In 1993, an American mother made a remarkable discovery. The foods that had made her sick all her life had one thing in common – they all contained a naturally occuring pigment that is known for its property of absorbing ultra-violet light and protecting our retina from damage. That pigment is called lutein, and the woman is Sandra, who I met in 1997 and married a year later in Atlanta, Georgia.
Why would a pigment that is closely related to beta-carotene be responsible for the symptoms that she had experienced all her life? Since childhood, she had known that certain foods would make her ill, so she limited her diet to a few foods she knew she could trust- tomato soup, toast, baby rice cereal. But she often made mistakes, and then the dizziness, nausea and sensory distortions would last for hours, incapacitating her totally.
Some foods would cause her to break out in a bright red rash, like those summer papayas that her grandfather would slice up and place in her mouth, very carefully so that the bright orange fruit would not touch her lips.
Withdrawing from the fabric of social life, she became absorbed in study, with the intense focus which she found to be the best way of coping with the overwhelming feelings of the food reactions.
Describing her early school years, she told me how she would count the steps from her door to the school entrance, then wait for someone to open the door for her. She could not remember a single student from that time, so self-absorbed that she was. Only much later would she make some friends, such as her friend Anita who helped her adapt to the social life, taking her shopping for clothes. But her main interest was reading and absorbing vast amounts of information, finding new ways to solve math problems, and keeping focussed on what was most important to her – finding out down to the microscopic detail how things worked, trying to unravel the mysteries of why she was different, what caused the food reactions that controlled her life. She would spend her evenings in the medical library at the hospital where her mother worked second shift, absorbing medical dictionaries and journal articles about nutrition, food science, biochemistry and immunology. She put that knowledge to good use as well, writing diet plans for doctors at the hospital. But the key to her own food intolerances remained a mystery, until she read a database of carotene pigments in foods and the pieces of the puzzle all came together.
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