How did a routine allergist appointment change your life?
After graduating college and settling in Chicago, I wanted to find a local allergist to get updated IgE numbers and share the experience on my food allergy blog, All Things Allergies and my Instagram, @allthingsallergies. I’ve had life-threatening allergies to peanuts, tree nuts, fish, shellfish, and chickpeas for my whole life but after allergen component testing, I found out I was only allergic to peanuts.
What made you decide to get allergen component testing?
Spokin’s founder, Susie, sent me a message on the Spokin app after I shared a review for Chicago Family Asthma + Allergy. I used the app to find a local allergist and saw great reviews for Dr. Katie Tanner at this practice. Susie asked me if I was getting component testing done and while I didn’t know much about it, when I heard how helpful it had been for her family, I asked and found out my allergist had already ordered it.
The phone call that changed everything
I’ll never forget the moment I got my results. I was sitting in my car in the Whole Foods parking lot when my allergist’s office called and told me, “You don’t have any allergies other than peanuts.” They told me my numbers were so low that they’d feel comfortable with me going and eating a tree nut right now. I couldn’t believe it—I had spent my whole life avoiding tree nuts and now they wanted me to go into Whole Foods and buy some?
Believing the unbelievable
I was in shock and completely unconvinced. The office had a great suggestion to come back in for a skin test, which would provide visual proof. During my skin test for tree nuts, fish, shellfish, and chickpeas, no hives appeared. Seeing that visual representation matching the zeroes in my IgE numbers was reassuring and, while the whole allergen specific IgE test alone might have been enough information, having the component test results showing I wasn’t sensitized to any of the tree nut components likely to cause an anaphylactic reaction gave me the confidence to go forward with food challenges.
What about peanuts?
The component test results showed that not only was I still allergic to peanuts, but that I was sensitive to the peanut components that were likely to cause an anaphylactic reaction, which is why they didn’t even skin test for peanuts. It was empowering to have that information from the component test as proof that my peanut allergy was still serious.
Speaking of reactions
My first reaction after hearing my results was feeling like a fraud because so much of my identity was tied to my blog and being part of the food allergy community. In a way, I was thankful to still have my peanut allergy because it meant I was still a part of the community. Over time, those emotions have shifted into a huge sense of relief, but it was a lot to process at first.
The challenge of food challenges
I’ve dealt with severe food allergy-related anxiety for most of my life, including what was later diagnosed as PTSD after my first anaphylactic reaction at age 6, and therapy has been an incredible help throughout it all. Having to eat the foods I used to strictly avoid for fear of dying was no easy task, especially since I’d be doing it at home instead of at a doctor’s office or hospital, so I decided to work with my therapist to create a plan.
My therapist helped me set up my food challenge process in an exposure hierarchy, a way to approach a phobia that involves gradually getting closer to your fear. Before my first food challenge, I worked on getting comfortable with cross contact at places known for having it, like Starbucks and sweetgreen. I would order items that likely had cross contact with nuts as a low risk way of building up my comfort level without eating the actual nuts. I would never have ordered a drink at Starbucks before this but after finding out I was cleared for almonds, it was my first stop!
While my allergist told me I could do my food challenges at home, I decided it would be best to do my first challenge in the office and for it to be almonds, since they were the scariest because I saw them so often. After getting comfortable eating at places that had cross contact with almonds, the next step was the actual food challenge. I ate Blue Diamond Almonds for the challenge since they’re made in a peanut-free facility. I was relieved and excited when I passed!
The rest of my food challenges happened at home, starting with walnuts, which I challenged at my parents’ house in Michigan. They made it fun by baking the walnuts in different ways for me and helped me get more comfortable around the nuts by having me cook them myself and eventually, bringing them into my own kitchen.
For my pine nut challenge, I tried pesto made with pine nuts at home.
Chickpeas were one of the most difficult challenges! I tried hummus for my challenge and hated the flavor but my therapist recommended not masking the taste of the allergens too much because it would help me get more comfortable with them. If I go out with friends and we get hummus, I’ll try it now, but products made with chickpeas are much easier for me to eat, like Hippeas or Rule Breaker Snacks.
Salmon + Tuna
For salmon and tuna, I decided to make the experience special by going to Nobu, a well-known Japanese restaurant with locations around the world that I never would’ve been able to go to before. It was my first time at a sushi restaurant, which made it exciting!
I had a Caesar salad at home for my anchovy challenge, since anchovies are an ingredient in the dressing.
