Allergies had Angela Brooks feeling cornered and desperate. The list of foods she could safely eat was short and boring. Anything containing wheat, eggs, nuts, shellfish or even mild spices could trigger vicious outbreaks of hives or swelling. The large, red splotches, often the size of her palm, would cover her hands and feet but could also appear on her stomach, chest, neck and face. Or her fingers might puff up.
Her standby "safe" meal: baked chicken, glazed in olive oil, with rice and peas.
And her condition had escalated in recent years, making her hypersensitive to environmental factors such as dust and animals.
"I was at the point where I was going to be on allergy medicine — steroids and allergy shots — for the rest of my life," says Brooks, 33, who lives in Short Pump with her husband and daughter.
Brooks' battle with allergies began in 2000, after she ate some chocolate-covered espresso beans and broke out in hives. Within months, she was seeing an allergist and had identified a list of foods that were off-limits. In 2004, she eliminated gluten, a protein in wheat, from her diet.
Finally, in late 2010, when her allergist prepared her for the eventuality of having to take frequent injections, Brooks had reached the end of her rope.
A stay-at-home mom who had previously worked eight years as a paralegal, Brooks kicked her research skills into gear and began investigating alternative treatments for allergies. When she discovered a lesser-known process called Nambudripad's Allergy Elimination Techniques, or NAET, she was attracted by the idea because it appeared less invasive than the conventional medical care she received.
According to a description on the official website for NAET, the process aims to permanently eliminate allergies by clearing blockages in the body's energy pathways. The therapy was developed in 1983 by Devi Nambudripad, a California acupuncturist who incorporated principles of acupuncture, kinesiology and allergy medicine.
"It's really gentle, and it's a way of reprogramming the body by addressing the central and peripheral nervous systems," explains Katie Larimer, a NAET practitioner in Ashland. Using NAET techniques, Larimer says, a practitioner can help a patient become desensitized to any number of allergens that might cause problems.
But for someone who had relied on conventional medicine her entire life, the idea of trying a relatively new therapy was a leap for Brooks. "It was certainly outside of the box for me," she says.
Armed with her research, she contacted Lou-anne Etter, owner of the NAET Wellness Center near Carytown, and attended several one-on-one treatment sessions.
"Within about four months," Brooks says, "I was eating almost everything again."
Etter, who has been a practitioner for more than eight years, says that the NAET process applies a broad definition to allergies.
"Allergy, in the sense that we use it, is anything that causes the body dysfunction or imbalance," she says, explaining that even emotions, memories and other people can trigger physical reactions that behave just like allergies.
A standard NAET treatment begins with kinesiology, or muscle testing, Etter says. While the patient holds a vial containing the allergen in question, the practitioner tests the patient's muscle strength. Momentary weakness can indicate the patient's sensitivity to the allergen.
Larimer says that the patient, while holding the allergen, is then desensitized through a technique that stimulates nerves along the spine to reset the central nervous system, helping the body identify the allergen as something that is no longer harmful. "There are not drugs or needles or anything like that," she says.
Both Etter and Larimer say that the number of treatments needed to resolve an allergy or other issue can vary, especially if a patient has underlying emotional issues related to their illness.
Some patients may have a simple problem with one food item, such as shellfish, and can be desensitized in a single session, says Etter, who claims the distinction of being the first NAET practitioner in the region. But those who are trying to resolve a chronic problem may need to pursue treatment for weeks or months.
NAET has its skeptics, however, among the conventional medical community. Some physicians have commented in articles and blogs that there is not yet enough science to back up the claims that NAET can actually eliminate allergies.
Dr. Ananth Thyagarajan, a physician at Allergy Partners of Richmond, says that despite his training in conventional medicine, he recognizes the possibility that alternative approaches may help some patients."But at this point, there is a dearth of well-conducted scientific research to prove it," he adds.
Thyagarajan's family immigrated to the United States from India, where herbal remedies for sickness are widely accepted and used. "I grew up on a lot of these cultural-slash-family concoctions to deal with sickness," he says.
Within the framework of typical allergy treatment, the doctor says, he tries to minimize the use of medications or other conventional therapies if something less intensive can yield the same outcome. And his arsenal of therapies may include some proven alternatives, such as sublingual immunotherapy, a treatment he says is used widely in Europe and can help a patient build immunity to allergens by administering small, diluted amounts of it under the person's tongue. Over time, the dose is increased to further desensitize the patient. Thyagarajan said he was not familiar with NAET, so he refrained from sharing any specific opinion on the therapy.
Brooks understands some people's reluctance to embrace NAET — she read a full book on the subject before opting to try it. Any doubts she had were very quickly erased after her first sessions with Etter, which left her feeling better than she had in years, she says.
She says her family was initially skeptical of her choice to seek the treatments, but after her reversal of symptoms, her husband was more understanding. The couple even took their daughter to Etter's practice for help resolving the girl's food allergies.
"It's been a completely life-changing experience," Brooks says.
Since dealing with her allergies, she has lost 50 pounds and even started a home-based bakery, making and decorating specialty cakes.
"It's very exciting to be able to experience my cakes," Brooks says, "and enjoy them."