What is Alpha-Gal Syndrome?
Alpha-gal syndrome (AGS), often described as “red meat allergy”, is a food allergy characterized by a delayed - and potentially life threatening - reaction that can strike a person at any age. It saw a surge in popularity and discussion somewhat recently, but just like many subjects that go viral in a short amount of time, misconceptions and story-driven slants are bound to crop up along the way.
Alpha-Gal Syndrome isn't newWhen the condition was first described in 2009, the offending molecule, galactose-alpha-1,3-galactose (alpha-gal for short, hence the name), was only known to be found in the flesh of mammals (excluding some primates like humans) and a new intravenous cancer treatment (reactions to which lead to the discovery). It was also assumed it took intravenous or large dietary exposures to trigger reactions. Since then it has been found that people with the condition may also react to other mammal products such as gelatin, dairy, lanolin and derivatives, and that small trace amounts of cross contamination are enough to cause illness in sensitive patients. To make matters worse, carrageenan, a vegan additive frequently used in nondairy substitutes, is reported to also cause reactions by many patients. The diversity of products containing alpha-gal, combined with label laws that don’t yet require derived products to indicate what they were made from, make alpha-gal syndrome one of the most challenging allergies to live with. Unfortunately, while alpha-gal syndrome (AGS) likely existed in some form long before its discovery, it seems that it may also be increasing in frequency and severity in westernized countries in recent years. The exact reasons for this are unclear, but the prevalence of mammal products in processed foods, the addition of carrageenan to the diet, and an increase in tick activity have all been speculated to play a role. That’s right, alpha-gal syndrome is yet another tick induced ailment on what seems like an endlessly expanding list.
What Causes Alpha-Gal Syndrome?Many, but not all, people who develop the alpha-gal allergy report experiencing tick bites a few months prior to onset, yet AGS does not appear to be caused by an infectious agent like other tick borne ailments. Instead, it is thought to be an immune response to the saliva of the tick. Humans naturally have strong immune reactions to alpha-gal - this is why animal organ transplants can not safely be done on humans. Normally, the human body suppresses the reaction and keeps it firmly limited to igG antibodies, but when a tick bites a human, the immune system suddenly starts producing igE antibodies. These IgE responses are what cause allergic reactions.Until recently, only 3 species of ticks had been verified as causing the condition worldwide, but no species had been ruled out. New species are now being found, thanks to success with inducing alpha-gal syndrome in mouse models using tick saliva, but there are hundreds out there to be tested. That, of course, means that the most aggressive types are the ones first on the list to be checked. There may also be other triggers and risk factors that haven't been discovered yet. Scientist just don’t know enough about how the condition starts yet to be entirely sure. What is known, is that once AGS has begun, the more bites a person gets, the more severe the condition gets. In the worst cases, even cooking fumes can cause reactions when inhaled, much like the infamous peanut allergy.
What are the Symptoms of Alpha-Gal Syndrome?The symptoms of alpha-gal syndrome can be deceptive. Mild cases usually present sporadically 3-8 hours after exposure with some of the following:
- Hives (urticaria)
- Digestive distress
- Constipation that lasts for several days
- Painful cramps
Diagnosing Alpha-Gal SyndromeAll too often alpha-gal syndrome is misdiagnosed as a variety of different maladies that carry some of the same trademark symptoms. The following are a variety of conditions that are, unfortunately, often pointed to as the cause of these troubles:
- Irritable bowel syndrome
- Orthostatic hypotension
- Rheumatoid arthritis
- Idiopathic urticaria
- Gluten intolerance