Mental Illness or Allergy?

Exploring allergy symptoms: emotional, behavioral and mental

by Tarilee Cornish, Nutritional Consultant

When most of us think of allergy, we think of common symptoms such as sneezing, itchy eyes, hives, asthma and nausea. These are all immediate physical reactions but there are many different types of allergic responses possible. Some reactions take several days to show up, and some allergies don't necessarily affect the respiratory system, digestive tract or skin.

Did you know that food and/or chemical allergies can create emotional, behavioral and mental symptoms such as panic attacks, compulsive behavior, depression, psychotic episodes, or hallucinations? They can also contribute to many less severe mental and emotional symptoms such as anxiety, irritability, inability to concentrate, or feelings of being in a mental "fog". A surprising number of people have been able to eliminate such troubling symptoms simply by removing the allergens from their diet or living environment.

Such allergies are more likely to be present in Candida overgrowth sufferers, because of Candida's destructive impact on the integrity of the body's tissues and functions. The good news is that it's usually possible to identify and treat allergies that cause mental and emotional symptoms.

Brain allergy or ecological mental illness is a general term used to describe any abnormal reaction to a food or other substance that creates psychological, emotional, or neurological symptoms. The existence of brain allergy is widely disputed by many mainstream allergists, even though numerous other researchers and doctors have been convinced since the early 1900s that some individuals can be mentally impaired by exposure to certain foods or chemicals.

Indeed, the abnormal reactions involved in brain allergy have been documented in medical literature for over a century. Since the 1950s, an appreciation of the intimate connection between mental and physical health has been gradually gaining momentum and with that has come an increase in clinical studies in the area. As the convincing clinical evidence begins to make the case clearer and clearer, awareness and acceptance of brain allergies among orthodox physicians and psychiatrists has continued to grow, albeit very slowly.

To understand why these types of allergies are not well recognized, it's necessary to understand the point of view of most conventional allergists. These practitioners have a very specific definition of allergy.

The technical term "allergy" originated over one hundred years ago-doctors then used it to describe any abnormal physiological reaction to any material. The meaning of the term in mainstream medicine of today has become considerably narrower. The commonly known "scratch test" was the first medical allergy test developed. It was established to measure one very specific immune antibody reaction only.

This test identifies a type of reaction called the IgE antibody reaction. For many years, it was the only allergy test used. As time went on this test became well known for its ability to accurately predict certain types of adverse reactions to substances. In an attempt to provide an absolute scientific explanation for the mystery of allergies, the orthodox medical definition of an allergy evolved to match the reactions that this test could confirm. Unfortunately as many allergy sufferers are aware, this test offers many false negatives.

The orthodox definition of an allergy that involves an IgE antibody reaction assumes that allergic reactions involve a specific function of the immune system, and does not acknowledge delayed reactions or reactions involving any other system of the body. Because of the limitations of this definition, allergic reactions affecting the central nervous system ("ecological mental illness" or "brain allergies"), have not been recognized as allergies because there was no evidence that the immune system was directly involved in causing the symptoms associated with these reactions.

However, research now shows that nervous system reactions are measurable and involve chemicals released by one or all three different body systems: our endocrine system, our nervous system and immune system. Orthomolecular physicians and clinical ecologists reject IgE scratch testing, claiming it is able to confirm only a mere 15% of allergies.

Syd Baumel, author of Dealing with Depression Naturally, describes the debate as follows: "the narrow, orthodox definition of allergy is that it is an immunologic reaction, almost always triggered by a protein and confined to the superficial tissues of the body (the skin, the respiratory system, or the digestive tract). Clinical ecologists, however, maintain that any food, chemical or material is capable of triggering an adverse reaction in any organ of the body, with or without the help of the immune system."

Today, the myth-shattering discoveries of orthomolecular physicians and clinical ecologists are beginning to affect change in the attitudes of mainstream allergists as they raise awareness of brain allergies. These experts have been very successful in treating all kinds of mental and emotional illness by helping their patients identify, avoid and manage allergic reactions.

After some convincing research conducted in the mid-1900s began to confirm the existence of nervous system allergic reactions, the education of the medical community began. One of the first public seminars on the subject was held at a scientific exhibit at the Annual Meeting of the American Psychiatric Association in 1956. After this presentation, the Section on Allergy of the Nervous System of the American College of Allergists was founded in 1957 and the condition was formally named ecologic mental illness in 1959. Theron Randolph, M.D. and four other practitioners organized the Society for Clinical Ecology in 1965. By 1980 this society had grown to 250 members. This organization has since evolved into the American Academy of Environmental Medicine and offers courses in the techniques and principles of this field. It hosts annual scientific meetings to further research and education and publishes the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Medicine (formerly Clinical Ecology).

The orthomolecular/ecology-minded practitioners have found that a huge spectrum of mental and emotional symptoms can be triggered by allergies, including agitation, anxiety, compulsions, lack of concentration, brain fag, confusion, weepiness, delirium, delusion, depression, disorientation, drowsiness, epilepsy, hallucinations, hyperactivity, hyper-arousal episodes (i.e. palpitations, sweating, trembling), hypersensitivity, hysteria, impatience, insomnia, irritability, jumpiness, lethargy, mania, mental slowness, mental fogginess, nightmares, panic, paranoia, psychoses, rage, restlessness, and tension-fatigue syndrome.

