I never liked cold cereal growing up (still don't, actually) so I would always stress about what would be offered for breakfast. Usually, the parents would make something special like waffles or pancakes. But in the rare occasions when cold cereal was the only item on the menu, I tried to avoid it without seeming rude. Sometimes I asked for toast. Other times I said I wasn't hungry. And in one particular instance, I flat-out lied. "I'm allergic to cereal," I remember telling the host mom. In the early 90s, before gluten-free became a thing, I'm fairly certain the host mom thought I was crazy. An allergy? To Cheerios? What a weird little girl.
I've since learned that it's okay to dislike a food item, and haven't experienced any other allergy, to food, medication, plant, animal, or otherwise. That is, until the past 6 months...dun-dun-dunnnnnnnn.
|Finish line of Berryman 2014...Jeff, me, Doug, Garrison.
|This was 5 days post-race. Not my leg.
|After having pork for dinner in October. My leg.
What is alpha-gal? First, it's a shorthand term used to describe galactose-alpha-1,3-galactose, which is a carbohydrate found in mammalian meat (but not primates or humans). What does that have to do with ticks? Ticks ingest alpha-gal when they bite mammalian hosts...deer, raccoons, possums, etc. Then, ticks transfer alpha-gal to humans when they make a subsequent bite.
Normally, human antibodies (immunoglobulin E in this case specifically) understand that the alpha-gal introduced to the body, either via tick saliva or via ingesting mammalian meat, is no big deal and do not react. The alpha-gal carbohydrate gets digested normally and people go on their merry hamburger-eating way. But in certain cases, especially in instances of historically high tick bite volume, the body misconstrues ingestion of alpha-gal from mammalian meat as a tick onslaught and produces a specific type of immunoglobulin E (IgE) antibody to fight against the invasion. The IgE antibodies bind to the alpha-gal CHOs, producing histamines, which manifest initially as hives and can progress to anaphylaxis.
Alpha-gal allergies are unusual among food allergies in these ways:
- they are associated with a carbohydrate, and all other food allergies are associated with proteins
- they manifest 2-4 hours after ingestion, not immediately like most other food allergies
- they can develop later in life in a person who has previously ingested mammalian meat with no problems
- the intensity of their reactions can change based on recent tick bite volume, hydration state, and a few other systemic factors.
My interpretation of the whole thing is one more of fascination than of sadness. Sure, I'm going to miss steaks and bratwursts. But I think it is weirdly cool that I had a medical hunch, my doctor believed me, there was a conclusive test available, the test was covered by insurance, and the results were definitive. I've taken steps to replace the lost iron in my diet, which I believe is incredibly important for female athletes, and otherwise have adjusted well to eating a ton of fish and chicken. I'm writing this post to bring some awareness to the issue. Most of the research on the alpha-gal allergy has only been ongoing for the last 10 years. The connection between red meat and ticks wasn't even made until one of the researchers happened to develop the allergy himself (after a tick bite). Most doctors aren't aware of the condition, but I feel a lot of the people who read this blog spend a lot of time in the woods and may be susceptible. So if you experience head-to-toe hives a few hours after eating mammalian meat (beef, pork, venison, bison, lamb, etc), please consider visiting an allergist and getting tested.