A paradigm is a model or example of something, or the framework or mindset we use to understand or make sense of things. When we subscribe to a paradigm, it often means that we choose to see things in only that way. What do you see when you look at the picture above? Can you see it in more than one way?*
Often, in business, we hear people talk about a paradigm shift, which means accepting a new way of looking at or thinking about things. The opposite of a paradigm shift is paradigm paralysis, which is “the inability or refusal to see beyond the current models of thinking.”
I was stuck in a paradigm, or suffered from paradigm paralysis about an aspect of my health for many years, and it basically took a whack upside the head (figuratively speaking) to make me change that paradigm.
The paradigm I was stuck in was this: I don’t have allergies.
I never had any health problems when I was growing up. I was blessed with excellent health until my mid-thirties. I didn’t wheeze and sneeze like the people in the allergy commercials. Surely I didn’t have allergies.
Not only did I believe that I had no allergies, but the one time I went to a (military) doctor because I wasn’t feeling well and I described my eyes as “itchy” the doctor quickly reprimanded me to never say that, because itchy eyes were a symptom of allergies and aircrew could not have allergies. Since I didn’t want to lose my aircrew status, I never again described my eyes as itchy.
Years later, I started having very concerning symptoms. I suddenly developed vertigo, which was quite alarming. I was sitting in a chair reading when, out of nowhere, it felt like I did a front cartwheel. My inner gyros completely tumbled. I felt like I had moved violently, even though I hadn’t moved at all. I dropped my book, grabbed the arms of my chair, and tried to figure out what the heck had just happened.
As it turned out, it took quite a while to figure that out. I saw lots of specialists during that time. I had diagnostic tests to rule out brain tumors, inner ear tumors, and…allergies. The allergist administered a skin prick test, left me sitting in the waiting room far too long, and had trouble reading the results on my arm. I, of course, didn’t think I had any allergies, and wasn’t expecting them to find anything during this test. I had noticed one area on my arm react strongly, but the allergist smugly informed me that that particular area had been the control – it was pricked with histamine. Of course I had reacted to that, I was told disdainfully.
The allergist peered at my arm, ran their fingers over and over the area, and finally pronounced that I was probably allergic to birch trees and penicillium mold. I asked if that meant I was allergic to penicillin (it runs in my family). The allergist said it was possible. [I learned many years later that being allergic to penicillium mold *does not* mean you will be allergic to penicillin the antibiotic.]**
I asked about the allergy to birch trees, and was told to just avoid being around them. I was given no other information or guidance.*** I decided the allergist wasn’t very competent, and went on with my life.
Next I developed frequent excruciating headaches. Eventually the headaches and the exclusion of other causes led to a diagnosis of migraines and migraine associated vertigo.
I began to learn about migraine triggers – things that can contribute to having a migraine, such as barometric pressure changes; bright, flashing, or fluorescent lights; and foods. People with migraines have reported that they were more likely to have migraines after eating certain foods, although not everyone responds to all of the same foods.
Known culprits are red wine; aged cheeses; processed meats; chocolate; citrus fruits; and foods containing MSG or aspartame. (There are more, but these are some of the biggest culprits.)
I started eliminating many of these foods from my diet, and my symptoms abated somewhat.
During this time, I had also developed a perpetually stuffy nose that seemed to get worse prior to and during a migraine. I saw an ENT, and was diagnosed with chronic sinusitis. For years afterward, whenever I mentioned to a new doctor that it seemed to be linked to the migraines, I was told that stuffy nose was not a migraine symptom, and the doctor ignored that symptom.
Fifteen years after my trip to the allergist, I had an allergic reaction to a medicine (Chlorhexidine) I was administered in a hospital. Since Chlorhexidine is an antibiotic that is widely used as an antiseptic and disinfectant in medicine, dentistry, and in pharmaceutical and cosmetic products, I figured I’d better see an allergist to discuss how I was going to avoid Chlorhexidine for the rest of my life. I also wanted to know if I was allergic to any other antibiotics, since I still didn’t know whether I was allergic to penicillin or not.
