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After years of troubled skin I wanted to get rid of my spots, but I was duped

As Dara O Briain once said, scientists have tested ‘natural remedies’ and if they worked they became medicine, the rest is just a nice bowl of soup and some pot-pourri, writes Fiachra Duffy.

“OH I CAN’T, I’m allergic.” Five words that will raise an eyebrow with every dietitian and doctor in the country. Allergies have become a hot topic recently but it can be difficult to separate fact from fiction.

Throughout my teenage years I was constantly troubled by my skin. I tirelessly tried every store-bought potion promising visibly clearer skin but alas my spots were stubborn, insistent on interrupting my social life and I was left none the better for all.

I went to my mother, pleading my case to be taken to a specialist to treat my condition which by this stage had started to leave scarring across my shoulders. Finally she relented but being health conscious, chose to book an appointment with the local naturopath, perceiving the title to be a more natural and healthier approach.

Being young and naive I knew no better and went along with it, happy to be finally getting some sort of treatment.

‘Natural remedies’

This is a story so many of us are familiar with. What could be more beneficial for our bodies than treating it with “natural” remedies. Herbal medicine and homeopathy have been around for thousands of years giving them some sort of elevated status in society.

However in the words of Dara O’Briain, scientists tested them all and if they worked they became medicine, the rest is just a nice bowl of soup and some pot-pourri.

shutterstock_308139839 Shutterstock / Kerdkanno Shutterstock / Kerdkanno / Kerdkanno

The naturopath strapped me up to some sort aluminium apparatus, my feet were put on metal plates and I was given a metal pointer to hold over samples of possible allergens whilst my body’s energies flowed to a device resembling a milk frother held in her hand which indicated if I was allergic or not. It probably made a great cappuccino too.

From this device she determined I was allergic to oranges and tomatoes (as a teenager I was only more than delighted to hear this) but proceeded to break my heart by telling me I was also allergic to alcohol!

I was given a course of zinc supplements to complement my new diet and was sent on my way with a promise of better skin in next to no time.

Alas, next to no time became a very long time and even with these “allergens” removed from my diet the spots and the scarring continued until I finally got to my GP for real treatment.

So what happened?

It wasn’t until I commenced my course in dietetics and began to better understand the biology behind allergic reactions that I was able to look back and realise that I’d been duped.

As real and convincing as it seemed at the time, there is no evidence to suggest hovering a piece of metal over some foods whilst someone else waved a whisk around is an accurate means of testing for allergies or intolerances.

I know that I am not alone in this either. A quick Google search will turn up no end of centres boasting complicated sounding tests and it can be trouble picking the real from the pretenders.

What is an allergy?

An allergy is when your immune system responds to a food or substance that the body incorrectly labels as harmful. Antibodies are produced and histamine is released by your body and it is this histamine that can cause the symptoms commonly seen with allergies: swelling of the face, rashes, hives or vomiting.

This is why antihistamines are sometimes used to treat allergic reactions.

Approximately 5% of children and 3% of adults actually suffer food allergies.

shutterstock_212617198 Shutterstock / Alena Ozerova Shutterstock / Alena Ozerova / Alena Ozerova

How do I get tested for an allergy?

Through your doctor. They will be able to refer you on for one of two different allergy tests:

1. Skin prick tests

A microscopic amount of an allergen is introduced to a patient’s skin via pricking with needle.

Numerous allergens are tested for and a medical professional is present in case there is a serious reaction. The skin can be analysed for any hives or rashes indicating an allergic response.

2. Blood test

A sample of your blood is sent off for testing against different allergens to see if any produce a response from the blood. It is very difficult to pick out the pretenders here so hence why it is best to go through your GP.

Allergy and intolerance…what’s the difference?

Whilst an allergy will produce an immune response, an intolerance or sensitivity tends to produce an unpleasant reaction to particular foods usually involving the stomach and the gut.

So how do I get tested for an intolerance?

Again through your doctor. Lactose intolerance and fructose malabsorption can be tested for using a hydrogen breath test. A physical examination combined with a detailed history including diet, symptoms involved and suspected trigger foods may also help a health care professional diagnose an intolerance.

They can also help restructure your diet so you remove the offending food without missing out on any essential nutrients.

shutterstock_2404763 Shutterstock / Alex Hinds Shutterstock / Alex Hinds / Alex Hinds

What about FODMAPs, what is that?

FODMAPs stands for Fermentable Oligo-saccharides, Di-saccharides, Mono-saccharides And Polyols.

They are a group of short chain carbohydrates that can be poorly absorbed in the small intestine and can cause many bowel disorders including Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS).

The low FODMAPs diet quickly becoming recognised as being one of the most effective dietary treatments for IBS and involves a 4 – 6 week elimination of FODMAP containing foods with a gradual reintroduction whilst monitoring for symptoms. This is not a dietary experiment recommended to be carried out alone; this should be done with support from a dietitian.

And as always, trust your doctor, trust your dietitian.

Allergens and intolerances can be very confusing and many of us have been misled into believing we may suffer from one when we actually don’t.

Fiachrá has organised several dietitians to follow the #INDIallergies on Twitter this week to help answer some of your questions and queries.

Please visit The Irish Nutrition and Dietetics Institute and Anaphylaxis Ireland for more information.

Fiachrá Duffy is a Registered Dietitian with the Irish Nutrition and Dietetic Institute and partner at You can contact him at or @fiachra_duffy 

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