We all get dealt our cards in life. Unfortunately, my hand includes a daft immune system and a stricken series of genetic codes. You name it: eczema, asthma, food allergies, dust allergies, pollen allergies, mold allergies, water sensitivity, even sweat allergies. (Yes, you can be allergic to your own sweat, along with these other weird things you didn’t know could cause allergies.) I’ve had it all.
Unfortunately, while popping in some Claritin pills and Benadryl packs might tide over most allergies, there’s not much flexibility in the food space. Going to restaurants and trying new dishes turned into a brutal hand of roulette. Most of my food allergies ranged on the severity spectrum in terms of my intolerance to it. According to my blood test, apples would trigger a mildly annoying rash and peanuts would spark anaphylactic mayhem. Regardless, doctors and dermatologists told me from Day 1 that there was absolutely nothing I could do about my 50+ list of food allergies, and it was merely something I would have to strictly avoid for the rest of my life. (These are other allergy myths you should stop believing.)
As a girl who was taught to do what I was told, I obeyed these orders diligently. My EpiPen was attached to my hip wherever I went, and I would spend hours at the grocery store scouring food labels. Repetitively warning friends that I would likely keel over if they accidentally got peanut butter on me instigated some anxiety issues. But aside from the inadvertent mishap at a foreign restaurant every now and then, my allergens and I happily remained complete strangers.
My first bite of heaven
That all changed when I bit into my first mouthful of blue crabs around the age of 10. I’m a proud Maryland-raised gal, so crabs were a commodity that was nearly impossible to avoid. Those freshly steamed, Old Bay-seasoned creatures were served at nearly every group outing, buffet, and cookout. Seeing them everywhere, I was wildly tempted; watching everyone loudly lick their lips and devour plates of the stuff was just getting too difficult to bear. Taking a rebellious stand and remembering that crabs had fallen under a relatively moderate allergen rating at my last allergy test, I decided to give it a shot one day—behind my parents’ back—to see what it was like.
To no surprise, I got a reaction. Luckily, it was not severe enough to span anything beyond swelling. My lips and throat puffed up like a blowfish and I had to swallow two Benadryls to placate it. But it didn’t change the fact that it was the best morsel of food I had tasted in my entire life. The beautiful flavors mingling in a seductive pas-de-deux on my tongue—before it started swelling up that is—kept replaying in my head like a series of bad song lyrics. Call it early teenage rebellion, but I had to go back and experience it again. I snuck another mouthful at a buffet, and when the reaction hit, I sprinted to the bathroom to try and hide it from my parents. It was mild enough that I could rinse my mouth with water and wait for a period of time for the swelling to subside externally. That way, when I exited the restroom and rejoined the table, nobody could suspect I ever ate one of my allergens.
I repeated this process whenever I had access to blue crabs, and to my surprise, the reaction started to slow down with every occasion. My restroom procedure became shorter and shorter with every session, and the intensity of the reaction began to lessen significantly. Soon, you couldn’t even tell that I was having an allergic reaction from the outside; all that happened when I ate crabs was a mellow tingling on my tongue.
Around the fifteenth time I ate it, that disappeared too. I could now freely consume blue crabs with no allergic reaction whatsoever. Even my next allergy test proved that I no longer had any sensitivity to it, much to my doctor’s astonishment. The rest of my allergies remained intact, but this one had disappeared from the charts altogether.
Science backs me up
It was very interesting to find out (many years later) that the current and prevalent argument in favor of allergy testing is that once the offending allergen is identified, something called desensitization immunotherapy be implemented in order to gain immune tolerance. In fact, doctors think it could soon reverse allergies in children. In other words, food allergies can be cured the same way I did—more professionally, of course. (While eating my allergen worked for me, definitely don’t try it at home.)
Throughout the years, no other medical treatment has been shrouded in as much controversy as the practice of allergy desensitization. According to Surrey Allergy Clinic in the U.K., the use of allergen-specific subcutaneous injection immunotherapy actually spans 90 years, but was discouraged in 1986 when the British Medical Journal published a report that cited 26 anaphylactic deaths over 30 years. However, these deaths arose “mainly as a result of inappropriate and injudicious use of the procedure in treating uncontrolled asthma.”
Since then, countless other reports have been released with clinical trials that indicate both sublingual and oral immunotherapy are effective in reducing sensitivity to allergens. People have since tried the method and cured their children of various food allergies.
Nearly 6 million kids in the United States and 1 million in the United Kingdom suffer from food allergies. While immunotherapy can indeed be a potentially life-threatening treatment and must never be practiced on severe food allergies, it does have a place in select patient groups. The risk of adverse reactions is greatly reduced—and can even be erased—if experimented with proper caution and on the precise allergen.
In any case, it’s worth repeating: Do not try allergy desensitization without the OK from a doctor or if you or your child has major food allergies; practicing this method on my milk or peanut allergy would have earned me a prompt trip to the emergency room. The younger the person, the more likely the treatment will work on them, but even then, it isn’t a guaranteed antidote to allergies.
However, if it goes well, you just might acquire your favorite food along the way.