Imagine waking up one day to discover that the crushing depression you’ve lived with for decades is actually a symptom of allergies? The relative of author Sherilyn Powers didn’t have to imagine. This was her life. After 50 years of taking various prescription drugs to manage her “depression”, she found out she wasn’t crazy, but allergic.
In this interview, Sherilyn Powers discusses her new non-fiction book, her “hot-button” issue, and why she believes more and more patients are taking to the Internet to find answers to their nagging mystery symptoms.
“How did you come up with the title of your book, I’m Not Crazy…I’m Allergic!? I LOVE it!
Thank you! I love it, too, and I wish I could take credit. Most of the book is about a relative, Julie, and our discovering that what she had been told for over 50 years was mental illness, really wasn’t. This was complicated by Julie’s background in psychology and her absolute insistence that anything alternative was all media hype and placebo.
One day Julie had an accident with a full air filter that contained mould and dust… two of her top allergens. Within minutes, she went from happy and energetic to sobbing and feeling hopeless and worthless—and suicidal.
When she recognized the direct relationship she phoned me sobbing, and when I finally realized what happened, I asked if she had taken her antihistamines.
She sobbed out, “No, I wanted you to hear first. I’m not crazy… I’m allergic!“
Allergies can cause the symptoms of mental illness. Can you explain how this happens?
This is a rather complicated process which I do go into detail about in the book, but as simply put as I can (without quoting the entire book!), allergic reactions and even sensitivities create certain responses in the body.
One of the biggest responses is inflammation. Inflammation creates all sorts of issues, but the most important thing to remember, if you have inflammation from anything but a direct injury to a body part, that inflammation probably is not located only from the neck down!
And medical studies have shown inflammation in the brain can contribute to things like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s as well as affecting cognition and learning, depression, and even schizophrenia.
The other thing that happens with the body’s response to what it perceives as a threat is the increase in chemicals such as cytokines. These chemicals can affect the brain and body in many ways.
With cytokines for example, depending on whether they are pro-inflammatory or anti-inflammatory, they can cause insomnia or the exact opposite, extreme fatigue and sleeping all the time. Those two effects alone severely interfere with a person’s mental health, especially if they are suffered long term.
Another really common reaction is panic attacks. This is very easily explained. You come into contact with something the body identifies as an invader, and it goes into red alert.
This red alert mode is frequently misinterpreted as a reaction to something mental or emotional. If your heart starts pounding and your blood races and you are short of breath… are you really going to wonder if something in a sandwich you ate an hour ago has anything to do with it? Probably not.
What are some common food/environmental triggers of emotional imbalance?
Anything that causes a reaction can upset emotional balance. It is impossible to say what each person’s emotional or mental reactions will be. Julie experienced crying and what she thought was nostalgia whenever she smelled fresh-cut grass.
When she first started the desensitization shots she was told to stay away from people mowing their lawns as that stirs up mould and would bother her mould allergies. It wasn’t until she had gone through several months of desensitization shots that the crying stopped completely when she was exposed to grass mould.
That doesn’t mean everyone with mould allergies will cry. Or that everyone that drinks dairy will experience panic attacks, like another person I know. Some people “only” get stomach pain and diarrhea from milk.
But would they notice that after the attack of diarrhea that they were a bit more sensitive than normal, easily angered or tearful? Doubtful. They just aren’t feeling very good. Well geez, they just had to spend half an hour on the toilet spoiling the most wonderful evening because of a stupid allergy and then that waitress looked at them funny and their steak was overcooked and why do you always… yes, dairy just affects their stomach.
I’m not making light of a reaction like this, but trying to show how easy it is for us to explain things away. If it happens once, it probably doesn’t mean anything, but if every time you eat dairy the whole world is suddenly against you… maybe your reaction is more than just the stomachache.
Then one day you binge on dairy, and the next day you are so depressed you can’t get out of bed. You hate your life and the only thing that makes it better is ice cream. Even at this point, most people wouldn’t think of the two of them as being related in any way.
A doctor calls you a ‘hypochondriac’ for looking up symptoms on the Internet. How do you respond?
Oooohhh… my hot button! Honestly, I find another doctor. I don’t bother to argue. That doctor is not a professional in my opinion, and they do not deserve my business (our visits pay their salaries – no patients, no pay).
However, I know that isn’t always practical. And I wasn’t always like that. I’ve been labelled a hypochondriac more times than I can count. Right up until the day a REAL professional listened and investigated and discovered I had celiac disease, an autoimmune thyroid disease, and several other things from being severely misdiagnosed for years.
If I know I need the doctor in question, say, a specialist, I broach the subject of something I have read carefully. If I feel they are open, I will go a little further. If I sense eye-rolling or disconnecting, I stop.
I usually will quote a respected medical study, preferably from North America (because, unfortunately, some North American doctors have the mistaken belief that no other country has valid contributions to the medical field).
My advice to you:
Make sure to use your own country if you suspect the same issue and not a blurb from Wikipedia! Make sure the study has not only authors with MD (medical doctor in North America) in their names, but that it is published in a respected medical journal. Some MDs may take an ND (naturopathic doctor) as an expert, but most are skeptical.
I am lucky with my family physician, as she is very open to listening. She may not always agree, but she respects me and my knowledge and is willing to try certain things if she doesn’t feel it will hurt. And, if I told her that I couldn’t work with a certain specialist with a God complex, I know she would try to refer me elsewhere.
She has the greatest quality in any medical professional – a willingness to work as a team, with her being my advisor and me being ultimately in charge of the direction of my health care.
Who would benefit most from your book?
