Dr Carole Kelly was ill all the time, but never suspected it was all down to a milk allergy that almost ruined her medical career
'I had a food intolerance all my life and never knew it'
Carole Kelly is a doctor who has finally had it with conventional medicine. That's saying something for someone who was considered an outstanding diagnostician when she was doing the hospital rounds and who was once voted Doctor of the Year.
But even at medical school, she was singled out as being trouble. She kept asking the lecturers and her fellow students how they could be so certain about everything. She was invited to join a philosophy course to help get the difficult questions out of her system-and then, during her second year, she became chronically ill.
Not only did the specialists she saw have no clue as to what was wrong with her, but the drugs they prescribed made her even worse. In the end they just put it down to stress, which it wasn't.
Looking back, Carole realizes all the warning signs were there long before she even decided to become a doctor. "I know now I had a food intolerance, but that wasn't something that people took seriously back then, and it certainly wasn't a problem that doctors would consider even existed. I think some are coming round to the idea now."
Ill all the time
Her initial intolerance was to milk, which eventually set off a chain reaction of other intolerances. She suffered persistent ear infections as a small child and was put on one course of antibiotics after another. "It seems extraordinary that nobody ever stopped to ask why it was I kept getting these infections."
Then when she was 14, she had a smallpox vaccination before a trip abroad, and she suffered such a major reaction she had to be put on steroids. But by then she was sensitive to everything-make-up she wore for a theatrical production, for instance, triggered an eczema attack.
The pattern continued when she was at Manchester University studying medicine. She suddenly developed hay fever during her first year and suffered from urinary tract infections (UTIs). The urologist she saw prescribed antibiotics, but the drugs escalated a series of niggling complaints into a full-blown health crisis.
"I developed gut problems, thrush, intolerance to multiple food groups and just felt cold all the time. At one stage I thought I was going to collapse. In short, my entire immune system had broken down."
Her doctors were at a loss to understand what was happening to Carole and put it down to typical medical-student stress. Then one evening at a party, she bumped into medical orthodoxy's avowed enemy: a nutritionist.
"There I was looking awful, with big black rings under my eyes, and she said: 'You look like you have a food intolerance.' In all those years, I had never made the connection; I had been suspecting I had adrenal burnout."
It's a food allergy
The nutritionist put Carole in touch with the Institute of Optimum Nutrition in Southwest London and a nutritionist there carried out a telephone consultation with her. The nutritionist put Carole on an elimination and rotation diet-which meant avoiding certain food groups altogether, then introducing them back into the diet-while having Carole regularly check her pulse for any reaction to foods.
With the elimination diet, Carole removed all the foods that are known to cause an allergic reaction. These foods were off limits from between four days and three weeks; only when she started to feel better were they reintroduced to see if they caused her pulse to suddenly race. The forbidden foods usually include wheat, corn, cow's milk, eggs, dairy, peanuts and soy foods.
In the meantime, Carole continued to eat the 'safe' foods that almost everyone can tolerate, like lamb, pears, apples, rice, most vegetables and beans, and non-gluten grains such as millet, quinoa and amaranth.
Within a few weeks, Carole had identified that her main food allergies were to wheat and milk-two of the most common-and by taking them out of her diet altogether, she slowly started to feel better. Within six weeks her headaches had gone, she had no joint pain and the gut issues had disappeared. "Without the nutritional support, I don't think I would have been fit enough to make it through medical school," she says.
But make it she did, and she eventually qualified before she began training to become a general practitioner (GP). She practised community medicine and also lectured on medicine at Manchester University, which included six sessions a week working as a locum at a GP surgery.
Not all the answers
Her initial and immediate concerns about the limitations of conventional medicine were only emphasized by the starkly different approaches adopted by doctors and alternative therapists to treat her food allergies. Even while studying at medical school, she had become interested in alternative therapies and soon introduced acupuncture into her practice before going on to study herbalism and then naturopathy at the College of Naturopathic Medicine, a discipline that, for her, brings together the best of conventional and alternatives medicines.
Despite these maverick instincts, Carole was voted 'GP of the Year' by a panel of experts from the Royal College of General Practitioners in 1997-an award that would not be given to someone like Carole in today's less tolerant times.
