Darkness Is My Only Food

I’m at a theology conference. It’s dinner time and a wonderful looking spread has been provided in the foyer of the mega-church hosting the conference. Just one thing left to do. I look for someone who seems to be in charge. I find a man and woman sitting at a desk. I ask if there is someone here from the catering company because I just need to ask a quick question.

He responds, “They already left. Can I help?”

“Maybe,” I say. “I just need to know about some of the ingredients. I have a few food allergies.”

“Oh, what are you allergic to?” he asks.

I lowered my head and began to walk away. “Thanks,” I mumbled, “I’ll just call the caterer myself.”

Tonight, I’m not in the mood to answer this question because sometimes—as my family jokes—it’s easier to talk about what I am not allergic to than what I am allergic to.

Classic Allergies vs. Delayed Allergies   

I’ve written a little bit about the development of my food allergies (here). But that article focused on typical allergens, things like dairy and gluten. As well, since the time of publication, I’ve learned more about my own issues (which I’m often asked to explain). For all of these reasons, it seemed like it was time to write this follow up.

When most people think of allergies, they think of what are considered “classic allergies”—you eat something and in less than two hours, you’re in trouble. In a non-food context, a classic allergy looks like being allergic to cats: you visit a home with cats, and in less than two hours every orifice on your face starts oozing. Classic food allergies are called immediate-onset allergies, or IgE-allergies.

But there is another kind of allergy called delayed-onset allergies, or IgG-allergies (that’s IgG not IgE). As the name suggests, they don’t occur right away. Delayed allergies show up somewhere between four hours and four days after consumption. This makes them very difficult to identify. Additionally, delayed allergies tend to have a cumulative effect; slow and steady, they stack.

These delayed-onset allergies are a symptom, some doctors think, of having a “leaky gut.” (What a terrible sounding thing, right?) A leaky gut means you have permeability of the intestinal wall, which is a fancy way of saying your “pipes” have tiny pinholes in them. These pinholes allow trace amounts of food into your body, which in turn, causes inflammation. This inflammation can manifest itself in a variety of ways, including things like irritability, bloating, constipation, unexplained fatigue, and “brain fog” (the inability to think clearly).

This is all very new to me, so please forgive me if my explanations are fumbling a bit. (Just blame it on brain fog!) It’s hard enough to understand what has happened to me, let alone explain it to others. And to make matters more difficult to describe—and this part is just my impression—it seems there is little established consensus on these things in the medical community, both in diagnoses and treatment.

The good news, so one theory says, is that delayed allergies can go away if you do two things. First, seek to repair the pinholes by taking a good probiotic, which is a collection of bacteria helpful to your digestive system (naturally occurring in things like yogurt and sauerkraut). Second, stridently eliminate all of the foods you are allergic to from your diet. On this point, the analogy is made to a fire: If you stop putting kindling on a fire, it might smolder for a bit, but eventually it must die out. Without fuel, eventually even a barn fire becomes a bonfire becomes a campfire, and so on.

Taking the probiotic—Step 1—is the easy part. It’s food elimination—Step 2—that proves difficult, especially if you’re like me.

So What Foods Must I Avoid?

There is a specific blood test to determine your “delayed” reactivity to 96 different foods. Really, the test includes far more than 96 foods because a positive test for, say, oranges (like I had), actually includes everything in the orange family: cuties, tangerines, mandarin oranges, blood oranges, navel oranges, etc.

When my results came back, I tested positive for 32 things! You can see all of them in the chart below, as well as my relative reactivity to each.

As you look at the chart, there are a couple of things worth pointing out. First, my reaction to “all things dairy” is so strong that it’s likely this fire will never go out. For me, dairy is probably in the category of a classic allergy. (From multiple experiences last year, I think this will probably prove true.)

Second, the difficulty of avoiding each food varies: Some are easy to avoid and others are not. Rarely, if ever, did I eat lobster or radishes, so these are easy to eliminate. Other things, however, are exceedingly difficult—and not only from an enjoyment standpoint. They are hard to eliminate because they knock out whole isles of a grocery store. I’ll just list a few of the more problematic ones.

