Victoria Aitken has suffered from red rashes for as long as she could remember. Earlier this year I finally got to the bottom of the problem when she visited a nutritionist.
Victoria Aitken has suffered from red rashes for as long as she could remember
The conversation flowed; we were laughing at each other’s jokes and I sensed the flicker of chemistry with my date. Then he casually asked: ‘What’s wrong with your skin?’
A sideways glance in the mirror and I could understand why he’d asked: it looked as if I had been clawed by a tiger. Angry red lines ran across my neck and face.
OK, they didn’t hurt and within a few hours they’d gone, but imagine how it feels being on a date and looking as if you’ve been in a fight with a zoo animal. To say it put a dampener on my evening was something of an understatement.
Unfortunately this incident a couple of years ago was nothing new. I have lost count of the number of dinner parties I have been at when someone would pipe up: ‘Victoria, what’s happened to you?’ I would look in the mirror only to find my eyes had puffed up or that I had angry-looking, red, raised patches of skin on my face or arms.
It could strike any part of my skin at any time. I would have to reassure people it was fine — I didn’t have some horrible infectious disease and I would look normal again in an hour or so.
It didn’t itch or hurt, which is why I often had no idea that I had a flare-up until someone pointed it out — although sometimes the affected skin felt hot like it does when you blush.
I’d had this problem since I could remember and it would happen most days, or once every three days in a good week. When I was about ten, Mum sent me to see various doctors and even to a Swiss clinic to try to get to the root of it.
Earlier this year, she finally got to the bottom of the problem when nutritionist Lisa Blair told her she had a histamine intolerance
The consensus seemed to be that my red rashes were urticaria or hives — a rash often linked to allergies, but what was causing it was a mystery. It was put down to ‘just one of those things’ and I wasn’t given any treatment for it.
Sometimes even raindrops or taking a shower could trigger the rash. The only saving grace was that it would fade typically within hours, rather than days.
But having to be ever vigilant for my next attack dented my confidence. Whereas my siblings (my twin, Alexandra, and half- sister, Petrina Khashoggi) have always been confident before the camera, I have felt more awkward, partly because I’d be worried about my skin, which makes life difficult, especially in my job as a singer.
However, earlier this year I finally got to the bottom of my problem. I had seen a nutritionist as I wanted to improve my diet and cut back on sugar — I was getting through more than a bar of chocolate a day.
I left with the suggestion to eat nut bars when I got a sugar craving. The first bar I had was delicious, but later the skin around my eyes swelled up so much I looked like a panda. Something inside me snapped and I thought ‘enough’. I started looking for another nutritionist to help me.
After ringing dozens I found Lisa Blair, who seemed to have a more scientific approach to her work. She first asked me to fill in a questionnaire about my diet, what happened after I ate certain foods and any recurring health issues.
My skin wasn’t the only health issue I had. I also couldn’t tolerate wine. I would wake up with the worst headache and feeling as if I had flu despite only drinking at most two glasses.
Occasionally, I’d take a glass at a party and feel sick after a few sips. There was no pattern — sometimes I could tolerate two glasses and feel fine, while other days even just eating a pasta dish made with wine would make me sick.
After reading my replies, Lisa Blair spotted my issue: Cheese. and anchovies, Marmite, certain types of chocolate, tomatoes, vinegar, anything fermented. What these foods all have in common is an ingredient called histamine. And like hundreds of thousands of others in this country I have histamine intolerance.
‘It is quite a common problem, but it isn’t an allergy — it’s caused by an inability to metabolise histamine properly,’ explains Dr Adrian Morris, an allergy specialist at the Surrey Allergy Clinic.
‘Histamine, the chemical released from the body in response to allergens — such as pollen in hay fever — is also present in certain foods such as sauerkraut, chocolate or wine. To metabolise it, you need an enzyme called diamine oxidase, but people with histamine intolerance don’t produce enough, or this enzyme does not work properly.
