Headaches affect more of us than asthma. The American Headache Foundation estimates that over 45 million Americans suffer from chronic, recurring headaches. The cost of medical expenses and lost time approaches 50 billion dollars a year and 4 billion dollars are spent on over-the-counter pain relievers alone. Headaches are usually classified into three groups: tension, vascular and organic. Organic headaches are the product of tumors and infection and are the symptoms of disease. Tension and vascular headaches are part of everyday life and must be faced on a regular basis by millions of people.
Tension headaches account for about 90% of all headaches. They are accompanied by neck and shoulder muscle ache and the pain is usually spread all over the head. Tension headaches that occur on a daily basis may be complicated by depression and medication rebound can be a factor. For instance, caffeine in beverages and pain relievers, although helpful when first taken, can actually promote a headache during withdrawal on the following day. You can notice this effect if you drink coffee during the week and then skip coffee by oversleeping on the weekend.
Vascular headaches involve the circulatory system and include migraine, cluster and headaches caused by toxic substances like sulfites. Over 16 million people suffer from migraines and most of those are women. Migraines are triggered by a wide range of causes including diet, stress, noise, light, smell and hormones. Pain is generally concentrated on one side of the head and is often preceded by a distinctive aura. Migraines can last for days even though the trigger is long removed. Cluster headaches are more rare than migraine and women will be glad to hear that they normally affect men. These headaches occur as groups or clusters with wide periods of remission in between. No cause has been determined but they produce some of the most acute pain of any medical condition short of decapitation. Toxic headaches are caused by a reaction to a poison or by a sensitivity that mimics such a reaction. Sulfite headaches fall into this category. They are not generally triggered like a migraine or tension headache; they are a reaction to a toxic invasion. As long as the toxin is present, a headache results. When the toxin is neutralized, the pain leaves.
You might wonder how I can be sure my headaches are caused by sulfites when so many things are mentioned as triggers and toxins. Just the list of migraine food triggers is quite impressive. Migraine triggers include red wine, champagne, coffee, chocolate, nuts, cheese, yeast, nitrates, nitrites and MSG. Heck, just MSG (monosodium glutamate) is in thousands of foods including soups, gravies, stews, meats, seasonings, rice mixes, hamburger helpers and on and on. Many of these same foods also contain sulfites and other suspicious ingredients. It took me a long time to figure out my problem was sulfites and I had to become very sensitive to make the connection. To someone without the problem, it may be hard to believe that such small amounts of sulfite can be the real cause of my trouble. But if you doubt my conclusions, you must explain why I get a headache from a mixture of distilled water and sodium sulfite. It’s got to be the water, the sodium or the sulfite. Take your pick.
As you know by now, asthma is not a problem for me. Headaches are. Half a day after eating sulfite contaminated food, I feel pressure building behind both eyes. The pressure spreads and the pain begins. The pain is concentrated behind my eyes and wraps around and over my forehead. It can last for a full day and night and even prevent sleep. This makes me a pretty unhappy fellow. I am depressed, cranky and quite unmotivated. My back muscles tense and my joints ache. And, my blood pressure rises from 120/80 to a disturbed 140/90. All this from 100 micrograms of sulfur preservatives hidden in a delicious chocolate mud pie.
I have no known medical problem other than a sensitivity to sulfites. I like to think of myself as slightly smarter than the average guy. Of course, my kids think of me as slightly dumber than the average guy. All in all, I am normal. So, I assume that my sensitivity to sulfites is not unique. For starters, the medical community suspects that 1% of all Americans are sensitive to sulfites. That’s a lot of company, nearly 3 million people. ( Based on some studies, I suspect that the real number of people affected may be six times higher. ) The most commonly reported problem is asthma and the most dramatic is deadly anaphylactic shock. Sulfites can cause headaches like mine and they can be triggers for migraine headaches. I have several friends that suffer heart arrhythmia from sulfur preservatives and must carry emergency doses of epinephrine. It is not known how sensitive one can become to sulfites but I assume I am near the lower limit. Thankfully, most people are not as sensitive as I, although many people react to sulfites and sulfur dioxide as poisons at sufficiently high concentrations. The ADI (Acceptable Daily Intake) of sulfites quoted by the National Food Safety Database is about 600 times my threshold. That represents quite a few french fries and I’ll bet that’s good news for McDonald’s and most of America. Of course, it’s no comfort to those of us at the bottom of the sulfite heap. Perhaps those in the middle should be just a little bit concerned, too.