One mechanism by which a food allergy can cause changes to the personality, reflexes, motor activity, and central nervous system is through swelling or edema of specific sections of the brain.

The most common symptoms experienced by brain allergy sufferers are depression and brain fag. Many well respected studies have also revealed that schizophrenia may be an allergy-related illness. These three conditions are discussed in more detail below.

BRAIN FAG (commonly known as Brain Fog)
Theron G. Randolph, M.D., and Ralph W. Moss, Ph.D. describe brain fag in their book, An Alternative Approach to Allergies. The authors say brain fag is "a form of mental fatigue, a much more serious and debilitating symptom than physical tiredness. Brain-fag is characterized by mental confusion, slowness of thought, lack of initiative and ambition, irritability, occasional loss of sex drive, despondency, as well as bodily fatigue, weakness and aching." Dr Randolph goes on to say that it is common for patients suffering from these symptoms to be inappropriately treated with mood-altering drugs, electroshock therapy, and psychotherapy.

Dr. Randolph also states that depression, especially when associated with other symptoms of allergy, may very well be due to food allergy. He has been proving this relationship in his practice since the 1950s. He has seen life-long cases of depression cured after the elimination of allergens.

Dr. James C. Breneman, chairman of the Food Allergy Committee of the American College of Allergists, states in his 1984 textbook on food allergy that brain allergy is a common cause of everything from "poor concentration and neurosis to epilepsy and schizophrenia."

Abram Hoffer, M.D., says that depression and allergy are often experienced simultaneously: "When one is relieved, so is the other. Treatment of the allergy will, in most cases, 'cure' the depression. I have seen this in several hundred patients over the past six years and can no longer doubt this conclusion".

Dr. C. Keith Conners, a leading expert on hyperactivity, used capsules of food allergens to provoke mental and behavioral symptoms in nine out of ten adults who had already shown to be susceptible to allergies to these substances. The placebos used on the same group had no such effects.

In their book Food Allergies Made Simple, medical doctors Agatha and Calvin Thrash and co-author Phyllis Austin cite a convincing study: "[A study in which] two groups of schizophrenics admitted to a psychiatric ward and placed on different diets, revealed that those placed on the cereal-free, milk-free diet improved more quickly and were discharged from the hospital in half the time of the group given the standard diet." Gluten was determined to be the prominent allergen. Thrash, Thrash, and Austin explain that many patients with celiac disease also have psychiatric symptoms, that these improve when a gluten free diet is introduced and that the combination of milk protein with wheat gluten appears to worsen the effect of wheat gluten in some people.

These authors also observe that "Schizophrenia is rare in areas of the world where little or no cereal grains are used and more frequent in countries where wheat, rye or barley are commonly used." They cite two more interesting studies, one of which concluded that 80 percent of people with schizophrenia tested allergic to eggs. They also noted that caffeine can have a significant worsening effect on schizophrenia.

A number of clinical ecologists and orthomolecular physicians have observed that the foods we crave most are also often the foods we are most likely to be allergic to. Paradoxically, eating a food to which we are allergic can temporarily mask or inhibit our allergic response, offering short term relief from our symptoms. But if we avoid an allergen for several days, our sensitivity to the substance is increased and the full extent of our reaction can be observed.

Mental and emotional symptoms caused by allergenic foods can be experienced immediately or they may be delayed (usually developing the following day). These symptoms can last for up to four days after the food is eliminated from the diet. Fatigue, intensified cravings, and an increase in other related allergic symptoms may also be experienced during this time. Surprisingly, if the offending food is eaten again during this "clearing out" period, symptoms will be abated and the craving-fulfillment-illness cycle may begin again. In some instances, eating an allergen can trigger a binge - an uncontrollable urge to overeat.

According to clinical ecologists, addictive allergies to wheat, milk, chocolate, and other commonly eaten foods account for most brain allergies. Interestingly, the proteins in some of these foods contain heroin-like peptides which perhaps explain how they can create such severe cravings in susceptible individuals.

In addition to food allergies, many patients suffering symptoms of mental illness test positive for reactions to food additives and preservatives. Zane R. Gard, M.D. discusses food additives in a 1987 issue of the Townsend Letter for Doctors. He asserts that several thousand chemicals are routinely and intentionally added to food supplies during food processing and storage. Thousands more compounds can become a part of our foods.

Allergist, Benjamin Feingold, M.D., has demonstrated that we can experience brain and nervous system reactions to food additives. He has had significant success treating hyperactive children with an additive-free diet. Although his findings were initially highly criticized, careful research has since verified that some hyperactive children do react to food additives.

Doris Rapp M.D. also effectively demonstrates the relationship between allergic reactions and food additives (as well as many common foods). Her research shows that dramatic and indisputable behavioral and emotional symptoms can be provoked with a sublingual administration of additives, foods, or environmental chemicals after several days of avoidance of the substance. Dr. Rapp's work provides powerful documentation of the existence of brain allergy and I highly recommend her books and videos to anyone interested in this subject, as it relates to children and adults.

