A few years ago I was already committed to a vegetarian diet but I found myself facing a set of hard-to-explain health problems. Over time, this helped me to better understand the challenges that people can face in trying to manage their diets. What I realized was that I’d been exposed to a harmful food additive without realizing it. The product is called carrageen, and while it might not produce the same symptoms in you as it did in me, it is something that you should be aware of and look for on your food labels.
At the time that I started to experience my symptoms, I had been hitting the gym three to four times a week. At first I started having problems focusing at work, but I didn’t think too much of it. But then I started slowly losing strength. I had no choice but to decrease my weights at the gym. My training regimen dropped from one hour sessions to 45 minutes, then to half an hour, and finally I had to skip workout days altogether. My training program of four days a week was reduced to three, two and then one day a week until I finally decided to cancel my gym membership altogether. I had no more energy. Worst of all, I started having major headaches and felt like napping around two o’clock in the afternoon. This further affected my focus at work and I momentarily forgot to carry out certain tasks. The trainer at my gym had believed that my problem was caused by vegetarianism, while most of my coworkers just thought that I was simply a bit absentminded. I started to look thin and a rash formed on the side of my right cheek and on two of my fingers.
For an entire year, I made frequent visits to the doctor, chiropractor and osteopath. At one time I was told that I needed to take a multivitamin and at another time I was told that somehow all of my problems were related to my spine. But pills and chiropractic adjustments didn’t solve any of them. At one point I decided to take things into my own hands by looking for the answer in health books. I had a feeling that my symptoms were related to nutrition even though all of the different specialist I saw dismissed the idea. I began eliminating gluten from my diet, followed by dairy, but I experienced little change other than that my sinuses slightly cleared up. That was a welcome development since I had had sinus allergies for as long as I could remember, but it had nothing to do with my recent, sudden lack of energy.
I then stumbled upon an informational pamphlet on nutrition in the waiting room of the chiropractor’s office and it mentioned soy as being an allergen. It was the first time I’d ever heard about soy being harmful. Since soy constituted a large portion of my diet, it made sense to look at that as the latest possible culprit. I had already given up soy products containing gluten, but still consumed a large portion of tofu with my meals and soy milk with my gluten-free cereals.
Four days after eliminating all soy products from my diet, my condition seemed to improve by 90%. My headaches dissipated, my eczema vanished and my energy level steadily grew. The new diet was the only treatment that worked. In fact, my chiropractic therapy ended up hurting my spine, leading me to cancel my appointments and start on a few months of recovery. Afterwards I began a vegan body building diet and exercise program to try to restore my former strength, but I still had minor headaches once in a while. I visited dieticians and naturopaths, who prescribed supplements and probiotics, but with no success. No one knew what the problem was. I stopped working out again, and then went on a variety of diets to try to cure the lingering headaches. I started with the raw food diet, and then proceeded to a cleanse, the fruitarian diet, and a short term paleo diet. Each change seemed to solve one problem and create another until finally I went back to a vegan diet.
It wasn’t until three years later that I discovered the source of my ongoing problem. I realised that during the time when I had given up all soy, I could connect my problem to a certain product I had used as a substitute for soy milk. The few times that I had consumed almond milk it made me dizzy and gave me the feeling of a headache coming on. But I’d never experienced this feeling after consuming tofu, tempeh or soy sauce. During my cleanse, probiotics carrying the Dr. Ohhira brand name had also given me headaches.
With all this in mind, I did some research to look for ingredients shared by soy milk, almond milk and the Dr. Ohhira probiotics. I concluded that I must have been having an allergic reaction to carrageen, a red seaweed that is used as a thickening or binding agent in many dairy, meat, and soy products, as well as in almond, hemp and rice milk and other dairy substitutes. Carrageen is also found in many desserts, sauces, pastas, energy bars, toothpastes, cosmetics, nutritional supplements, and probiotics. Certain vitamin capsules also contain carrageen without it being mentioned in the ingredient list.
Carrageen causes gastrointestinal inflammation, Irritable Bowel Syndrome and malabsorption of food nutrients. With long term use, it can cause colon cancer. Symptoms of a carrageenan allergy are nausea, vomiting, abdominal cramps, eczema, confusion and loss of consciousness. Because of the danger of severe allergies Europe prohibits its use in infant formulas.
The best way I have found to avoid carrageen and other food additives is to buy whole foods. I now make my own soy, nut and grain milks, all of which happen to taste much better than the store bought ones. If I decide to purchase a packaged good, I always read the ingredient list and assure myself that it contains no carrageen and that the other ingredients listed are safe for consumption. If you’re looking for carrageen in products you consume, bear in mind that it may also be listed as Irish moss, processed euchama seaweed, PES or carrageenan.
I am still healing from digestive issues related to my carrageen allergy, but after all of my trials and errors I believe I’m now on the right track to recovery. If you are experiencing similar symptoms, hopefully my story will help you in finding the cause and avoiding years of false leads.
GLOWING, ACNE-FREE SKIN E-BOOK
Help support Health and Ethics by getting this amazing e-book