At the start of the year, I had a dietary revelation: I am salicylate intolerant. Earlier in the winter, I’d had an acute reaction after eating a lentil dish that was loaded with tomato paste. It was not an unfamiliar reaction, but it was one I had rarely experienced since I ditched processed foods and went low-carb. For the first time it became obvious that it was a food reaction, not just a random bad day.
It wasn’t anything as obvious as an allergy: my face didn’t swell up. My throat didn’t close. I didn’t have any trouble breathing. Instead, most or all of the symptoms were neurological: my ears were ringing, I was hearing and seeing with very little comprehension, I experienced mild visual disturbances (visual static, and persistent “trails” or afterimages), and I felt disconnected from the world around me, and extremely disinclined (possibly unable) to talk. I also drew a few pages’ worth of tiny repeating patterns with a pen (something I did quite a lot as a kid, but rarely do now) The effects persisted for over 24 hours.
I dug into the allergy literature; something in that bowl of lentils must be responisble. Once I hit on salicylate intolerance, it was obvious why I’d had the reaction. Everything I ate that day was high in salicylate. In the morning, I’d taken two aspirin (acetylsalicylic acid), and over the course of the day I’d eaten grapefruit, honey, cinnamon, and peanut butter, all of which contain salicylate. Then, for dinner, I’d capped it off with tomato paste, which is very high in salicylate.
Salicylates are chemicals that plants manufacture in order to ward off bugs and fungi. They’re poisonous. Most people’s bodies process them out efficiently, and it’s hard for them to eat enough to have a reaction. A normal person would have to overdose on aspirin to experience a salicylate reaction. All I have to do is eat a bowl of chili or a pint of strawberries. I guess the difference is that I don’t process them as well. So while two or three strawberries won’t give me any trouble, I probably shouldn’t ever eat tomato sauce, honey, almonds, or anything artificially colored or flavored. The problem is apparently quite common among people with ADD, ADHD, and autism spectrum disorders— and many find that reducing or eliminating salicylate from their diets can drastically improve concentration and behavior.
Another funny thing I ran into in my research was that salicylate consumption may cause sudden drops in blood glucose levels, in salicylate intolerant people. This would go a long way toward explaining why it seems so much easier for me to stick to my low-carb diet since I started controlling my salicylate intake as well: I’m not getting the crazy raging sugar cravings any more. I’m not sure why I never pinpointed those as possible hypoglycemic episodes.
I only get neurological symptoms (as far as I know– though I do get the occasional rash from scented products, which is apparently part of the same problem), but salicylate intolerance is one of those problems with a very, very long list of possible symptoms that range from tinnitus to joint pain to depression to hallucinations. Is it any wonder nobody knows about it? It would be a nightmare for a doctor to diagnose. Even I was a bit skeptical at first. I’d had that dramatic reaction to the tomato paste, but I still wasn’t sure. I went on the FAILSAFE diet for weeks– zero salicylates– and felt fantastic, though the food was awfully bland. Then I tried eating honey, almonds, strawberries, and cinnamon again. And I had the reaction again. So the reaction is consistent and repeatable. I’m a believer: it’s really nice to know that those totally spaced-out, zero-comprehension spells I used to think of as “a weird mood” or “a bad day” are something I have some control over. Still… I miss the tomatoes.
Do you eat Tomatoes?