Ciguatera Poisoning from Grouper – Tropical Delicacy turns into Tropical Nightmare
This is not what I thought my first post of the year was going to be. I discovered three recipes in the Dominican Republic that I wanted to share with you, one of which I never will. It was going to be a recipe for coconut crusted grouper. I’ll never be able to eat grouper again, and after you read this, I think that you should consider not eating it as well to protect yourself, family and friends from ciguatera poisoning.
Grouper is a tropical reef fish. It swims at the top of the food chain in the warm waters of the Caribbean and many other warm water areas of the world. Top of the food chain means that it eats smaller fish, which eat even smaller fish, and some of those smaller fish at the bottom of the chain eat an algae called Gambierdiscus toxicus. This algae is toxic to humans. It stays in the flesh of the large predator fish and does not affect them, BUT, if you eat the meat of a fish that has eaten one of the smaller fish that have eaten the algae…you’re in trouble. I’m in trouble. I ate some grouper for lunch that contained the toxin. Within 20 minutes I was affected, and within 6 hours I was sick as the proverbial dog. Unlucky for me, I was on a plane back to Chicago when the first onset of the symptoms really hit.
Everyone wants to be really ill on a plane, right? By the time we got off the plane, I was feeling faint. Dana raced to get me a cold bottle of water. I started drinking it and realized something was horribly wrong. The water felt like it was burning my mouth! Touching the cold bottle of water was burning my hands…”Oh my God”, what was happening to me?
The burning, itchy rash did not appear till the next morning…by that time the upset stomach part was subsiding, but these other problems…what was going on? I called my internist and he recommended Imodium and Pedialyte. As to the other bizarre symptoms, he said that he had no idea and that I should concentrate on stopping the diarrhea. This was discouraging to say the least, so I did what you might do…I Googled the symptoms and dug deeper and deeper and found something that fit those symptoms exactly…AND I had eaten grouper right before I fell so ill.
The reason that my doc had no idea is because this is a fairly unknown disease in the U.S. except for South Florida, BUT, it’s getting more prevalent in our country as more fish species are being imported and waters around the world are becoming warmer. It’s not only grouper that has the potential to give you ciguatera. Other culprits besides black, yellowfin and dusty grouper are: barracuda, amberjack, king mackerel, cubera snapper, dog snapper and hog fish. There is no way to tell if a fish has been affected. It looks the same, smells the same, and tastes the same and the poison is not affected by cooking.
I’m miserable. I itch and burn (cold feels hot and hot feels cold) and am listless, but I have it a lot better than some folks. Some of the more severe symptoms are: difficulty walking, insomnia, severe pain in your legs and feeling that your teeth are falling out…yikes!
The worst part of the whole thing is there is NO cure. There is no way to determine just how long you will be affected, some people rebound within weeks, others months or years and sadly, some people never recover…no cure and you never recover! There is one treatment that lessens symptoms and that is taking Mannitol within the first 48 hours intravenously. My doc had no idea to do that…he had no idea what my bizarre symptoms meant…he’s in Chicago, for God’s sake, not the Caribbean.
So, while I wait for my nerve fibers to (hopefully) regenerate, I have eliminated all of the triggers from my diet that might bring back severe symptoms: fish, alcohol, nuts, chicken, pork (seems that chicken and pork eat products made from fish, who knew?) I’ve actually decided to use this as a springboard to better health. I’m concentrating on eating a very healthy diet and I’m getting lots of info from my uber healthy daughter, Dana (who’s working on a degree in nutrition.) No sugar, white flour, processed foods, caffeine, red meat…if I didn’t feel so darn miserable, I might be feeling very good…as it is, I just feel listless.
I’m making up new recipes as I’m going along on this journey that I’ll be sharing with you soon…maybe you can kick start a better diet without going through this discomfort to get there.
Please share this information with those you love. Many of us travel to warm water destinations, I want you all to come home with good memories, not ciguatera!
If you would like to read more information about ciguatera written in a more scientific way, you can read this from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and also this warning from the World Health Organization. Still want more? Here is a very comprehensive essay by Professor J. Pearn, Graduate School of Medicine, University of Queensland, Australia on the neurology of ciguatera.