Advanced Corn Allergy Help: Tracking Down Mystery Reactions

Here’s the situation I was in a year ago: I had been corn and gluten free for 6 years, and thought I had it all figured out. Then suddenly I started having anaphylactic reactions to previously safe foods. I thought I must have a new allergen. In fact, I did have a few new allergens, but the one allergen that was causing the anaphylaxis was actually still corn. For many of the foods that I realized I was reacting to, I was able to eat another version of that food that was grown/processed without corn contamination.

If you know that you are allergic to corn, and find yourself reacting and confused because you think you are corn free, you may want to re-examine your food and household products for hidden corn. You may also have new allergens. It’s important for the sake of safety to examine all possibilities rather than dismissing any particular one without first exploring and testing.

A Note on Allergy Testing

If you suspect new allergies, you may wish to go to an allergist/immunologist. That may or may not help you. I find that a lot of allergists aren’t very well equipped to do much for food allergies and many don’t even believe that corn can be an allergen. I’m not saying that one should not seek out medical care, I just think it’s a very good idea to take charge of your health and do your own research at the same time.

Another unfortunate possibility is that allergy testing may not help you that much. Tests can provide a good guide, but false negatives and false positives do happen,and often. I test negative for a corn allergy on a RAST blood test, but react obviously and immediately to corn products when they are challenged orally or via contact with a mucus membrane. The only way to diagnose a food allergy with 100% certainty is with a food challenge, which is of course not safe to do if you have severe reactions.

This is a good explanation on the relative advantages and disadvantages of different types of allergy tests. Basically, skin prick testing rarely yields false negatives but aren’t safe for people who have severe reactions to foods, and can yield false positives. Blood testing can yield false negatives. Additionally, skin testing only checks for an IgE-mediated allergy, and there are a number of adverse reactions a person can have to food that are not mediated by IgE, but often doctors are only interested in or prepared to deal with IgE mediated food allergies, and are not knowledgeable about adverse reactions to food that don’t fall within those narrow parameters. Which is fine for scientific journal writing, but doesn’t really help those of us that are trying to eat and be healthy.

Don’t get me wrong, there are doctors out there that have a wider view of food allergies and you can find them. It just sometimes takes more time than you really have when you’re reacting all the time and just need to eat.

Now that I’ve prepared you for the possibilities, go ahead and get medical care. I am not a doctor and am not trying to advise you in place of a doctor. I just think that it’s a great plan–in general and especially with this kind of allergy–to be as well-educated on your allergy and your particular triggers as possible.

Getting Support

First, before you do anything else, find some communities of corn allergics to talk to and learn from:

Finding Hidden Corn

As I said, you can’t expect that any doctor is going to be better at understanding what is happening in your body than you. So while you work with your doctors, you should simultaneously look at your diet and household and body products for corn safety, and also for other possible allergens.