This allergist was very thorough, and asked me a lot of diagnostic questions. We discussed my Chlorhexidine allergy. And then he said, “You probably also have a mold allergy.”
Here’s where the paradigm paralysis makes me look pretty stupid. Even though I had been diagnosed with an allergy to penicillium mold, and even though I had known for years that I was sensitive to mold in my environment (moldy basements, moldy government buildings, water-damaged areas in homes), it had never occurred to me that I was *allergic* to mold (because I don’t have allergies).
I didn’t even know that mold was a common allergen.
I told the allergist that I had never even considered that I might have allergies, because “aircrew don’t have allergies.” He laughed, and said, “At least, not until after they’ve retired, right?”
My new allergist gave me a mold elimination diet to follow, for diagnostic purposes. It sounds crazy, ‘cuz we don’t go around knowingly eating mold, right? Well, actually… That penicillium mold I’m allergic to? It’s used to create Brie and Camembert cheeses. Two of my favorites, that I started eating right around the time my migraines became frequent and have been eating ever since – because the first allergist *never told me* I should stop eating them!
Penicillium mold is also used to create “veiny” cheeses, including Roquefort, Blue, Gorgonzola, Stilton, etc. While I ate these cheeses much less frequently, I did like to have Gorgonzola (often found in four-cheese blend) on my pasta. Fortunately, these cheeses were all categorized as “aged” cheeses, which I had eliminated from my diet early on because they are known migraine triggers.
Back to the mold elimination diet: Anything pickled, fermented, cured, aged, or cultured contains mold. Dried products (fruit, nuts, coffee, tea) may also be contaminated with mold.
The cultured yogurt that I was eating because it contained “good” bacteria and was good for my health – was making me sick. Before I began the mold elimination diet, I ate yogurt for breakfast one last time and my nose got so stuffy that I had to breathe through my mouth.
After three days on the mold elimination diet I could breathe better than I had in fifteen years.
After two weeks on the mold elimination diet, I felt better than I had in many years. My energy level was much higher, and the incidences of “brain fog” were much lower.
I also don’t think it’s a coincidence that the mold elimination diet prohibits me for eating every food that is a known migraine trigger. I am currently exploring the possibility that my migraines are linked to this underlying allergy. [Update: see this Migraine diet]
I have subsequently returned to the allergist for two rounds of testing: skin prick and injection (blog post to follow). Of the identified 100,000 types of mold (there are 1.5 million, but many are unidentified), there are allergy testing samples for 15 types. I reacted to Penicillium and Aspergillus, which are both common indoor molds.
My allergist tells me that it is less common to do allergen elimination diets these days, particularly for something like a mold allergy. In fact, it’s hard to find much information about mold elimination diet on the internet (see below). I’m glad I happened to get an allergist who had this in his “bag of tricks,” because this diet has already had a radical impact on my health.
Are there assumptions or paradigms about your health that might be false? If you are dealing with a chronic health condition and you haven’t had success treating it, it may be time to go back and challenge previous assumptions and paradigms. After all, I “knew” I didn’t have allergies…
*This is a classic perception image. You might see a duck facing left or a rabbit facing right. Many people have trouble being able to see both, or switching from seeing one to seeing the other.
**NOTE: For more information on Penicillium mold, and supporting data that “hypersensitivity to Penicillium mold bears no relationship with hypersensitivity to the antibiotic Penicillin,” see this article.
*** My new allergist informed me that if you are allergic to birch trees, you may have cross-reactions to certain foods, including celery, apples, or carrots.
NOTE: For more information on mold in general, see these Centers for Disease Control (CDC) FAQs.
NOTE: For more information on mold allergy, see this page on the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America website or this page (and associated pages) on the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology website.
NOTE: For more information on the mold elimination diet, see this example. [This is not my allergist or ENT and I am not endorsing this practice or being compensated by them in any way.]
P.S. – Have I had a mold allergy my whole life, and just didn’t know it? Or did it develop in adulthood? I don’t know. Either is possible, although adult-onset seems more likely, given the lack of symptoms prior to my thirties. Here’s a good article on adult-onset allergies and asthma. [Again, this is not my allergist and I am not endorsing this practice or being compensated by them in any way.]