From next year, Carole-now aged 55-is giving up her general practice to devote herself full time to alternative medicine, which she views as being more holistic and better able to get at the root of a health problem than conventional medicine, which tends to focus only on the symptoms of disease.
And every so often she is reminded that she's made the right choice. She recently took a bad fall while gardening and suffered multiple fractures, a dislocation and concussion. But the junior doctors at the hospital she attended missed the head injury and fractures, and merely bandaged her up. Only when she insisted did they carry out an X-ray, but that failed to detect any fracture because of the heavy bandages!
"This is the treatment I got, and I'm a doctor. It sends a shiver down my spine when I think of how the general public is being treated," she says.
Carole is now working on a series of self-care packages for patients, which will involve a six-week programme of talks and plenty of homework. She intends to start with osteoarthritis, a chronic and deteriorating condition for which conventional medicine has no answers. The course will include a review of biomechanics and posture, nutrition and especially anti-inflammatory foods, and natural pain methods.
The second one in the pipeline is a package on depression. "Food intolerance plays a big part in depression, although few doctors seem to know this."
But when it comes to food intolerances and allergies, medicine has very few answers-as Carole discovered for herself.
Do you have a food allergy?
Most of us have a food allergy or intolerance-recent studies suggest that around 60 per cent of us do-but it's the extent of our sensitivity that determines whether or not it turns into a chronic health problem.
Unless you suffer an immediate reaction such as anaphylactic shock, most intolerances have a slow but accumulative effect that eventually impairs the immune system.
Suspect a food allergy or intolerance if you have one or more of the following symptoms:
o dark circles or puffiness under the eyes
o fluid retention
o sinus congestion
o abdominal pain
o joint inflammation
o mood swings
o chronic ear infections
o poor memory
o anxiety or depression.
The different allergies
Food intolerance is an umbrella term that includes any abnormal response to food. The intolerance can be due to enzyme deficiencies, poor function of the digestive tract or sensitivity to natural and synthetic chemicals.
The most common is lactose intolerance, sensitivity to a sugar found in milk and dairy products. Lactose-intolerant people don't produce enough lactase-the digestive enzyme that breaks down lactose-and common symptoms include bloating, diarrhoea and upset stomach.
The next most common is wheat intolerance, allergy or sensitivity, which is also known as gluten intolerance, and its most severe version is coeliac disease. People with this sensitivity have to avoid wheat, oats, barley and cereal grains.
People can also be sensitive to the natural and synthetic chemicals in foods and drinks. One example is the sulphites used in dried fruits, wines and processed foods, which are responsible for around 1 per cent of asthma cases. Another is the salicylates found in vegetables, herbs, spices, fruits and chocolate, which can cause sensitive people to suffer from mental confusion, depression and migraines. Finally, there are the food colours and additives like monosodium glutamate (MSG), which can cause bloating and severe headaches.
The elimination diet
If you suspect you have a food allergy or intolerance, the next step is to discover the type of food you're sensitive to. The best approach is the elimination diet, where you start out by excluding all the usual suspects and restrict your diet to only the foods and drinks that are generally safe for everyone to eat.
So, on day one you cut out wheat, soy, corn, dairy, eggs, gluten, nuts, citrus, fish, chocolate, shellfish, caffeine, alcohol and processed foods. For the first four days at least, you restrict yourself to the 'safe' foods: lamb, pears, apples, rice, most vegetables, most beans, and gluten-free grains like millet, quinoa and amaranth.
Now you are your own medical detective. It can take anything from four days to three weeks before your symptoms start to ease-you may feel less bloated or the dark circles under your eyes start to fade-and only then should you introduce, one at a time, one of the foods you'd eliminated at the beginning.
Now watch for any reaction: if you still feel okay, then you're not allergic to that food. One by one you start reintroducing the other foods and drinks on the 'banned' list until you find the one-or ones-that cause your allergic reactions.
A free-from meal planner
People starting out on an elimination diet quickly realize how difficult it is to follow, so here's a typical free-from day of eating.
Hot rice cereal with maple syrup, sliced pears, chopped cashew nuts
Rice pasta topped with garlic
Lamb stew with lentils, cabbage, garlic and parsley.