  1. Dairy
  2. Eggs
  3. Wheat-Gluten
  4. Soy
  5. Sugar (processed, not the kind naturally found in grapes or agave)
  6. Almonds
  7. Potato (white, but not sweet)

If you want to play a fun game, go into your pantry and try to find something without these ingredients. If it’s in a box or has a wrapper, it won’t be easy.

Currently, in our pantry, we have three boxes of Lucky Charms. (I think they were on sale.) Some mornings, and even some evenings, I just stare at them. I’m so hungry that I want to eat Lucky Charms not by the bowl but the box. You might not have guessed this, but they’re actually gluten-free, as are many cereals from General Mills, but it’s the sugar that makes them off limits. Seriously though, try finding any cereal other than rice-puffs that does not have added sugar. Not Cheerios, not Wheat Chex, not Kix, which is “mother approved.” They all have it. My wife, Brooke, once found a $6 pouch of granola that I could eat. It would have lasted me two, maybe three, normal bowls. Like Matt Damon on Mars, I rationed it to five.

Some meals, I’m fine with all of this. With the help of my wife, we figure it out. Other meals, my heart rages. I just want to eat like everyone else; I want to feel “full” after a meal, a feeling much harder to come by these days. But it’s still social settings that are the most difficult for me. I’ve yet to find a way to explain all of this easily. Also, we saw an immediate 20% increase in our monthly grocery bill and—though this is impossible to quantify—at least the same percentage reduction in taste.

It used to be, back when I thought I was only allergic to dairy, that I could enjoy a good many meals just by chance—they were meals that didn’t rely on dairy, and if they did, it was only some small part of the whole, which was easily avoidable. Now, however, no random collision of ingredients can produce something edible for me, something nonflammable. Instead, great intelligent design is required to produce a meal because of the irreducible complexity; every meal is finely tuned. 

This has made it almost impossible to eat at restaurants. At Chipotle, a personal and family favorite, I’ve learned there are only three things on the menu (of all they serve), which I can eat: corn tortillas, plain lettuce, and fajita veggies. Not exactly your traditional burrito.

And at our small group Bible study, where we often share a meal, we recently discussed how it will be better if I just bring my own food or eat beforehand, which wasn’t a decision pushed upon me; I suggested it as my favorite option. I just don’t see another way.

An encouragement, though, is that there happens to be another member of our small group who has similar food issues, only her allergies have improved over time. She’s further down the road to recovery, which gives me some hope that there may be food at the end of the tunnel, at least more of it.

Darkness is My Only Food

Now, I want to come back to the title of this post: “Darkness Is My Only Food.” This phrase is an allusion to Psalm 88. The last line of the psalm ends with like this: “Darkness is my closest friend” (v. 18, NIV).

The psalms are filled with laments. This is to say, they are filled with people pouring out their struggles to God. These laments often end with notes of both praise and hope—as they should. God is our God.

Psalm 88, however, is unique in that it does not end on a note of hope but rather despair. The specific details behind the author’s troubles are not included, yet we do know something of the magnitude. This person’s trials were so great, that twice he says that he fears his trials are the result of the wrath of God being upon him (vv. 7, 16).

But I should also point out, that even in this dark psalm, there are glimmers of hope. The author is convinced that God is, and will be, his savior (vv. 1, 9). Additionally, this psalm is situated within the canon of Scripture, which repeatedly affirms that those loved by God are never without hope.

Why Am I Writing This?

I’m not writing this so that you can feel sorry for me. And I’m not writing this so that you’ll send me emails telling me that your Aunt Sally had this too and when she stood on her head to eat and rubbed essential oils into her belly button that after 14 days, she could eat nachos for breakfast.

I’m writing this because darkness has become my only food, and like the psalmist, I’m often discouraged. And when my discouragement bottoms out, I do know that God holds me in his strong arms, even as he holds my wife and family. I know God won’t let us go.

But sometimes I don’t feel this. So I need your prayers.