, lips and eye-lids. The boys have to be vigilant at all times for allergens around them. Art and science activities at school often involve wheat flour, pasta, food cartons etc. Their schools, friends and our extended-family have all been amazing at adapting to these challenges and keeping the boys safe. And the boys themselves have amazed us with their resilience to these challenges and the cheerful and positive approach they take to enjoying life and all the wonderful foods they are still able to eat.
Whilst we have encountered so many kind and sympathetic medical professionals over the years, we are continually frustrated by the limitations in what they can offer. We visit the allergy clinic and, as I’m sure is the same for many of you, we are subjected to tests that tell us the foods that we already know that cause allergies. We are then sent a letter, detailing the information which we have told the consultant in the consultation. It seems like we are wasting both our time and theirs. The allergy and gastroenterology departments of hospitals are separate, which seems insane when you are thinking about food allergies and intolerances – particularly given the importance of the gut in the immune system.
The boys have been prescribed a plethora of different medications over the years; many of these we have never used as, when we collect them from the pharmacy, we realise they contain ingredients that the boys are allergic to! The ones that we have tried invariably cause side-effects that make things worse. The things that we have found to produce the most benefit, in terms of gastrointestinal symptoms and energy, seem to be vitamin d3 supplements, probiotics, fish-oils, home-made chicken broth (which contains collagen and is supposed to help restore to gut lining and reduce inflammation) and zinc.
There is some really exciting research being conducted at the moment related to the role of gut bacteria and the microbiome in food allergies and autoimmune diseases. Based on this research, treatment protocols are being implemented by functional medicine doctors in the US and some nutritional therapists in the UK but this seems to be taking time to filter down to general medicine.
For any of you who are trying, not only to manage your conditions, but also to potentially improve general health or lessen allergic responses – I will be providing updates of current research developments in the field. I hope that some of these might be useful in either helping you understand more about allergy related conditions or, ultimately, in implementing lifestyle changes that might help you manage these more effectively.
I would love to hear from you if you have any thoughts on the research articles in the newsletters or if any of the research has helped you.
If you would like to read Kate's research reports, go here.
If you would like to read more personal stories of how families have coped with severe allergies, go here.
If you would like to read more about food allergy and intolerance in general, follow the links from this page.