When Maxima Skelton was pregnant with her daughter Emma, midwives used to comment on how active the baby was, constantly moving around in her tummy.
The extra activity turned out to be a sign of things to come, and a new arrival who rarely slept, and cried a lot of the time she was awake.
“She was always restless, often distressed and crying. And she never slept – I don’t mean slept badly, but practically not at all,” says Maxima. “She had digestive problems and was constantly unwell, so we did what anybody would, and tried to get help.”
The ‘help’, however, turned out not to be so helpful after all – when Emma was just 16 months old, the gastroenterologist suggested that the problem may have arisen through a personality conflict between Emma and Maxima, which might be causing her screaming.
This did not encourage Maxima and husband Don and they started to despair of finding an answer within traditional medicine, especially as their first baby, son Alexander, was also suffering from a variety of problems.
He was also frequently ill and on antibiotics for ear, nose and throat infections; had constipation so severe that he was subjected to a barium enema at just two, and projectile vomited his very first bottle of formula milk. After meals he would often lie under the table, too lethargic to get up and play. Eventually his problems were found to be caused by allergies to baker’s yeast and dairy, and once removed from his diet Alexander was a cheerful, happy and active child.
However, Emma continued to be restless, and unable to sleep, suffering from infections and digestive problems. On the advice of the gastroenterologist she was taken into hospital, and Maxima hoped they would finally get some answers as to what was wrong with their child.
Emma’s stay in hospital was hard but did have one beneficial effect: they discovered that while she was there, in a sterile environment, she calmed down, slept, and for the first time was a happy and peaceful child. The doctors diagnosed Emma with multiple allergies – in particular to dust mites and moulds. They made it clear that Emma should not return home until a central air purifier was fitted to the furnace to remove airborne particles. They also recommended clearing her bedroom of everything except her bed and damp dusting every day to control the dust mites. At that time dust mite proof bed cases and safe sprays were not available.
“It was a very worrying time,” says Maxima, “especially as we were living on a small farm house near Ottawa in Canada back then, miles away from anyone. I was very isolated, both emotionally and physically, and as you can imagine was totally exhausted.”
Maxima herself also started to experience terrible symptoms – chronic fatigue; depression and muscle weakness. One day when she painted the downstairs loo with gloss paint she describes feeling ‘virtually suicidal’. She says: “At first I put it down to the way things were – two small children with various health problems, running our own business, and a lack of regular sleep. But I seemed to get worse and worse, and it was getting harder to manage everything else, feeling the way I did.”
Though Emma had shown some improvements since returning from hospital, things were still not right. As the problems continued, with no answers, Maxima and Don started to examine their lifestyle, diets and environmental issues, including seeing a doctor who specialised in ecological medicine.
“This was the 1970s,” says Maxima, “and there was very little awareness about the way the world we live in can affect our health.
The ecological doctor they consulted concluded that both Maxima and Emma had serious chemical sensitivities – something which at the time was not a commonly known condition, but which made perfect sense to Maxima.
The couple then set about changing their home in an attempt to improve their health. Don was tasked with going through the house and stripping away the foam rubber underlay from beneath the carpets; all bedding and clothing was replaced with cotton or wool and no chemical products were used in the home. They also installed a shower at the workshop where Don made pine furniture, so he could wash away all traces of pine dust and chemicals.
In addition to these changes – and very upsettingly – they were forced to give away the family dog. “Alexander still hasn’t forgiven us!” says Maxima.
With the removal of dust mites, moulds, chemicals and the family dog, things finally began to improve and Emma became a happy and contented child. This could be easily upset by new exposures to chemicals.
When the children were 6 and 8, the couple decided to move back to the UK – where the warmer winters meant they could spend longer periods outdoors and away from potential triggers. Eventually, they went on to found The Healthy House, a family business providing support and natural products for people who suffer from allergies, intolerances and sensitivities. At the time they were pioneers in their field.
“It started because I had an interest in interior design,” says Maxima, “and using natural products. Many commercial paints can have a terrible effect on people who are sensitive, so we sourced a range of products that were organic and toxin free. As we looked into the subject more, we realised that there was a role to play – and at the time, we were the only company doing what we did.”
Since setting up The Healthy House in 1990, Maxima and Don have helped many thousands of people like themselves, through their advice line, e-mail, and mail order service. They provide a range of innovative products to improve the health of your environment, and to combat allergies and conditions such as eczema, asthma, SAD, chemical sensitivity and to protect against the effects of modern gadgetry such as WiFi and phone technology.
Maxima says: “Today things are far better understood – but modern life also brings many challenges. We hear from so many people who are unwell, either with specific allergies or unexplained pains or mood swings, all kinds of symptoms that they simply can’t explain or get any help with. The lack of understanding, and the stigma attached to it, can make things very difficult for people who suffer – there is an underlying misconception that some of these things are all in the mind, or that people are over-reacting, whereas in reality it is a serious issue – at worst, allergies can kill, and they can also have an extremely detrimental effect on people’s lives. We know, having suffered first hand, exactly how hard it can be to deal with, and how desperate you can feel.”
It is estimated that around 30% of the population will suffer from an allergy, with around half being children. And the UK now has the highest rates of asthma in the developed world. Hospital admissions for allergy related illnesses increased by 32% in the 10 years between 1998 and 2008. Allergies and sensitivities can be brought about in response to a variety of things, such as dust mites, mould, synthetic materials such as foamrubber and gas-emitting products, chemicals, foodstuffs and pollen. As well as more commonly known complaints such as eczema, asthma and hay fever, they can cause a vast range of symptoms – depression, fatigue, insomnia, pain, rashes and digestive issues.
Many people feel helpless, but Maxima and the team at The Healthy House stress that there are solutions, and ways to manage these problems. She says: “It’s important to realise that there is support, and that there is now a vast range of products that can help. We don’t sell miracles – but we can make a big difference. And we’re always happy to speak to people and give them our advice and support.”
Maxima adds: “One of our guiding principles is that we only offer products that are effective, and at the same time do not introduce other problems. It is amazing how many times the alleged remedies or solutions to problems like these are actually full of chemicals that are harmful in themselves.”
The Cotswolds base of the Healthy House was built on the same principles – an old stone building that they gutted and refitted with natural, organic materials and shielded electrical wiring.
Both of Maxima and Don’s children are now grown up and thriving – as is their business. For over twenty years now, The Healthy House has been providing other families with support, products and information, helping them to cope with their allergies and conditions.
Their early struggles gave them a true insight into how allergies can affect quality of life – and how a determined and educated response can help to restore good health and balance.