  1. Medications: Are your medications and body products truly corn free? Have you gotten a list of the inactive ingredients and compared them to the corn allergens list, or did you just let your pharmacist do the checking for you? You may need to get your medications compounded to make them truly corn free. 
  2. Water: Yes, water can be a problem for a corn allergy. Most people do well with Crystal Geyser bottled water. Some can’t do bottled and have to get a Berkey Ceramic filter with the Fluoride filter additions. Some can’t do either of those and have to get more creative. No easy answers here, just realize that your water *could* be causing you a problem, and not all bottled water is safe either.
  3. Pots, pans, appliances, ovens, salt,and cooking fats: When people examine their foods for causes of reactions, they often skip over HOW the food is prepared. I’ve done this, many times. I removed a ton of foods before I realized my olive oil was causing me problems. Then it was my salt. Then it was my pans. Then it was my OVEN, because apparently the people that lived in my rental before me cooked corn in their oven 24/7 or something. I don’t know what they were doing really, but the oven was cooking corn into everything I baked in it.  I’ve had microwaves do this to me, as well.  So consider all of those things when you’re trying to track down a reaction.
  4. Household products: Make sure you are using safe for you household products. Those are hard to come by for the very sensitive, so I’d start making your own from known-safe ingredients. Pretty much every cleaning product I use is made with some combination of Dr. Bronner’s (contains coconut so watch out!), homemade Kombucha vinegar (I tested and mine has the same PH as store-bought vinegar), and baking soda. I use Arm & Hammer brand for cleaning but use Karlin’s Finest baking soda for ingestion. I get it at my local natural foods store. It comes in a small orange box like Arm & Hammer but says Karlin’s on it.  I have a few DIY household product recipes pinned on Pinterest, but probably not as many as you’d want. There are a TON of blogs out there with great recipes though. Get googling!
  5. Beauty and body products: Are your personal care items, including makeup, corn free? Check ingredients carefully and use the forums and groups for advice.
  6. Your environment: If you were not previously airborne reactive, you may not realize that some of your reactions may be from things happening around you and not actually from anything you’ve eaten. I was once walking around the Seattle Whole Foods, which is downtown, and could NOT figure out why my lips and tongue were on fire and I felt dizzy and had a rash on my upper chest when I hadn’t eaten anything in hours. I realized later that it was because I had walked a block up Denny Way when it was completely gridlocked with  traffic, and what I reacted to was all the ethanol in the gas fumes!
  7. Foods: Are you *sure* your foods are truly corn free? In addition to derivative ingredients listed on the corn allergens list above, there can be cross contamination and unlabeled corn ingredients in a lot of foods–both prepackaged products and whole foods–that cause even the less sensitive to react.  It can be helpful to be in touch with others with the allergy to find out what they can tolerate, but someone else’s sensitivity may not match yours exactly. Ultimately what you need to find out is what *you* tolerate. If you are having mystery reactions, it may be time to go down to just a very, very few foods, like 20 or fewer, and get a baseline for what is safe for you. Then build back up once you know what is safe to eat. See the next section for more details.

How to Do an Elimination Diet for Corn

  1. Choose Foods: Make a list of 20 or fewer foods that you feel are 100% safe for your allergy. Make sure to consider ALL of your allergens. Those 20 foods should be WHOLE foods that don’t have labels.  Get to the farmers’ market and eat you a pile of vegetables! Unless you are like me and allergic to most vegetables! Here are the questions you should be asking the farmers who grow your vegetables. Be aware that the folks manning the actual farm stand may not know the answers, but should be willing to call for you. If they aren’t, or seem like they are annoyed with your questions or just making it up, move on.
  2. Make a meal plan: Now that you have your list of safe foods, write up some sample breakfasts, lunches and dinners using those foods.  These should be simple meals with very few spices. Too many ingredients means a harder time figuring out what you reacted to.  Write up several breakfasts, lunches, and dinners that you can eat on your new meal plan. Then do your shopping for the week so that you have all your on-plan foods available to you.
  3. Keep a food and reaction journal: Now you have your safe foods and know what to make with them. Every time you eat, write down the time, what you ate including brands and ingredients, and how you are feeling. Do this however it works for you. I made a google spreadsheet and have it pinned to the bookmarks bar of my browser. Some people do better with a tiny notebook that they keep in their pocket. Doesn’t matter, just do it.  Write down all reactions and the time, and what you were doing, as well. Even if it’s just a headache or a feeling of anxiety, not something that you’d think of as a food reaction, write it down. You may notice a pattern later. This will also help you figure out environmental triggers. Here’s a great article on how to keep a food journal.
  4. Wash, rinse, repeat: Eat on-plan until you react. Try to figure out why you reacted using the communities I linked above, and using my Where’s the Corn and Corn-tamination series posts.  Alter your safe food list and try again. Keep doing this until you are reaction free and have stayed that way for at least a week. Then you can start introducing new things!

Staying Safe

If you’re reacting all  the time, and your reactions are in the range of “typical” (IgE mediated) allergic reactions, you’re likely treating those reactions with antihistamines and/or hospital visits. Make sure you’re doing so safely!

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