One size never fits all

After a long period of listening to endless complaints of headaches and stomach aches that I incorrectly attributed to my son’s problems with school — school phobia was the term they were using back then — one afternoon, he started seizing. Rushed to the emergency room, he continued to seize, despite intravenous anti-convulsive medications.


Many tests later, all the doctors knew was his brain was swollen and he had a low-grade fever. There was no evidence of viral or bacterial meningitis or encephalitis to account for the swelling. There was nothing in any of the blood work to indicate an infection.

One day, I was visiting him in the hospital. By then he’d been there a few weeks and I was despairing of getting any answers. They were doing daily spinal taps on him to lower the pressure in his brain and he got hysterical every time they approached him with that needle. I could hardly blame the kid. Spinal taps are miserable and painful. One is bad. Daily is horrible.

While I was trying to think of something cheery to say, I noticed that the soles of his feet were kind of orange. So were the palms of his hands. It looked like he’d been eating cheetos or something like that with yellow dye in it. I mentioned it to the nurse. She looked at it and wrinkled her brow.

Orange peppers, photo: Marilyn Armstrong

“It looks like jaundice,” she said.

“Yeah,” I said, “But only on his palms and soles. That’s a bit weird don’t you think?”

She agreed it was odd and said she’d mention it to the doctor.

The following day, the doctor rushed into the room and said, with his voice full of urgency, “Does he take vitamins?”


“Vitamins. Regular multi vitamins.”

“Yeah, when he was home visiting his father this summer, he brought back a bottle of one-a-day multi vitamins with him. He’s been taking one a day. Nothing unusual.”

“Bring them in,” the doctor ordered. “The whole bottle, label and all.”

And I did. It turned out that my son cannot metabolize vitamin A. Instead of being processed in a normal way and passing out of his body, it accumulates and would have killed him eventually. He had more than 1 million percent more vitamin A in his system than normal and there was no quick way to detoxify him.

Peppers and beans

Time was going to have to take care of it. Over a period of years, if he was careful to avoid vitamins and foods high in vitamin A, eventually his levels would recede to normal, but he would never be able to eat orange and red vegetables, margarine and other foods that are pumped full of Vitamin A, spinach, liver or other organ meats.

Vitamin A-osis is not unknown. Arctic explorers died of it after eating polar bear liver which contains staggeringly high levels of Vitamin A. It is also known to be a somewhat rare genetic anomaly. It happens. No reason.

When I brought my son home from the hospital as a tiny baby, I was give vitamin A & D drops to give him. He loved carrots and used to take them as snack with his lunch. He had never been given vitamin pills on any regular basis. We had an English pediatrician and unlike American doctors, most European doctors don’t recommend taking vitamins unless there’s a known vitamin deficiency of some kind.

It turns out that the official  FDA “standard dose” of 5,000 units per day of vitamin A is lethal for my son. All of that ADHD stuff was actually vitamin A poisoning from which he had been a chronic low-level sufferer for his entire life. It had left him with permanent damage. Who do you blame?

– – –

Last March, I wound up in the hospital because my blood sodium level was so low, I was supposed to be unable to function. I felt fine, but the tests were adamant. I had a problem.

Big pumpkins in the bin, waiting to become this year's Jack O' Lantern.

They never found the cause and it was diagnosed as idiopathic, which means “Who knows?” in doctor speak. I had been suffering for most of my life from heat intolerance resulting in heat stroke, violent leg and foot cramps and other peculiar symptoms. After raising my sodium levels, all those symptoms went away.

I have apparently been suffering from not enough salt in my diet … and in my blood … my whole life, but it wasn’t bad enough to raise the alarm bells. What had changed? I started doing what I was told to do: drink more liquids. Drink more fruit juice. And my low sodium went from marginal and periodically problematic to dangerously low.


What does my son’s near dying of Vitamin A poisoning  after he started taking multi-vitamins — and my medical crises caused by increasing my fluid intake — have in common? Both of us did what is “the common wisdom” recommended by millions of doctors, health columnists and diet gurus all across America.

And in both cases, it almost killed us.

The truth is that we are not all the same. What is “enough” or “just right” for you, might kill me. Or my son. We are not produced on production lines to a rigid specification. The reason I mention this at all was — as usual — a thing on Facebook. There’s an argument in progress about whether or not the currently trendy very low sodium diets are not necessarily such a good thing.

People are getting all hot and bothered about it because salt is regarded today the way caffeine was a few years ago. It’s the evil in our food. It turns out that caffeine is pretty harmless to most people, even those with high blood pressure and it’s an important component in waking up our digestive systems so they do what the are supposed to do, especially among older people. If you’ve been in a hospital lately, they eagerly ply you with more coffee than you could possibly want (maybe it would help if the coffee weren’t so awful?) because constipation is a big problem in hospitals.


So today, it’s salt that’s the big no-no. I remember when eggs were good for you. Then, they were bad for you. Then good for you after which I stopped following the food scare of the day on the news, so now, I have no idea how they are regarded. I just eat eggs when I feel like it. I feel I should tell you that the idea of an egg-white omelet makes me want to heave. Yuk.

I believe that fads in diets are inherently dangerous. Food fads are dangerous because they are unnatural and unbalanced. They don’t take into consideration that we are all made different, that we are each unique.

Eat. Enjoy. Don’t eat stuff that’s obviously bad for you. Nobody needs or should eat red meat every day. The current obsession with bacon is unhealthy and disgusting. Commonsense and moderation should be able to inform us when a choice is stupid, but apparently not so much.