Most people with allergies know they have allergies, but may not know the far-reaching effects. This would be the first group. Some of these people might have issues with panic attacks, depression, fatigue, pain or “fibromyalgia” (the wonderful-sounding diagnosis literally meaning muscle pain) and “chronic fatigue” (another diagnosis meaning, “I have no idea what you have”) and not be aware that these symptoms can be caused or made worse by their allergies.
The other group would be more like Julie. People who have suffered from long-term, inexplicable, and recurring depression (I’m not talking about people who have had a terrible tragedy and a month later are still suffering through the grieving process) and who don’t think they have allergies, or that their allergies really affect them. This includes people who are experiencing panic and anxiety attacks. Or even someone with mental health issues who would like to try something that might make it all easier to deal with.
And the last group I would like to reach… the medical and mental health professionals. To have them realize there are medical studies out there that do show the very real relationship between allergies and depression. Not everyone will be like Julie and find their long-term depression wasn’t a mental illness after all, but controlling allergies can’t help but make people feel physically and mentally better.
It would be awesome to see people with allergies routinely monitored for depression, but even more importantly, people with chronic depression tested for allergies.
What drove you to become a writer?
I don’t remember a time when I didn’t write. It is something I’ve always done. However, to be a fiction writer and published poet and then to suddenly be in the position of having to write a non-fiction piece… that was something that, to this day, still has me a bit amazed.
Would you provide a short excerpt from your book that I can use with your permission on my website, I Told You I Was Sick?
“One of the biggest problems is that physicians only have a short period of time to be with any one patient during a routine visit, so they are under pressure to identify a patient’s concerns immediately and get them through and out the door.
So, if someone comes in complaining of tiredness, lack of motivation, loss of interest in daily activities, insomnia or inability to wake up, weepiness, suicidal thoughts/actions, appetite changes, mood swings, concentration problems, brain fog and muscle aches and pains, most physicians have an immediate pre-diagnosis and begin to run tests for thyroid, possible anemia, hormones (if women of a certain age or child-bearing stage), and then, in a large number of cases, suggest a trial of antidepressants.
Depending on the patient’s history, physicians may have a couple of other thoughts, but pretty much stress and depression are going to get top slot, especially when all those blood tests they have ordered come back normal.
Whenever Julie went to see a doctor, they would run the tests, all would be normal, so she was just depressed. And, after many years of this, it wouldn’t even be questioned—not even by Julie. How many times had she gone into the doctor and said, “I’m depressed” instead of listing her symptoms? This was what she had been told her entire life, and she believed it. What else could it have been?
Doctors always ran the tests and found nothing wrong.
But were these the right tests? Well, they are the standard tests for everyone with these symptoms, and they mostly come back normal—that proves everyone is just depressed and needs to be put on antidepressants, right?
Unfortunately, that seems to be the common thought. Antidepressants are being handed out like candy in North America—candy with a multitude of side effects and very questionable efficacy.
One study on antidepressant efficacy goes as far as to say “[a]pproximately half of clinical trials fail to differentiate active treatments from controls, and mean differences between drug and placebo on the Hamilton Rating Scale for Depression are small.”11
It has also been shown that the more severe the depression is, the higher the efficacy of antidepressants.12 So it is not that they are useless, but are they the right first-line of attack? When a supposed treatment causes everything from erectile dysfunction to an increase in the very thing they are trying to control (suicide), do they really need to be handed out indiscriminately?
Several times I have had doctors give me a prescription for antidepressants without even waiting for the blood tests. And I was NOT suicidal when they did this. Nor did they suggest psychiatric evaluation or follow up. They were just being prescribed so that I wouldn’t feel so “down.” And I know I’m definitely not the only one who was treated this way.
CBS News reported that “Dr. Ramin Mojtabai, an associate professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said…between 1996 and 2007, the number of visits where individuals were prescribed antidepressants with no psychiatric diagnoses increased from 59.5 percent to 72.7 percent.”13
This definitely shows that handing out antidepressants is becoming common behavior.
Allergy testing would be a non-standard test for patients who are showing signs of possible depression and it isn’t done on clinically depressed people because it never has been. With a number of studies now linking allergies and depression, with any luck, it may eventually become a regular part of the family physician’s tool chest.
In the meantime, people will continue to receive prescriptions for antidepressants that merely put an ineffective bandage on an undiagnosed condition, for no other reason than because it is the standard thing to do.
It is this type of thinking that keeps medicine from moving forward (and has started the movement of people trying to help themselves through alternative methods). If a treatment isn’t standard, it isn’t done.
Not that I entirely blame doctors! According to a few physicians I have spoken with, in many instances they are limited as to what types of testing are allowed under what circumstances, and especially in government-paid medical situations, the labs can refuse to run tests for patients if the doctor doesn’t have what they consider good enough reasons for ordering the tests.
So, what we patients are left with for now is doing a lot of investigation and seeking treatment on our own.”
I can completely understand where Sherilyn and Julie are coming from. I suffered for 22 years from horrible symptoms with new diagnoses being thrown at me at every turn, but I never had any real answers or relief in sight. It was a naturopathic physician who finally helped me realize that severe gluten intolerance was what had been making me sick since childhood.
When I was finally able to tell people the truth, I remember saying (quite smugly, I might add), “I TOLD you I was sick!” It’s empowering to know that more patients, who were once dumped into the same category of “nervous hypochondriac”, are finally having their voices heard and their symptoms properly diagnosed.
Thank you, Sherilyn, for taking the time to do this interview and to write such a life-changing book!
To secure your copy of I’m Not Crazy…I’m Allergic!, click on the book cover below.