Alpha-Gal? No, it’s not a superhero from the 1960s. Not the PTA president at your kid’s elementary school. Not the captain of a cheerleading squad. Alpha-gal is an abbreviation, the familiar name of Alpha-galactosidase, an enzyme prevalent in red meat, and useful for breaking down oligosaccharides into monosaccharides in our digestive system. Beans, I’m talking about beans. Alpha-gal keeps you from farting.
Why do I know this? Yesterday, I took a blood test for alpha-gal syndrome. The results are pending. I check my email periodically to see if I have a notice: You have a new blood test awaiting review. I got four of these over the past two days. I expect three more. One of those is for alpha-gal syndrome.
You probably heard about alpha-gal syndrome some years back. Headlines screamed from all the outdoor fitness periodicals. Emerging Disease: Tick Bite causes Lifelong Meat Allergy. Alpha-gal syndrome makes you dangerously allergic to red meat.
A week ago, after a trail run through deep grass, my eyes swelled shut, my lips puffed up, and my airway began to close off. At the emergency room, they filled my veins with Epinephrine and Prednisone in a successful effort to stop the reaction. Reaction to what? No idea. My allergies are pretty typical. Pollen throughout May when the ornamental cherry tree in my backyard blooms. Dog hair, if I somehow manage to get it all over myself and don’t make any effort to clean it off. Poison ivy if I walk within ten feet of it on a windy day.
As a young teenager, the municipal golf course offered a summertime deal. Kids under sixteen could play the back-nine for three dollars between noon and four on weekdays. With my lawn cutting income—five dollars per lawn—I could afford to play a couple of times a week and still save for the school year. The cost of golf balls was actually a bigger concern than the green fees.
Every Monday, the swanky private golf club up the road closed for the day. At the start of the summer, my friends and I crawled through a hole in the chain link fence and dug around in the bushes looking for stray balls. These trips were wildly successful. We always found plenty of balls to last the whole season. And we always wound up with poison ivy from ear tips to toes. And then ten hellish days, ten sleepless nights as payment for our free golf balls.
As an adult, I wised up. I now take the time to scout out poison ivy before diving into the brush, and I almost never get a serious outbreak. But that’s because I understand my allergy; I know what to look for and how to avoid it. No one knows what happened to me last week. Yes, I ran through tall grass, and I’m allergic to grass, but my doctor shook her head. “This was a major system reaction. It didn’t come from topical exposure to grass.”
Lying in my hospital bed, my mind jumped to many possible causes. Tick bites ranked high on the list. With trail running, mountain biking, mountain bike trail maintenance, and a pair of cats that often visit me in bed with pea-sized blobs of engorged tick hanging from the underside their necks, my exposure to ticks is high.
My doctor ran three tick tests. One for Lyme disease, one called ‘the tick panel’ which checks for a wide range of tick induced diseases, and one specifically for alpha-gal syndrome. Two of these came back negative, I decided to read up on the meat allergy. The item that grabbed my attention is “Exercise and alcohol seem to be the most important co-factors for alpha-gal reactions.” No, I wasn’t drinking when I had my reaction, but I just finished a hard run. It seems exercise speeds up the reaction time and intensifies the symptoms.
When I got home from work that night, I decided it was too hot to run. I cooked some spaghetti for dinner. Eli suggested we fry up some hamburger for the sauce. With my red meat ingested, I got ready to run.
I don’t actually think I have alpha-gal syndrome. It’s a relatively rare condition, and it’s more prevalent in the southern United States than Pennsylvania. But it would be convenient to have something to point to for my reaction. Believe me, I don’t want an allergy to red meat. I tried a vegetarian diet a couple of years ago and my iron levels plummeted so deeply that I became chronically dizzy. Once diagnosed, my doctor prescribed a steady diet of meat, including beef, to accompany my iron supplements.
No, I don’t want a beef allergy, but I also don’t want an unexplained severe allergic reaction in my medical history. I don’t want to constantly look over my shoulder wondering when it might happen again. I frequently find myself running or biking miles from a road, and with no cell reception. A reaction like last week’s could wind up deadly.
Today, I scheduled allergy testing in July—the soonest available in a fifty mile radius. I hope I find the cause of my reaction—what to watch out for—so like my caution around poison ivy, I can simply avoid the allergen altogether.