No Red Meat? Alpha Gal, a story.

While I am a strong proponent of utilizing livestock agriculture in regenerative systems I also strongly believe that we need to cut down on our meat consumption, especially in more developed countries. The American diet is awful. We eat too much, we waste too much, and many of us are very unhealthy. In fact both heart disease (#1) and diabetes (type 2, #7) are on the list the 10 leading causes of death in America, both of which can be controlled with a modified diet.

black and white dairy cow s head
Photo by Jan Koetsier on Pexels.com

For at least the past ten years I have been very conscious, and vocal, about the food that we eat. We eat very little meat in our house. Vegetarian meals are not uncommon. When we do incorporate meat it is rarely the bulk of the main course. Usually it’s mixed in to add flavor or protein. While we have been eating like this for at least the past 8 years the real change has occurred in the past 3. Three years ago, soon after purchasing a quarter cow and processing our own lamb we abruptly turned around and gave most of it away, limiting ourselves to mostly vegetarian meals, some poultry, and seafood, with the occasional beef product being eaten by my family members . So what has changed?

A tick. A lonestar tick to be precise.

Three years ago Chris was working third shift at his job and I was home sleeping with the kids, back when we lived in the cabin. Around 2 am I woke with terrible stomach pains. I thought I had food poisoning , but when my whole body quickly broke into hives i knew it was more than that. With my skin red, blotchy, and itchy I started to feel by throat swell. I knew what I was experiencing was an allergic reaction but I wasn’t allergic to anything. I asked the neighbor to come stay with the kids and called an ambulance. While on the way to the hospital they administered epinephrine and Benedryl. I was taken to a nearby hospital where I was told that it wasn’t possible for me to have had an allergic reaction, but since I responded so well to the epinephrine they prescribed an Epi pen, for my non-allergy.

Over the course of six months I had another 8 episodes, all but 1 in the middle of the night. Two requiring the hospital. Every time I was told it wasn’t an actual allergy and I was sent back home. Finally my GP (who is phenomenal and I love her) sent me to the allergist. A week later I walked into his office, told him my symptoms, and was immediately told that he knew what was wrong with me. He ran tests just to be certain but he was indeed correct.

I had contracted Alpha Gal allergy from the bite of a lone star tick rendering me allergic to mammalian meat. I can no longer eat cow, pig, lamb, deer, rabbit, squirrel, any of it. We had to completely change the way we were eating to avoid an extreme allergic reaction. It’s awful. The worst. Let me explain how this allergy works, because it is very different from any other allergy so it’s easy to misdiagnose.

ham burger with vegetables
Photo by Valeria Boltneva on Pexels.com

We are almost all exposed to the alpha gal carbohydrate (galactose-α-1,3-galactose) through ingestion of animal products, and we are fine. The alpha gal carbohydrate is found in all mammal species except apes and old world monkeys. However, the bite of a lone-star tick can activate anti-bodies that view this carbohydrate as a harmful foreign body, flooding your body with anti-bodies anytime red meat is ingested. What makes this allergy unusual is it’s onset. Typical allergic reactions are due to the presence of a protein and reactions are immediate. Since Alpha gal is a carbohydrate the reaction doesn’t actually occur until the carbohydrate starts being broken down, 3-8 hours after ingestion. This also makes the allergy dangerous because many times it occurs in the middle of the night.

Also, with the changing climate we are now finding the lone star tick all the way into parts of the US that used to be too cold for it’s survival, like Maine. In their typical habitat their population numbers have skyrocketed, making these types of illnesses far more prevalent. To avoid this allergy, and other tick borne illnesses, please be extra cautious when you are outside and be diligent in checking for ticks when you come back in. The most susceptible to these illnesses are field biologists, hunters, farmers, and anyone who spends their times outside in areas with high grass. It’s unfortunate for those of us who hunt or farm to no longer be able to consume the fruits of our labor.

Needless to say it’s been an interesting ride trying to find flavorful meal choices that are easy to throw together and don’t cause arguments with the littles. Also I miss bacon, and I am starting to really hate chicken.

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