By Erin M. Massey/Medill News Service
Pulling up to the red light at 75th street and Route 83 in Willowbrook, I lost it. Tears rolled down my face as I cried out in helpless frustration.
I had tried everything, yet somehow the solution to my recent explosion of acne seemed to be elusive. Little did I know that acne was only a symptom of a much greater problem, one that would slowly unravel, but not without complications.
I was 22 and weathering the worst case of acne of my entire life. I don’t remember ever feeling rested even after sleeping nine hours some nights. At times, I had such severe migraines my peripheral vision would go out.
Friends and family attributed my acne and fatigue to stress and taking on too much.
By 22, I had tried three antibiotics, had changed dermatologists twice, had been prescribed and applied several topical medications, and had fasted periodically from certain foods.
No one could tell me the cause of my skin problems other than the simple answer: acne is caused by greasy secretions of the sebaceous glands resulting in clogged pores.
I would later find out that foods themselves might not cause acne, but reactions to additives, hormones and steroids could. Immune reactivity to certain foods based on sensitivities also could.
In addition to the shame and energy put into finding a solution, the battle with insurance was another story. My insurance plan only partially covered some brand-name prescriptions, leaving me with over $100 per month in bills.
I finally found a solution to my symptoms, though a controversial one.
I first heard of the ELISA/ACT LRA test for food sensitivities from a woman at church. ELISA/ACT LRA stands for Enzyme-Linked Immunosorbant Assay/Lymphocyte Response Assay with an Advanced Cell Test (ACT) that detects a delayed immune response triggered by white blood cells. She and her three daughters had all taken the test and found that they were allergic to sugar, among other things.
I noticed the youngest daughter’s belly would protrude if she ate sugar. I also recall her telling me that when she cut out pineapple and the other foods listed, she lost 17 pounds in one month. But I shrugged off the test.
I moved to Milwaukee in October 2009. Although I was on a high dose of spironolactone and taking birth control, my acne returned especially after adding dairy back into my diet.
Also, my symptoms were so sporadic and the ingredient list on these items so varied, it would be impossible to figure out exactly what was the source of my health issues.
What felt like salvation came when I walked into Dr. Norman Schwartz’s office in Mequon, Wis., in January 2010. The consult lasted an hour, a welcomed visit, considering the fact that an allergy specialist I had seen a few months prior laughed at the idea of testing me for allergies as a cause of acne, fatigue or headaches.
Schwartz and I discussed symptoms and the option of an elimination diet, but I was positive I wanted to take the ELISA test. We set up an appointment for a week or so later. The process was easy and painless involving only a blood test.
In the mean time, I “detoxed” and didn’t eat any of the common allergens including: wheat, dairy, soy, chocolate, coffee, citrus and shellfish. I was advised to only eat meat once or twice a week and fish a couple of times a month due to high mercury levels. He strongly recommended I eat organic fruits and veggies, freshly squeezed juice, and foods without corn syrup, food colorings or additives.
Within a week, my skin was clearer than it had ever been in my entire life. That same week I felt refreshed upon waking with no symptoms of fatigue, canker sores, or headaches. I was amazed and couldn’t wait for the results of my test.
Six weeks later, I was given a list of each “hypersensitivity” and sources where they could be found. Tested items included foods, chemicals, dyes, molds, and additives.
Upon receiving the results, I was surprised to find lemon and cinnamon among the top two, though not surprised to learn that corn syrup and green dye #5 were also listed.
Schwartz swears by the ELISA test. “The fact is what’s true for you,” Schwartz said.
Still, other experts advise there is not enough scientific information or data to show that these tests work.
“We need more research to prove this works. It’s easy to ride the bandwagon,” said Dr. Aaron Donnell, co-owner of Chicago Family Asthma & Allergy in Lincoln Park.
“I’d be hesitant to recommend it until it stands the test of time,” Donnell said. He said he would think about ordering the test if he had patients who really wanted to try it, though he’d prefer to start with the elimination diet first.
Now, I can attribute each sensitivity to an exact symptom. I know when I eat lemon a feeling of exhaustion will immediately come over me.
When I eat cinnamon or foods with green dye #5, I get canker sores. If I eat corn syrup, I usually feel light-headed immediately and can’t get myself out of bed the next morning. At times a stuffy nose accompanies the fatigue and can lead to flu-like symptoms, but goes away if I “detox” from these items the following day.
Although dairy didn’t show up on the test, Schwartz advised me that the ELISA/ACT LRA test is only one piece of the pie and that the body can respond to foods in many different ways. Some people can have an autoimmune effect, for instance.
Schwartz said the immune system has three basic roles in the body: to repair, defend, and communicate.
“With the ELISA/ACT LRA test we look at what things are activating [the immune system] and basically using up its resources,” Schwartz said. “We can remove those things and you’ll expend less and have more energy to repair.”