Tuesday, February 26, 2013

The Sun Did It: Flares and Autoimmune Disease

Solar Flare Courtesy of NASA

It might seem like the wrong time of year to be writing about the pitfalls of sun and autoimmune disease, but not for me. I will explain. January and early February were a tough time for me.  I was in a flare.  It started with my eyes going from very dry to completely parched and always painful.  Putting drops in actually hurt my eyes they were so bad.  Then the symptoms cascaded from there…neurological symptoms, fatigue, joint pain, you name it. For those readers with autoimmune disease, you unfortunately know what I'm talking about.

I had assumed it was the cold weather that had kicked off my change in symptoms. The background: My husband and I had taken a trip around New Years to Florida.  He was lucky to be able to get off from work and we decided to take advantage of it.  I tend to feel better in warmer climates so it seemed like a good deal. While we were away I felt really good.  I had energy. My joints barely ached. We walked every morning.  My eyes generally felt good and I was able to read.  I started thinking about the future, as "a normal" healthy person.  Then, the day after we returned from sunny Florida to the cold Northeast, my flare began.  So it must have been the return to the cold I assumed. Right?

Well, it turns out that it was likely the opposite! When I saw my rheumatologist last week, I recounted what had happened over the previous weeks.  I was cursing the cold, dry, Northeast weather. Then I mentioned that I had been away somewhere warm before this all started.  He immediately started asking questions about where I had been and how much sun exposure I had gotten.  It so happens that he was willing to bet that it was most likely the sun that kicked off my flare.  I knew that patients with Sjogrens, Lupus, and other autoimmune diseases had to be especially careful in the sun, but I always regarded the cold as more dangerous since it caused me more immediate pain.

But no. The same sun that made me feel happy to be outside?  Well, it was getting my body ready to attack me at the same time.  The link between flares and the sun is not entirely surprising.  It turns out the sun and its UV rays can cause damage to our cell's DNA that starts a process by which inflammatory protein molecules called cytokines can activate causing a chain reaction leading to autoimmune exacerbation.  Making matters worse, like me many people with autoimmune disease take medications that can make them even more reactive to the sun.

This happened despite the fact that I am already very careful in the sun.  I wear a UPF 50 wide brim sun hat, beach cover up, high protection sun screen, and always sit under an umbrella if I go on the beach.  With all the precautions I took, I still managed to get red one day.  When I thought back, it was the one day that I strayed from just one part of my usual routine of making sure to be inside between the hottest hours of the day.  A big oops! But that's what I get for not being totally controlled and planned every minute.  I was having fun with my husband.  I wasn't thinking about having autoimmune disease and health challenges.  It is unfortunate with an illness like autoimmune disease, you can never completely let go -- whether its medications, sun protection, or just simply not overdoing it.   But the truth is that I would rather miss a few hours of fun and sun than have a flare any day.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Strategies for Coping with a Corn Allergy

Image Source
Since finding out that I was allergic to corn over the summer, my diet has changed significantly. Corn and its many derivatives are hidden ingredients in so many food items and packagings that finding things that I can eat has been a daily challenge. (For me the difficulty is compounded by the fact that corn is just one of my many allergies as I have blogged about in the past.) It is also a serious allergy in my case; my corn allergy is considered by my doctors as a trigger of my developing angioedema. But that's for another post. In short, food and my body are not on the best of terms and I LOVE food and eating.

Those of us with corn allergies know it is a particular challenge  Corn is not considered a top eight food allergen so food items that often come from corn, such as citric acid and dextrose, are not listed as such on labels.  Fruits in the supermarket? Can have a waxy coating derived from corn.  Medicines?  Often contain corn starch as a binder.  Eco-friendly plastic cups?  Made of corn derivatives. I could go on and on but that hopefully gives a sense of what it means when I describe corn as pervasive in our lives. 

I have come up with a few discoveries and lifestyle changes which have helped me significantly reduce my corn reactions. I do admit that I wish that I did not have to spend so much time procuring the foods I can eat and then making them because it is pretty time and energy consuming! I thought I would share them and would love to hear any solutions others have come up with. 

Farmer's Market Shopping. By shopping at the farmer's market, I can talk to directly to farmers about how they grow their fruits and vegetables and make sure they are pesticide and corn free. I have learned that organic does not mean corn free so it is not as simple as just looking for organic labels. For example, corn gluten meal is sometimes used as a natural herbicide.  Who would have thought?!! I also find the produce there more delicious, but that's a side benefit.

Eating Whole Foods. Eating whole foods is pretty straight forward.  I don't buy things that are processed.  If I want to eat cherries, I buy whole cherries without any sort of sauce or sugar already added.  This is probably a healthier way to eat anyway, but also more time consuming.  

Washing and Peeling. And washing again.  When I do buy fruits and vegetables, I try to stick to ones that can be peeled like apples, oranges, and carrots. (This is especially important for me during the winter when I have to do more shopping at the grocery store.) Getting rid of the peel and washing everything thoroughly has really helped decrease my allergic reactions.  I also avoid pre-washed vegetables and salads because the wash used for these can include citric acid. 

Along similar lines, I wash meat before I cook it.  While it might seem a little strange, the FDA allows citric acid and lactic acid to be used in the processing of meat and poultry. Places that don't use citric acid sometimes use vinegar for the same purpose which can be made from corn alcohol.

Packaging Matters. While I am a big proponent of reducing waste, many eco friendly and biodegradable cups and wrappings are made from corn.   My general rule is when anything is labeled as coming from plant materials, I don't use it to be safe. If a coffee shop has biodegradable cups, I bring my own mug. If a butcher counter wraps meats in plant based packaging, I bring my own such as a simple ziplock bag. 

Home Cooking. Cooking my own foods greatly decreases the risk that I have an allergic reaction. Now, cooking and particularly the clean up afterward are not in my top five favorite activities and I am not a chef by any means.  I have, however, found and invented some fairly simple allergy friendly recipes that I wanted to start sharing. I'll include these in another post. 

Well, that's where I've started. It's made a difference but I still have a long way to go to stop my reactions.  It would be so helpful if corn was labeled the way dairy and gluten are, but I am not sure this will change soon.  I'd be really curious if any non-US readers with a corn allergy have an easier time and if they find it less pervasive in their foods.