Today's inspirational interviewee is someone very special to me... she's my sister! But that's not why she's being interviewed. Courtney's story is one that will make you go hmm.... It's a reminder that we really are what we eat.
HH: Let's start with the millon dollar question: How long have you followed a vegan diet and what made you go plant-based?
Not long; almost 4 months completely. I did try to work in a few vegan meals a week before I went completely vegan. I was motivated by my allergies.
Yes. My allergies were the main reason.
What kind of allergies did you have?
After a lovely series of allergy testing, I found out my food allergies are black pepper and cottonseed, and my outdoor allergy was to Bahia grass.
What kind of symptom did you have?
I couldn’t breathe, ever. When I called my doctor for a visit to talk about my symptoms, the woman that answered asked how long I had been sick! I told her that I wasn’t sick, I just couldn’t breathe. My nasal cavities were so swollen and blocked that the specialist wasn’t able to use a nasal endoscopy.
How did these symptoms affect your life?
I had problems breathing. This also caused problems sleeping. I would constantly wake myself up throughout the night, and in the morning my mouth would be dry and yucky. I had problems working out because I wasn’t getting enough air. I couldn’t breathe through my nose at all.
So why not just take allergy medication for the grass and avoid the foods you were allergic too?
I did! First I was on allergy medication from my regular doctor, but when it didn't work and I got fed up, I went to a specialist. The specialist diagnosed my allergies and gave me 2 prescriptions. He also encouraged me to avoid food containing black pepper and cottonseed oil, which were what I was allergic to.
Cottonseed oil? I've never even heard of that. Sounds like a pretty easy thing to avoid, right?
That's what I thought too. I knew cottonseed oil was in some peanut butters and processed foods, but I already avoided those foods for my health. Avoiding black pepper had its challenges, but it wasn't impossible. The specialist also gave me a handout about cottonseed allergies, which said that I should avoid milk and conventional produce.
Why would you need to avoid milk and fruit?
Since cottonseed cakes are fed to cattle, it is excreted in their milk. The handout also said that some fruit stands polish their fruit with cottonseed oil. So I decided to avoid cows' milk and non-organic produce.
So you started feeling better then?
No. After eliminating those foods and trying to use my prescriptions for a few months, I still didn't feel better. I still couldn't breathe.
So what did you do?
I did more research online. That is where I found out that the cottonseed not only comes through cow's milk but that it was also stored in their meat... beef. After finding that out, I had set my mind up to go completely vegan. I thought I was able to avoid cottonseed by looking at the ingredients of something, but where do you get the ingredients of a filet? I never thought that what the cow was eating, I too was eating. It gave a realistic meaning to “you are what you eat.”
Once you eliminated all animal products from your diet, did you experience any relief in your symptoms?
Yes. I went off all my indoor/food allergy medicine about 2 weeks into being completely vegan, with no negative side effects.
What about your outdoor allergy?
Knowing that Bahia grass is very popular where I live, I was more reluctant to stop taking my outdoor allergy medicine. Then one day, I decided that I would start a local honey regime daily. I did that for about a week before I stopped taking my outdoor allergy medicine. I still have a spoonful of honey daily, but I have not taken any allergy medicine in about 3 months. I also don't have any symptoms.
Have there been any other benefits from your dietary change?
I generally feel better; my energy is greater. I’ve become more regular. My mom said she could see a difference in my complexion, and that was only a few weeks into me going vegan.
Although you're free of symptoms, you're not “cured” of your allergies. You're still allergic to black pepper and cottonseed. A lot of people think having allergies makes veganism hard or impossible. Has it been difficult for you?
I find planning ahead helps. I also try to bring food with me, or eat ahead of time when I'm going somewhere that probably won't have food I can eat. For example, when my mom had a little get-together, I brought food for myself. Sometimes it’s hard though. I went to a lunch buffet that had steamed veggies, without oil or butter, but they were seasoned with spices including black pepper!
How did you first learn about veganism and its abilities to cure allergies?
(laughing) From you! Having you and happyherbivore.com as a resource has been a blessing for me. I also saw a speech that Alicia Silverstone gave on YouTube (search Authors@Google Alicia Silverstone). She was talking about how her complexion and allergy problems were solved just by changing her diet. That motivated me to do my own research.
Do you recommend the vegan diet for other allergy sufferers?
Absolutely. It makes living with allergies so much easier. Vegan (and vegetarian) food that you buy in the grocery store (like the boxed or frozen food) is great about listing all the actual ingredients used instead of just putting “spices.” Everyone knows about peanut allergies, but not everyone knows about a garlic or a mint or a black pepper allergy. If you are buying things at the store that lists “spices” as an ingredient, you may still be eating something you are allergic to. Also, I would recommend a daily local honey regime for people with outdoor allergies. If you do allergy shots, all you are getting is a small dose of what you’re allergic to in order to build up an immunity to it. Since bees pollinate everything, you can use the honey to do the same thing. Although, you do have to use local honey for this. It has worked great for me.
Lastly, a person following a vegan diet for health reasons is not necessarily a vegan — meaning someone who eschews animal products for ethical reasons. What's your opinion on this?
For years you tried to convince me to go vegetarian for animal rights issues, but I was never motivated. However, I always did care about animal welfare, so I avoided factory-farmed meats and products. My then-boyfriend was a hunter and that was usually the only meat I ate. Even though my decision was based on health, as I learn more, meet more vegans, attend vegan meetups, etc., I find I'm motivated by several factors.