When 30-year-old Bunmi Sobowale caught a stomach bug during a trip to Mexico in 2004, she never imagined the string of health problems that would ensue — a month-long hospital stay, numerous visits to her general practitioner, another hospital stay and four months of blindness.
Sobowale details her experience on a website she launched in 2009 called Foods You Can:
This period was the longest 4 months of my life. Luckily I regained my sight but my journey didn’t end there. Next came the inability to walk for a period of time and then walking again, losing all feeling in my body (numbness) you could pour boiling water on me and I wouldn’t feel it, losing my hair, speech problems, suffering from neuropathic pains, more food allergies and intolerances and in fact a total of over 20 different episodes with the illness travelling and affecting almost every part of my body.
Despite doctors’ ability to save her life, Sobowale says they were not able to pinpoint a cause for her extreme aversion to food, trying everything from steroids to a form of chemotherapy to treat it.
Neurologists settled on a very rare condition called neuromyelitis, according to Daily Mail, a central nervous system disorder involving inflammation of the eye nerves (optic neuritis) and inflammation of the spinal cord (myelitis).
Unable to connect Sobowale’s food intolerance to the nervous system condition, however, doctors later diagnosed her with gluten sensitivity and a range of food intolerances including wheat, gluten, soya, lactose and sugar.
Though Sobowale describes her condition as food intolerance, experts say intolerances are usually characterized by less serious symptoms and are limited to digestive problems. According to the Mayo Clinic, common causes of food intolerance include:
- Absence of an enzyme needed to fully digest a food. Lactose intolerance is a common example.
- Irritable bowel syndrome. This chronic condition can cause cramping, constipation and diarrhea.
- Food poisoning. Toxins such as bacteria in spoiled food can cause severe digestive symptoms.
- Sensitivity to food additives. For example, sulfites used to preserve dried fruit, canned goods and wine can trigger asthma attacks in sensitive people.
- Recurring stress or psychological factors. Sometimes the mere thought of a food may make you sick. The reason is not fully understood.
- Celiac disease. Celiac disease has some features of a true food allergy because it does involve the immune system. However, symptoms are mostly gastrointestinal, and people with celiac disease are not at risk of anaphylaxis. This chronic digestive condition is triggered by eating gluten, a protein found in wheat and other grains.
Food allergies, on the other hand, can cause an immune system reaction that affects numerous organs in the body, and has even been linked to forms of arthritis. Even a tiny amount of the offending food can cause an immediate, severe reaction, experts say.
“The only thing that has worked since I became ill was changing my diet,” Sobowale told Daily Mail. “It means that if I go somewhere or even just get on a train I have to make sure there is somewhere I can get the right food.” Sobowale still has to see a neurologist for regular check ups.