If you hear someone has a “meat allergy” they probably have Alpha Gal Syndrome, which is caused by ticks. While it’s a relatively newly diagnosed problem, it’s predicted to grow substantially over the next decade. Alpha gal is a blood allergy to mammal meat (including any traces of beef, pork, venison, etc.) and sometimes dairy. Because it’s a blood allergy, symptoms don’t set in immediately (like with a peanut allergy), but tend to show up 3 to 6 hours after food is consumed and enters your bloodstream. Reactions can include intestinal distress (similar to food poisoning), hives, or in a worst-case scenario, anaphylactic shock.
Where do I go for reliable information?
The ultimate technical resource on the subject is the University of Virginia blog, Allergy to Meat. I strongly suggest you head over there for all technical/medical information. Also, talk to your doctor. Don’t trust anyone else’s information without your doctor’s consent.
In basic terms, what is Alpha Gal?
In a nutshell, you can be bitten by a tick, which gives you the Alpha Gal allergy. You can be allergic to some or all mammal meat. You may also be allergic to dairy (but often to a lesser extent). It builds up slowly over a few months, and is usually discovered after an allergic reaction to a meat-laden meal a few months after the bite. Your doctor or allergist can test you for the allergen, Alpha-Gal, as well as your allergic reaction level to specific meats and dairy.
If diagnosed, you will likely be told to avoid all mammal meat, and possibly dairy. Many people are required to carry 2 epi-pens with them at all time.
Alpha gal does not cause allergies to non-mammal items such as eggs, chicken, fish, etc. Humans and old-world primates do not carry the Alpha Gal protein, so they can’t cause the reaction.
Will this go away?
The science is inconclusive. Some research indicates it will lessen over time. But I was also warned by my allergist that each reaction can be worse than the last, so you would never want to risk it, in case your next reaction is anaphylactic shock.
Personally, I am choosing to live life as if it’s a forever condition. If it goes away, that’s a bonus, but if I keep living “for the day it’s gone” and that day never comes, it seems awfully sad. For my mental well being, I do better assuming all life changes are permanent.
What is the exact biological reaction causing this?
The University of Virginia did the original research that isolated Alpha Gal. I have quoted their blog below, but you should read it on their site because it’s always being updated with new information. From the Uva blog:
When certain people are bitten by ticks or chiggers, the bite appears to set off a chain of reactions in the body. One of these reactions is the production of an allergic class of antibody that binds to a carbohydrate present on meat called galactose-alpha-1,3-galactose, also known as alpha-gal. When a person with the alpha-gal antibody eats mammalian meat, the meat triggers the release of histamine. Histamine is a compound found in the body that causes allergic symptoms like hives, itching and, in the worst case, anaphylaxis (a reaction that leads to sudden weakness, swelling of the throat, lips and tongue, difficulty breathing and/or unconsciousness).
In addition to the classic allergy symptoms, some of our patients report significant gastrointestinal distress or gynecological symptoms. These symptoms can take the form of abdominal cramping and pain, heartburn, diarrhea, nausea or vomiting and in some cases uterine cramping with spotting. It is not uncommon for a patient who has anaphylaxis to lose consciousness while moving their bowels. Some patients have reactions that are characterized almost entirely of GI or gynecological symptoms while others may not experience these types of symptoms at all.
This allergy is different from other food allergies like peanut allergy in that the response is delayed. Unlike someone with a peanut allergy who has an immediate reaction when they eat a peanut, people with the alpha-gal allergy usually do not start having symptoms until several hours after they eat meat.
I’ve just been diagnosed. What’s next?
I can’t speak for your personal journey, but I can share my experience. I got my epi-pens, and started eliminating all traces of meat. I learned the hard way (hives) that I can’t eat certain foods that seem safe. I also developed a full-blown reaction to dairy a few months after my initial diagnosis. I found out how to safely make a meat-loaf for my family without having a reaction. I learned some amazing recipes that my husband and kids love, but aren’t strictly vegan.
This website is here to help the newly-diagnosed to have somewhere to turn to figure out what “fake butter” is truly safe, which turkey hot dogs and sausages have pork casings. And along the way, I’ll share some seriously stylish ways to carry your epi pens.