For most of us, when we think tick-borne illness, we think Lyme disease. But Lyme isn’t the only tick-related illness we need to watch out for: Startling statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reveal that other sicknesses caused by these bloodsucking bugs are on the rise across the country! One in particular that’s causing problems is called alpha-gal syndrome, a tick-borne condition that triggers tiredness, brain fog and other symptoms. And while many of us think we only need to worry about tick bites in spring and summer, research shows that the pests are actually active (and dangerous) year-round. Fortunately, a few key strategies can help you avoid and overcome alpha-gal syndrome. Read on for all the details, plus learn how Debbie Olson, 62, triumphed over alpha gal syndrome symptoms and reclaimed her health and boundless energy.
What is alpha-gal syndrome?
Alpha-gal syndrome is a little-known meat allergy that’s caused by a sugar molecule called alpha-gal (galactose-α-1,3-galactose) found in most mammals. It occurs when ticks feed on mammals, then inject alpha-gal into the bloodstream via their saliva. “This produces an immune system reaction that triggers an allergy to mammalian meat and products that contain ingredients derived from mammals,” explains gastroenterologist Sarah McGill, MD, an alpha-gal researcher at University of North Carolina.
Alpha-gal syndrome can trigger symptoms that include hives and swelling in the throat and airways, including life-threatening anaphylaxis. But some sufferers experience more generalized symptoms, chiefly GI complaints such as nausea, abdominal cramping and diarrhea. (See more on alpha gal symptoms below.) Plus, researchers reporting in the journal Open Forum Infectious Diseases note that alpha-gal syndrome can produce fatigue, brain fog and joint pain. And survey results published in the Journal of Allergy & Immunology reveal anxiety is a top alpha-gal symptom.
What makes alpha-gal syndrome so sneaky
Cases of alpha-gal syndrome have skyrocketed by 711% in the past decade, according to CDC data. Unlike many other food allergies, alpha-gal reactions don’t set in immediately; they typically occur within two to six hours after ingesting problematic foods. Because of the delay, many sufferers don’t connect their symptoms to red meat. What’s more, as a condition that was first identified in 2008, alpha-gal hasn’t yet made it onto many doctors’ radar. In a recent CDC report, 42% of healthcare providers weren’t even aware of alpha-gal. And only 5% said they were ‘very confident’ in their ability to diagnose and manage the syndrome. And in the Journal of Allergy & Immunology alpha-gal survey, 37% of people with alpha-gal had 15 or more reactions before they were diagnosed.
How to tell if your symptoms are due to alpha-gal syndrome
Doctors can diagnose alpha-gal syndrome with the aid of blood testing that looks for specific antibodies produced by the immune system in response to alpha-gal. Dr. McGill recommends asking your doctor or allergist for the specific IgE galactose-alpha-1,3-galactose test.
Telltale symptoms can also help ID alpha-gal syndrome symptoms, so seek testing if you experience the following after eating meat that comes from mammals:
- Skin rashes
- Breathing difficulties
- Nausea or vomiting
- Abdominal cramps
- Memory lapses
- Joint pain
Natural strategies that ease alpha gal syndrome symptoms
If symptoms and test results reveal alpha-gal, physicians may recommend oral antihistamines and carrying injectable epinephrine if you experience reactions that include anaphylaxis. The following strategies can also help:
Steer clear of trigger foods
Dr. McGill advises avoiding alpha-gal sources such as beef, pork, venison and lard and enjoying poultry, eggs, fish and seafood instead. And while some people with alpha-gal syndrome can safely enjoy gelatin and dairy foods such as milk, butter and ice cream, she advises eliminating them for at least two months, then reintroducing gradually under a doctor’s supervision.
Outsmart ‘hidden’ alpha-gal sources
Tolerance to alpha-gal varies widely among individuals. But products that contain mammal-based ingredients such as collagen and lanolin could prove problematic, as could the gelatin in gel capsules and vaccines and the pork glands in natural thyroid medications. Even skin creams and toothpastes that harbor ingredients derived from mammals may trigger troublesome symptoms: In the same survey that determined anxiety is an alpha-gal symptom, researchers found sufferers reacted to personal-care products.
Tip: For more ways to identify sneaky alpha-gal sources and find practitioners familiar with the syndrome, surf to Alpha-gal Information.
Consider this acupuncture technique
Findings in the journal Medical Acupunture reveal that SAAT acupuncture can send alpha-gal syndrome into remission for up to 96% of patients. Short for Soliman Auricular Allergy Treatment, the technique involves inserting a needle into a specific zone in the outer ear, then leaving it in place for a period of three weeks. Researchers found that people who received the treatment remained free from symptoms for 9 months or more, even after reintroducing mammalian meats and dairy.
What’s more, a previous study found 100% of folks with allergies to pollen, dander and foods such as milk, shellfish and eggs and were symptom-free after receiving SAAT. And according to Nadir Soliman, MD, who developed the technique, many who’ve received treatment have remain free from allergies for up to 15 years. Separate research suggests acupuncture acts on the autonomic nervous system to calm the immune system reaction that triggers allergies. Click through to find a practitioner trained in SAAT.
