How I discovered my salicylate intolerance

I was surprised at how many people took the time to read my post about salicyclic intolerance, and at all the feedback I received. It makes me feel like I should tell the rest of the story – how I got to this place.

I started getting migraines when I was about 8, after our family moved to Canberra. They got bad the next year, when I was in a stressful class at school. My mum (and her mum) have experienced similar migraines with similar symptoms (Mum’s started even younger than mine) so she immediately knew what was going on and pestered doctors to do what they could for me. Which honestly wasn’t much, given that they wouldn’t give strong painkillers to a 9 year old. But my GP was good about trying to connect potential food triggers to my migraines. By the time I was 12 we had worked out that I needed to avoid caramel colour (#150 – so coke and other cola drinks), oats, tomato and tomato products. Over the next few years I added berries to the list, and was pretty sure oranges were also a problem.

headacheWhen I was 16 my migraines were getting more frequent and more disruptive than ever and I started trialling migraine medications with my GP. A friend heard the list of foods I avoided and told me that tomato and berries and oranges are all high in salicylic acid – and that I might want to consider whether I had an intolerance. She had salicylic intolerance as a child and recognised them. She gave me a basic list of high salicylate foods to avoid and I tried it for a month. The difference was stunning. Not only did the migraines go away, but my daily headaches disappeared.

My entire life I had a headache most afternoons. I didn’t take painkillers for them (I didn’t take painkillers for most pain, I saved them for the bad stuff like migraines). I didn’t even call them headaches because, well, who gets a headache every day? It was just how my head felt. But suddenly they were gone! It was enough to convince me. I made some changes to my diet and headaches were suddenly a much smaller part of my life. I still got migraines from once every 6 weeks or so, but in addition to being less frequent they also weren’t as intense.

I probably should have done more research and talked to more people about it, but my pain had lessened so I was happy. If it had happened now I’m sure I would have been on google first thing but this was in the 90s – there was no google and the internet wasn’t exactly a reliable place to get information.

Years later I had the idea to research it online after a conversation sparked my interest. To my dismay I found much more complete lists of foods high in salicylates – including some of my favourites (like broccoli and olives!). I also read that many beauty products were high in salycilates. Honestly, it all seemed too much, too hard to make those sweeping changes. I learned a few more good/bad foods from the lists and tried to put it out of mind.

Around that time I discovered a few small warts on the sole of my foot. The treatments for warts are basically pure salicylic acid. I decided to get the get treatment and apply it and use it as a sort of experiment – I would try to pay attention to my pain levels (something I normally kept as much out of mind as possible – I had a lifetime’s practise ignoring pain) and if there was a sharp spike I would discontinue the treatment and see it as proof that salicylic was definitely the problem. I gave up after four days. On day two I got a blinding migraine, had headaches day three, followed by a second migraine on day four. A cluster headache might be common for some migraine sufferers but it had never happened to me before. Strangely, four days of treatment got rid of the warts (should have taken much longer) so overall I called it a win.

About three years ago I resolved to do this thing for real. I compared lists of different compounds found in beauty products that are high in salicylic acid and went through my bathroom – throwing nearly everything out. I spent money on salicylate-free products shipped from the US. I got really serious about food, changing how I cooked (pulling out almost all herbs and spices, in particular), and being far more picky when eating out (avoiding spicy food and opting not to eat things served at group meals). I often ate a small meal at home before going out to eat with friends so that it wouldn’t matter if there weren’t any good options for me – I didn’t want to make bad choices just because I was hungry.

My determination didn’t need to last long. Within a matter of weeks the difference was enough to blow me away! The sheer quantity of physical symptoms that disappeared stunned me completely. Earlier that year my Mum had read about a connection between salicylic acid intolerance and joint pain but I couldn’t believe the instant and massive reduction in knee pain I experienced. I was on a path to surgery that abruptly slowed to a crawl. Rashes and skin irritation disappeared. Sinus congestion and pain dropped dramatically. I was less lethargic, and even my skin looked better.

After nearly three decades of chronic pain (headaches and various joint/tendon problems), this was near miraculous.

Trying to monitor and limit my exposure to salicylates can be irritating. And sometimes I splurge on favourites I know aren’t good for me. But having a choice, and a measure of control, is amazing.


One thought on “How I discovered my salicylate intolerance

  1. Pingback: Another year of writing | Tanya's Stories

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