It was an egg biryani that started it. I had spent Easter hooked up to an intravenous drip in India – after a curry turned out to be housing a potent strain of E coli – and left the hospital feeling like I had a cold. When, on my return to the UK, it didn't budge, I assumed it was hayfever. But as summer ended and my nose was still running and eyes still itching, I realised I was experiencing a reaction to something. But to what?
According to the charity Allergy UK, up to 45% of us are affected by food intolerance, and one in three of us has an allergy – a figure that has tripled in the past 20 years. Despite this, the UK is poorly equipped for diagnosis and treatments – in 2007 the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee claimed Britain was "the laughing stock of Europe", and many patients go untreated. Private clinics, over-the-counter tests, and alternative medicines are filling the gap. But are they any good?
After describing my symptoms, I was prescribed antihistamines then a nasal spray. I was disappointed there was no attempt to discover the cause. "GPs get little or no training with allergies so it's hard for them to refer on," says Lindsey McManus, of Allergy UK.
Eventually I was sent to an ENT clinic for blood tests to measure my IgE (the antibody produced by an allergic response), and more blood and skin tests for reactions to airborne and food allergens. But when the results showed nothing abnormal, I was told to carry on taking the antihistamines for as long as necessary – possibly for ever.
The over-the-counter tests
YorkTest offers the pricey FoodScan 113 (£265), which uses a tiny sample of blood to look for raised levels of food-specific IgG antibodies. Mine showed reactions to eggs, cows' milk, gluten and yeast. Yet the next food intolerance test I tried, Cambridge Nutritional Sciences' Food Detective Kit (£50), which also measures IgG antibodies, showed no reactions.
Dr Isabel Skypala, who runs a food allergy clinic at the Royal Brompton & Harefield NHS Trust, believes these tests are unlikely to be helpful for food intolerances, which "do not by definition involve the immune system, so testing for the presence or absence of a component of the immune system, such as the IgG antibody, makes no sense."
YorkTest says its tests have "helped and supported thousands of satisfied customers. Our method has clinical data to support its use and the service is recommended by leading medical charity Allergy UK." Cambridge Nutritional Sciences, say: "Increasing numbers of independent reports and clinical research papers have been published linking the role of IgG to food intolerance in conditions such as Crohn's disease, migraine, IBS and obesity. We accept that more independent work needs to be done before the link gains more acceptance."
The private clinics
I book an appointment (£116) at the Wyndham Centre in London – which offers orthodox and complementary medicine. My high intake of antibiotics for food poisoning and persistent cystitis is flagged up – apparently this has inflamed my gut and I now have a yeast problem. I am strapped up to a device called a bio-energetic regulatory machine. A great list of things come back – intolerance to dairy, beef, coffee, sugar and yeast, and my intestine, kidney and liver are "stressed". I am prescribed £65 of supplements and homeopathic drops, but I'm not convinced.
At the Hale Clinic, I have a lengthy consultation, tests and a follow-up (£410) with a medical herbalist, Deborah Grant, who diagnoses "leaky gut". Grant tells me that the E coli has inflamed my gut lining, opening up the spaces between the cells and allowing undigested food molecules, large particles and toxins to escape into the bloodstream. My confused immune system is producing antibodies, making it hypersensitive, and causing reactions to things normally tolerated.
Yet "leaky gut" is not a condition that is recognised by the NHS. When I ask Grant why, she tells me that people once laughed at Galileo. But, given that the NHS tests haven't thrown up any conclusions, I go ahead with the treatment.
Grant prescribes cutting out alcohol, caffeine, sugar, refined carbs, dairy, and a course of herbal supplements (around £20 a week). I am to stop taking the antihistamines (which are disruptive to the gut flora), and the nasal spray.
When I talk to my GP, he did not think my symptoms could be linked to my gut. But, after months of not being able to go a day without antihistamines, the supplements seem effective, if I follow the diet – which is hellish. When I eventually stick with it, I am impressed.
Cutting out alcohol and caffeine, and reducing sugar almost entirely eliminates them – along with the exhaustion I assumed was a side-effect of a stressful job. Even my skin looks better.
According to Grant, my gut will heal and I will be able to reintroduce everything. But I'm not sure I will – after months of feeling ill, life without hangovers and jittery caffeine withdrawals is looking very appealing.