I went out to LÝRA, an authentic Greek restaurant in Chicago’s Fulton Market district, and tried their grilled octopus for my octopus challenge. The food was phenomenal and I didn’t see any peanuts on the menu!
For my oyster challenge, I got my friends together for happy hour at RPM Seafood on the river in downtown Chicago. Although I didn’t enjoy the taste of the oysters, the experience was fun and it felt good to cross another challenge off my list!
Most recently, I accidentally challenged pecan—I had what I thought was caramel ice cream but was actually praline! Thankfully, I was okay, but I still did another challenge at home to double check.
Any challenges left?
I’ve passed every challenge I’ve done so far but I still have to challenge crab, lobster, Brazil nuts, and macadamia nuts. I haven’t challenged the nuts yet since I don’t encounter them as much. It’s also been difficult to find something for my Brazil nut challenge, since so many tree nuts have cross contact with peanuts. I’ve had granola bars with macadamia nuts in my kitchen for 3 months so I need to make a plan for those!
Your best advice for making food challenges easier?
I scheduled my first few food challenges on my calendar because that made it harder to procrastinate or avoid them. I’ve also tried to make my challenges fun by going out with friends or family to somewhere that’s known for the food I’m challenging, like trying sushi at Nobu. Working with my therapist has helped me reframe these experiences as something I get to do instead of something I have to do.
Every first has been exciting because they all remind me of how much freedom I have now. Not many people can say they tried Starbucks for the first time at 24—that was a big deal! I did a complete 180 on Starbucks. I could never order a drink there before because cross contact was such a risk but now I’m hooked on their Iced Brown Sugar Oat Milk Shaken Espresso! It was also exciting to be able to try sushi at Nobu. It’s one of the best sushi restaurants and somewhere I never would’ve been able to try with my fish allergies.
How has this experience affected your life?
It’s been amazing to try so many new restaurants and foods but the mental changes I’ve experienced are the best part. I feel so much less anxiety and everyone in my life tells me they see the difference. While I’m still keeping myself safe, my anxiety isn’t interfering in my everyday life anymore. Recently, I was even able to visit Pike Place Market in Seattle, an iconic seafood market known for how its vendors throw fish between stalls—definitely somewhere I wouldn’t have visited before this!
Opening doors and the world
International travel has always interested me but used to be out of my comfort zone—I didn’t even consider studying abroad in college. Now, I feel much more comfortable and I’m looking forward to planning trips out of the country. My boyfriend is Greek and I’d love to visit his family in Greece. Having this newfound freedom and resources like Spokin’s Peanut Allergy-Friendly Greece Guide and Spokin app reviews from other people with peanut allergies make it feel possible for me. I’ve always said the best way to explore a city is through food and I can’t wait to travel and be able to try new things!
Would you recommend component testing?
Yes! I encourage everyone to get tested regularly to keep up with their numbers and see if they’re going up or down. You may even grow out of an allergy, or multiple allergies, but you’ll never know if you don’t get tested. There’s a lot of power in knowledge and I’m all about taking the power back from my history with food allergies. Having data and getting the facts is a great way to empower yourself. Talking to an expert and getting accurate information is very validating.
Did you test regularly before this?
It had been over 5 or 6 years since the last time I had testing done and I’d only been tested a couple other times before that. Knowing my results now, I definitely wish I’d gotten tested more regularly!
What’s next for you?
My experiences have inspired me to pursue a career in mental health. I graduated with a Bachelor’s in Psychology and went on to get my Master’s in Counseling Psychology. I’m beginning to write my dissertation on food allergies while working towards a PsyD in Clinical Psychology. I want to reclaim the power from food allergies and use it to help other people.
Join Alyssa’s Insta Live!
Hear more about Alyssa’s story as she joins Allergy Insider for an episode of their Ask the Insider Instagram Live series! Save the date and tune in Thursday, 11/17 at 12 PM CT/1 PM ET @allergyinsider on Instagram.
Learn more about Alyssa’s food allergy journey on her blog, All Things Allergies, where she advocates for young adults in the food allergy community and works to raise awareness of the impact of food allergies on mental health and normalize experiences like hers. Follow her on Instagram @allthingsallergies and see her 387 reviews on the Spokin app @alyssabauder.
To find out if you’re a candidate for component testing, take our quiz, and for more food allergy testing resources, see our 101 guides to component testing and IgE testing. Our guides were created in partnership with Allergy Insider, an education platform from Thermo Fisher Scientific who conducts the majority of allergy blood testing in the US and is considered the gold standard.