‘As a result, histamine builds up in the tissues, liver and skin and this triggers allergy type symptoms such as hives, itching, wheezing, and tummy upsets.’
It’s only been recognised over the past ten years — hence the doctors I saw as a child had no idea what the issue was, so I continued to eat lots of cheese.
‘Previously, it might get put down to idiopathic urticaria — in other words urticaria of no known cause,’ says Dr Morris. The way it was explained to me is that my body is like a bucket that can only tolerate so much histamine — so if I had a glass of wine and no other histamine-rich foods I might be fine, but if I added fermented foods and cheese to that wine, the bucket would tip over and cause my symptoms.
This makes histamine intolerance hard to spot as a food might cause an issue one day and not the other. Diagnosis is done by keeping a food diary or a history of symptoms, adds Dr Morris.
‘Steps have to be taken then to eliminate high histamine foods from the diet and it may sometimes be treated with antihistamines,’ he says.
‘There is also a supplement called Daosin which you get online or in health food shops and is said to help do the job of the missing enzymes and metabolise the histamine.
Histamine intolerance is not the only food-based health issue once dismissed as ‘faddy’ that is now an accepted medical condition.
WHITE WINE ALLERGY
This can be an intolerance to preservatives called sulphites that leads to wheezing, tightness of breath and nasal congestion. It is not a true allergy so blood or skin prick tests are of no use. Asthmatics are sensitive to sulphites, which are also found in, for example, dried fruit.
Those who complain about pain or bloating after eating bread or wheat may be tested for coeliac disease, where the immune system reacts to gluten. Often, these blood tests and biopsies come back negative.
Now it is known some people have non-coeliac gluten sensitivity that leads to similar symptoms to coeliac disease, but does not trigger the production of anti-bodies or gut damage that coeliac disease does. It is thought to affect seven million people in the UK. The exact cause is unknown, but symptoms improve by avoiding gluten.
CAN'T DIGEST MILK
A milk allergy means even a small drop can trigger a potentially violent reaction, and is an immune system response to a protein in the milk.
But a lactose intolerance is more subtle, and is caused by an inability to digest lactose — the sugar in milk.
It was overlooked for a long time because it could not be detected by allergy tests.
It stems from a lack of the enzyme lactase and can lead to diarrhoea, flatulence and nausea which may occur hours after drinking the milk.
Lactose intolerance can be temporary, while for other people it is a more long- term condition.
However, there is a lack of well-conducted studies into how successful this is — some patients I see say it works very well, while for others it does not.’ Having got a diagnosis, I thought fixing the problem would be simple; but it’s not always clear which foods do and don’t contain a lot of histamine. Take a stew, for example — you end up having to do some detective work — it might contain tomatoes or wine.
I tried the Daosin, but it made me feel very odd — as if I was flying. I’ve never taken cocaine, but I imagine that’s what it feels like.
I’m still struggling to find a breakfast that works — before, it would often have been cheese and tomatoes — and both are on the list of foods to avoid.
Wine is still off for me, so I just don’t drink at all. In fact, I’m now the best friend from hell as I can recall everything from a night out.
Sometimes, I have to use willpower. Recently, I was at a birthday party, so I thought two forks of chocolate cake would be fine, but the next morning I had a flare-up, although the effects are less severe than they used to be.
One of the hardest things has been trying to explain my intolerance to other people — they think I am just being a food princess.
An invitation to dinner came with a note saying: ‘Please let us know of any allergies’. I sent a polite email explaining it would be really helpful if I could be given food not high in histamine.
Rather than getting a sympathetic email back, it said: ‘Victoria, you will eat whatever is in front of you and you’ll be fine.’
So at the dinner I just picked out what I could eat and left the bits I couldn’t, such as the tomatoes in the salad. However I’m determined to be more confident. If people try to tell me I’m being fussy I will explain politely: ‘I’m not — for me, this problem is very real.’
Interview by Lucy ElkinsRead more at dailymail.co.uk