Since sulfur preservatives are present in so many foods, I wonder if they couldn’t be causing more trouble than asthma and headaches. A health problem occurring just once a month would be almost impossible to link to sulfur preservatives even if you knew about them. So, allow me to make some rather wild suggestions based solely on my personal experience with sulfite headaches. Imagine that sulfites are causing problems for more than 1% of Americans. And, imagine that the problems go beyond headaches and asthma. I may not be right but, then again, I may not be entirely wrong.
For instance, my headaches include muscle pain from knots under my shoulder blades. This is not shoulder tension; it is lower down and more concentrated. Pain under the shoulder blades is a typical symptom of many food intolerances, not just sulfite intolerance. I wonder how many people get that kind of pain and think it’s just tension? Of course, popping aspirin won’t help but eventually the pain will go away. One might falsely conclude that the second or third pill worked. Also, I wonder if my headache depression is caused directly by the sulfites or indirectly by the pain. Are joint aches a clue that sulfites aggravate arthritis? Could other auto-immune responses be affected by sulfur preservatives? Many of the people that write to my website think so.
My sulfite headaches are accompanied by a moderate rise in blood pressure. This makes sense since sulfites are known to encourage tissue swelling. Half of adult America is concerned about high blood pressure. We are told to cut back on fat, salt and cigarettes. We are supposed to exercise more, worry less and even take an aspirin every day. I wonder if we shouldn’t also be told to avoid the oxides of sulfur? I am the first to admit that these ideas are stretching the facts a bit thin. But, if anybody out there is director of a research clinic, what about a sulfite avoidance trial on a few hundred people with a wide range of health problems?
What causes food intolerance? A common explanation is that some of us are born with a sensitive system predisposed to an allergic response. As infants, our immature digestive systems can’t completely process complex foods. Once poorly digested food enters the blood stream, the body can mistake it as an infectious invasion. Antibodies may be produced and the body may react just as if germs were detected. In this case, a baby may grow up with an allergy or intolerance for a particular food.
With these thoughts of infants and allergies on my mind, I gently inquired about my own past. I nearly fainted when I heard what I was fed as a baby. Apparently, around 1950, it was common practice to make baby formula out of condensed milk and Karo Corn Syrup. I guess it was assumed that corn syrup would be easy for a baby to digest since corn syrup is pure glucose, the same form of sugar carried in the blood stream. As you know from reading this book, corn syrup is one of the dreaded sulfited ingredients. Now I realize that it is not scientific to draw conclusions from a single case, but what else can I say? I am sensitive to sulfites and I was a corn syrup baby.
You might wonder what babies are fed today? I know I did. So, I took a walk down the baby food isle of my local supermarket and found lots of formula. Some formula is made with cow’s milk, some with soy, some with iron and some not. There is even "allergen free" formula. And, there’s a whole lot of sulfur in the cans. I examined Carnation, Enfamil and Similac brands. Most of the milk formulas did not contain sulfur dioxide, but all of the soy formulas did. And, the "allergen free" formulas were split; one contained sulfur preservatives and one didn’t. This is quite an interesting distribution since only babies that couldn’t digest milk would be given soy or "allergen free" formula. Is that another way of saying that babies with sensitive digestive systems are selected to receive formula high in the oxides of sulfur? Sure sounds like it to me. Of course, babies that are breast fed don’t have to deal with formula at all. But, what if the mother is dining on sulfites?
As babies grow up, formula is replaced by other baby food. Most of the little bottles of smashed peas and squash are quite clean of sulfites. That’s the good news. But the cereals, crackers, cookies and juices are another story. The plain oatmeal and rice cereals do not contain sulfur preservatives. However, cereals are often mixed with dried fruit that is highly sulfured. Baby crackers and cookies may contain corn syrup, cornstarch and molasses just like adult cookies and crackers. And the juices may be sweetened with grape concentrate. Pediatric electrolyte is a bottled water used to prevent dehydration. It is sweetened with dextrose, good old corn sugar.
All Americans are exposed to the oxides of sulfur from the cradle to the grave. Sulfur gives me a headache and raises my blood pressure. What does it do to you? Most of the work done for this book was undertaken simply to protect myself from headaches. Along the way, I learned some interesting things that I thought worth sharing with others. Am I a food lunatic? I think not, but that is for you to decide.