Alpha-Gal: Why You Can't Eat Meat

Have you heard of alpha-Gal? Do you have unexplained allergic-type reactions after eating meat and products from mammals or after taking some medications? Your reaction to eating meat could be more than a simple allergy to beef or pork, and you may not actually be allergic to the pharmaceutical agent in the medication, but to the mammalian cells or tissues from which the drug is made. There is a syndrome called “Alpha-Gal Syndrome” (AGS) that is plaguing more and more people around the world, but it is not as simple as a meat-protein allergy.

Alpha-Gal is an IgE-mediated allergy to a molecule found in mammal meat or innards, such as livers. IgE-mediated allergies are true allergies, unlike sensitivity reactions involving IgG. True allergies can result in immediate reactions, or reactions within a few hours, with hives, redness, itching or eczema; tingling or itching in the mouth; swelling of the lips, tongue, face, throat, or other body part; nasal congestion, wheezing, or  shortness of breath; abdominal pain, diarrhea, nausea, or vomiting; dizziness, lightheadedness, or fainting; and even anaphylaxis.

Unlike known allergies to proteins in meat, however, alpha-Gal is an allergic reaction to a carbohydrate, a sugar called galactose-a-1,3-galactose. AGS can affect children, teens, and adults. Onset of allergic attack is usually faster with innards than with meat, but degree of severity can vary depending on co-factors such as physical exercise, alcohol, NSAIDS (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs), infections, and menstruation.

How Does This Allergic Reaction Develop?

To understand why this allergy happens, we have to look at evolution and the spread of pests. Humans and primates lost the ability to produce a-Gal, so it is seen as a potential immune-sensitizing agent. But not everyone is sensitive to a-Gal, so what is the trigger that makes people sensitive to it under certain circumstances?

The current understanding is that tick bites play a central role in the development of AGS. Since this allergy appears around the world, there is not just one species of tick that can trigger it. Thus, there are 3 aspects to an a-Gal allergy: a food allergy of typically delayed onset after consumption of mammalian meat or innards; a drug allergy to drugs developed using mammalian cells or tissues; and an allergic reaction to tick bites.

What is fascinating to me is how the severity of the reaction after eating innards or meat depends on the co-factors, such as intake of NSAIDs or alcohol. Can it be that these co-factors influence intestinal integrity enough such that the immune system is more primed to react? Researchers will have to figure that out, but there is no doubt in my mind that gut health plays a role in alpha-Gal allergy, and that probiotics and gut-healing protocols, which can help other allergies, can help it.

What Can You Do about Alpha-Gal?

What can you do if you suspect AGS? It is important to distinguish between allergies to proteins in meats and allergy to a-Gal. Special blood tests can be used to screen for this. Any oral challenges involving consumption of meat or innards, especially with the other factors (alcohol, etc.) added in to detect tolerance level, should be performed by an experienced allergist with emergency-response measures available since anaphylaxis can be deadly.

You may think you have to give up meat and products made from them, but total avoidance of meats and adoption of a vegetarian or vegan diet may not be necessary. You may have a threshold at which symptoms occur after eating meat, or you can eat poultry. In fact, some evidence shows that complete avoidance of meat with AGS can results in anaphylaxis to even tiny traces of meat or gelatin. Gelatin is used in many gel-caps and medications.

Remember that you gut health plays a significant role in over-reactions by your immune system, and probiotics have been found to be beneficial with allergies as they work to preserve gut function and integrity and modulate the immune system. Eliminate foods and drinks you know you don’t agree with you, consider a gut-healing protocol, and also consider probiotics and fermented/cultured foods and drinks to keep your immune system balanced.

J. Fischer et al. “Clinical spectrum of a-Gal syndrome: from immediate-type to delayed immediate-type reactions to mammalian innards and meat,” Allergo J Int 25 (2016): 55–62.

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