How to prevent alpha gal syndrome
The best way to avoid alpha gal syndrome is to avoid tick bites. To do that, experts advise the following steps when spending time in grassy or woodsy areas:
- Wear a hat and long pants, tucking pant legs into socks.
- Apply a bug repellent containing 30% DEET to exposed skin.
- Spray clothing and hat with tick-killing permethrin.
Then, when you come indoors, check your clothing and body for ticks. If you spot one, remove it fast by grasping the bug with blunt tweezers and pulling slowly until it dislodges. Then put the tick in a jar of alcohol to kill and preserve it in case your doctor wants to identify the species. (Click through for more smart ways to avoid tick-borne illness.)
Avoiding tick bites is key since a study in the journal Parasites and Vectors reveals that even one tick bite can send alpha-gal antibody levels soaring by 99%. However, researchers reporting in the journal Expert Review in Clinical Neurology note that when alpha-gal sufferers don’t experience further tick bites, their levels of allergy-producing antibodies drop markedly over time . That means those with alpha-gal can typically re-introduce beef, pork and other mammalian meats.
Alpha gal syndrome success story: Debbie Olson, 62
For months, Debbie Olson, 62, had been dealing with unexplained extreme fatigue, but doctors just couldn’t figure out what was going on. Read on to learn how she finally got a diagnosis — and the changes she made to restore her health.
“Initially, I assumed the fatigue I was fighting was due to a mild case of food poisoning or a cold, but then I woke up in the middle of the night with huge hives blanketing my torso and legs,” recalls Debbie. “My training as a nurse told me I was experiencing symptoms of a severe allergic reaction. Baffled by what caused the reaction, I decided the hives were a fluke and didn’t seek medical treatment.
“I recalled the engorged tick I had found on my back after an afternoon gardening but didn’t think much of it. Then, two weeks later, after hosting a backyard cookout, complete with a hamburger — something I didn’t typically eat — I attributed a queasy stomach to the beer I drank possibly hitting me wrong.
Debbie’s fatigue went from bad to worse
“The fatigue worsened and became so unbearable that I quit working. Some days, exhaustion — along with joint and bone pain — made it hard to stand up or stay awake.
“Once a self-sufficient go-getter who owned and maintained a business and my home on 5 acres with a pool, I was barely able to care for myself. I bounced around doctors’ offices desperately seeking answers, occasionally rushing to the ER with inexplicable anaphylaxis, a severe, potentially life-threatening allergic reaction that can cause difficulty breathing.
“Several trips to my doctor resulted in tests that revealed I was healthy and said my symptoms must be menopause. Lacking confidence in his assessment, I saw an allergist who, after skin-prick testing, suggested my symptoms were due to stress or ‘that I must have gotten into something.’ I don’t have the energy to be stressed or ‘getting into anything,’ I thought, frustrated at her dismissal of my symptoms. As a nurse, I also knew stress wouldn’t cause itching and hives.
“A few years into my health journey, I mentioned the tick bite to my doctor. He tested for tick-borne illness, but that test indicated I was healthy and sent me searching for answers.
“For more than seven years, doctors brushed me off. My frustration grew. I knew something was wrong, but no one took me seriously. Why won’t they listen? I asked myself, worried maybe it really was all in my head.
How Debbie finally figured out what was wrong
“After researching numerous diseases, I thought I might have alpha-gal syndrome, a tick-borne illness that causes an allergic reaction to mammal meats like pork, beef and lamb. I read the syndrome has been traced to the lone star tick, which is historically found in the South, but is being spotted in the Midwest and Northeast. But an infectious disease specialist told me I couldn’t have it because there were no lone star ticks in Delaware. I was livid.
“Feeling helpless, alone and fatigued, I didn’t know where to turn. Then I saw a news segment on alpha-gal syndrome, which is triggered by a complex sugar called galactose-alpha-1, 3-galactose, and thought, Those hives look like mine! The next day, I begged my allergist for a blood test for alpha-gal and she begrudgingly obliged. Two weeks later, I had an answer to 7.5 years of mysterious symptoms: I was positive for alpha-gal.
“Alpha-gal is found in most mammals, but not in fish, reptiles, birds or humans. A bite from a lone star tick spreads alpha-gal through its saliva, exposing the immune system to the sugar that, for some, triggers an overactive immune response the next time they consume alpha-gal. Because I only ate red meat a few times a week, I never realized my diet was causing my symptoms.
“Before my diagnosis, I found the Alpha Gal support group on Facebook, so I wasn’t shocked when the doctor said I’d have to eliminate all mammalian meat and products with mammal ingredients from my diet. But after years of debilitating symptoms, I was so thrilled to have a solution that the change wasn’t a challenge.
Today, Debbie feels like a new woman!
“Today, as long as I stick to my diet, I can manage my alpha-gal and maintain a happy, healthy life. I’m thrilled to have boundless energy again and to work and also volunteer at Tickborne Conditions United (TBCUnited.org) as a patient advocate for lesser-known tick-borne diseases.”
This content is not a substitute for professional medical advice or diagnosis. Always consult your physician before pursuing any treatment plan.
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