How can you tell if your mental and emotional symptoms are caused by allergies?

Clinical ecologists and orthomolecular physicians use several types of diagnostic methods for allergy detection including sublingual or intradermal provocation, muscle testing, pulse testing, electro-dermal screening and lab tests (RAST, DIMSOFT, cytotoxic testing). As previously mentioned, traditional skin-patch (scratch) testing is considered by these practitioners to provide a high level of false negatives. Furthermore, as discussed above, this method ignores allergies that don't involve IgE. Many of these methods are controversial and some are limited to the diagnosis of other very specific immune reactions so it may be necessary to incorporate more than one testing method in order to get a more complete understanding of a patient's particular allergies.

The most indisputable and highly esteemed testing method accepted by conventional allergists and ecological/orthomolecular practitioners alike, is the use of a carefully managed elimination diet. The person following such a diet avoids suspected allergens, and then makes carefully observed reintroductions of each potentially problematic food. If you suspect that you may be experiencing brain allergies, you can structure an elimination diet for yourself at home. Another useful method of observing your reactions to specific foods is to keep a diet diary such as the Memory Minder (available in our shop on this site), recording everything you eat and monitoring your feeling of well-being between mealtimes. For more information on this strategy as well as allergy testing and the elimination diet please see, "Candida Related Complex and Food Allergies" in the Newsletter Article Archives for October 2002.

It is important to recognize that despite the increasing evidence to support the contrary, some doctors still completely dismiss non-ordinary allergy symptoms as being "all in the patient's head". According to Claude A. Frazier, M.D., a prominent Asheville, North Carolina allergist, "many people with obscure and un-diagnosable complaints who are labeled hypochondriac are actually suffering from food allergy".

Sadly, receiving the "hypochondriac" label often leads to an increase in the negative psychological impact of the allergy, as patients suffering from a real problem go home worrying about their sanity. If you receive this type of dismissal from your doctor, you may wish to seek out a more informed health care practitioner. To find practitioners familiar with the complex issues of diagnosis and treatment of allergy, your best option is to look for an orthomolecular M.D., clinical ecologist or medical doctor/naturopathic physician, who has a special interest in environmental medicine and allergy related illness.

Many of the allergy treatments that have been developed still receive wide criticism because of the difficulty in proving their effectiveness in scientific studies. As more researchers and physicians join this important field and contribute to the growing pool of expertise, the accuracy and effectiveness of treatments will grow. At this point in time, the following allergy management and treatment methods are the most widely accepted:
  • Neutralization Injections - Dilute extracts of the allergens or a mix of diluted allergens and enzymes can increase the body's ability to cope with allergens.
  • NAET Therapy - This therapy tests for and eliminates allergies using muscle response testing combined with acupuncture and chiropractic adjustments.
  • Enzyme Therapy - Supplemental digestive enzymes can reduce or eliminate reactions to foods.
  • Elimination/ Provocation - An elimination diet, or four-day-rotation diet can be useful.
  • Homeopathic Nosode Neutralization Therapy - The use of gradually increasing potencies of homeopathic doses of allergens (nosodes) increases the body's ability to cope with allergens.
  • Nutritional Supplementation and Immune Support - Bioflavonoids, Ester C (e.g. Neutral C Plus, SBX, niacin, vitamin B6, B5, methionine, grape seed extract (e.g. OtiZinc Plus) are available available in our store on this site, and free form amino acids fight allergies; other immune boosting supplements reduce allergic reactions.
Thankfully, the developing body of knowledge about brain allergies/ ecological mental illness is opening up new horizons for many patients and their doctors. Even the old standby "chemical imbalance" explanation for psychiatric disturbances is being reexamined as we discover that many so-called mentally ill patients can eliminate their symptoms by avoiding specific causative allergens. Finally, both physical and cerebral reactions are being recognized as two fundamentally different types of allergic reaction.

Reversing allergies, once they've been established, presents a serious challenge. Increasing awareness of the severity of this challenge is leading to an appreciation that the best treatment for the problem is the preventative approach. If we focus on creating healthy indoor and outdoor environments in which to live and raise well-nourished, emotionally well-adjusted children, we can prevent allergy-related health problems in many adults.

If you are struggling with Candida Related Complex, because of the close relationship between allergies and candida, there is a very good chance that you may be susceptible to mental/emotional allergic reactions. You can read more about allergies and candida in the Whole Approach article called "Candida Related Complex and Allergies" (on our forum page at You can read more about Candida and Emotional Health in the Whole Approach article called "Recovery from Candida Related Complex, an Opportunity for Mental, Emotional and Spiritual Growth" (also found on the forum pages at To receive a list of resources on the above article, please email and request a resource listing for the April 2003 article.
Tarilee Cornish is a Certified Nutritional Practitioner with a special interest in immune and digestive recovery including general detoxification and recovery from food allergies and candida overgrowth. She is especially passionate about pure healing food choices that have a democratic, ecological and compassionate production and distribution chain. Tarilee is a moderator on the WholeApproach Support Forum.

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