Everyone is worried about salt while they scarf down double bacon cheeseburgers? Doesn’t that strike you as bizarre? Do you really need a nutritionist to tell you that extremely rich, fatty foods are unhealthy? Or that eating or drinking anything to excess is not a healthy longterm diet choice? Are we really that clueless?

Eat sensibly. Enjoy life. Have fun. Stop taking handfuls of vitamins you don’t need. Try to get some exercise when you can. Don’t spend all of your time at the computer or in front of the TV … unless that’s what makes you happy. In which case, have a good time!

Because that’s what life is all about. If you aren’t enjoying the life you are living, do something different.

– – –

Categories: Food, Health, Holidays, Recipes

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

15 replies

  1. That is some story. How is he today? I cannot eat any food from Applebee’s or Ruby Tuesday because of the MSG. I get this.


    • He’s fine, but he can’t eat anything yellow or orange. Even tomatoes are problematic. No spinach either. He’s 43 now, so he knows what he can and can’t eat. And he reads the labels on everything, just to be sure. Sometimes canned foods have a huge amount of vitamin A in them.

      MSG is fortunately easier to avoid, but so many people have various issues with common foods. I am very very grateful for labeling laws!

      On Fri, May 17, 2013 at 11:08 PM, SERENDIPITY


      • Somehow I didn’t think you would have a 43 year old kid :)- I have a 30 year old plus more. I am glad he is fine now. Most chains have pre-prepared food and MSG is in way more restaurant food than you would imagine. They will not admit it but my swollen hands are the key : ) I speak after being married to a corporate chef for 22 years.


        • We don’t eat out much. Part of it is money, but part of it is not liking they way they prepare food … and sometimes, not being sure exactly how they prepare it and what they put in it. A lot of people are sensitive to MSG. You’d think they’d at least warn people.

          I was married young and a young mom and grandmom. A lot of my friends waited until they were in their late thirties, even 40s to have kids. I had my son when I was 22. It was great being a kid with a kid 🙂

          On Fri, May 17, 2013 at 11:27 PM, SERENDIPITY


  2. Sometimes the juxtaposition of those commercials can be hilarious.


  3. Both of those episodes (especially the one with your son) must have been very scary. I’m glad a solution was found.
    Here in the UK general advice is avoid too much salt and if you eat a balanced diet you don’t need to take vitamin tablets (everything else being well, of course). But as you say, a little common sense generally clues you in on what is healthy and what is not!


    • Everywhere but in the U.S., vitamins are not recommended unless there’s a reason to take them. No one had any way of knowing my son was one of the rare humans who could not handle Vitamin A in the usual way … but if the culture hadn’t supported the casual taking of vitamins for no special reason, it would never have turned into a crisis.

      As for me, I had a lot of warning signs that there was some kind of salt-related problem. No doctor was ever interested enough to check it out and if I had not (how ironic!) gotten breast cancer and gone for regular blood tests, it would never have been discovered.
      I feel SO much better now since my drinking habits — which don’t include alcohol 🙂 have completely changed.

      The point is that if I hadn’t upped the volume of liquid I was taking in, the problem would have remained annoying, intermittent and ignorable. It was bowing to the advice of every one of my multitude of doctors who all pushed me to drink much more than I wanted.

      Everyone sings the same song and never considers that while this might be good advice for many, maybe most people, for some people … it’s dangerous.

      There’s no predicting hidden genetic problems like mine or my son’s, but so many people have issues that would never be a real problem if we would fadding. If we eat a reasonable diet and let our bodies — and commonsense — lead us, we would, for the most part be just fine.

      There are always people who eagerly embrace doing the wrong stuff but most people, if you let them be, will eat a pretty normal diet … or whatever feels right to them. I never wanted to drink a lot of liquid. I always had a salt craving. The more liquid I drank, the thirstier I got … which if anyone were listening would have been a tip off.

      If there’s one thing that you can’t mandate in a society, it’s using intelligence instead of following whatever is the latest thing. We have been taught to be stupid.


  4. That is amazing that a simple vitamin can do that. I just found out that I was overdosing myself on calcium. I think one of the problems is that the doctors are telling you what to take but are not telling you how to take it properly. You really need to do your own research today. That is why you have ‘what I call, happy drugs’. The commercials push drugs that are good for 1 thing but they need to let you know that the same drugs are bad for another 100 things!


    • The medical profession in the US should stop pushing drugs. Vitamins are drugs. If you don’t NEED them, you should not be taking them. And if you DO need them, you should have instructions on how much and when to take them. Vitamins are powerful. People assume that if it’s “natural” it’s safe, but arsenic is natural. Deadly Nightshade is natural. Both will kill you. So will Vitamin A and so will a bunch of other herbs and vitamins. If they don’t kill you, they can mess you up pretty badly.

      And those drug commercials? If you listen to the list of side effect (including DEATH), hello? Are people really so dumb that they don’t think twice about taking something where explaining the dangers takes longer than explaining the benefits? Scary how dumb we’ve gotten.


      • What scares me too is the fact that the commercials describe the dangers of the drugs, the doctors or druggists don’t. What are we missing here?


        • It’s the power of the drug companies … they make gazillions on new drugs funded by government research money. What’s wrong with THAT picture?

          What scares me most are the frequenty lethal side effects for drugs they are pushing to solve relatively minor problems. A lot of these drugs are really dangerous and have dubious value — and are extremely expensive to boot. My primary doctor is very conservative about new drugs and I am grateful. Most of the tragedies of drugs in recent years I avoided because my doctor said she didn’t trust the research. She has been right every single time!

          On Fri, May 17, 2013 at 10:55 PM, SERENDIPITY


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