IBS, Alpha-Gal, and Gut Misery

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The other night, I ate chicken wings with Honey BBQ sauce and Spicy Garlic sauce at Buffalo Wild Wings! You’re probably thinking “Uh…okay. So what?” Well, after not being able to eat meat of any kind for four years, this is a big deal!


I am a foodie. An unabashed fan of food, recipes, restaurants, cookbooks, food blogs, farm stands, interesting markets–you name it, I probably dig it. So about seven years ago, when I started having all kinds of issues after eating red meat, it definitely worried me. Fast forward a couple years when I could no longer eat poultry or seafood without getting sick, and it REALLY worried me.

But let’s back up.

in 1997, I was on a first anniversary trip with my now late-husband and started having major gut issues. I’d be walking along and everything was fine…and then all of a sudden my guts would seize up and I’d be literally running for the nearest restroom. I also had a constant stomachache, but noticed it was significantly worse after every meal.  When I got home from the trip, I visited my doctor to find out what was going on. After running some tests and ruling out a bunch of things, he diagnosed me with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), and gave me a prescription for medication.

Over the next few years, I was in frequent distress and the meds didn’t really do much for me.  I was constantly calling in sick to work and had to be hyper-vigilant anytime I went somewhere new, to scope out where the restrooms were. In short–it sucked.

I decided to do some research and found that IBS is different for everyone, but oftentimes your diet can make things worse or better. It’s a matter of figuring out what foods are triggers for you, and that can be super tricky. I gave up caffeine. I gave up sugar. I gave up carbs. I gave up spicy foods. None of these turned out to be triggers for me, except for caffeine. Eventually, things eased up on their own, and my days of misery were fewer and less intense. And then in 2011, things changed.

I was living in Las Vegas and had come back to Virginia to visit my family for a few days. When I got home, I was in the restroom at McCarran Airport and noticed a tick stuck to my belly.  I pulled it off, flushed it, and didn’t think much about it. Not long after, I started noticing that I was having much more frequent gut issues, and even worse health problems. There were times that I would wake up in the morning and could barely walk because my joints were sore and swollen and it took great effort to just move my legs. It turns out that the Lone Star tick secretes a sugar molecule known as alpha-gal into a person’s body when it bites them and causes a red meat allergy in some people. Symptoms range from flushing, itching, hives, wheezing, and swelling, to anaphylaxis in extreme cases, and….intestinal distress. Below is an image of what the bloodsucker looks like. The tick, and therefore the allergy, is more common in the southern states, but has been making its way north for a while now.

lone star tick

For me, the allergy started with red meat and stayed there for about two and a half years. In the spring of 2014, I found that eating poultry made me just as sick as red meat, so that had to go as well. Very shortly afterward, seafood got crossed off the list too. I found that following a vegetarian diet helped lessen my gut issues, so I stuck to it for four long years. By that point, I was resigned to a life without chicken, or fish and chips, or peel and eat shrimp, or turkey on Thanksgiving (although Trader Joe’s makes an awesome meatless “turkey” roll thing for Thanksgiving).

HOWEVER! In early 2018, I had my annual checkup with a new doctor. When going over my medical history, I mentioned the IBS and the meat allergy.  She thought it was odd since most people with the alpha-gal allergy don’t have issues with anything except beef and pork. She asked if I was taking a daily probiotic, and I told her that I wasn’t, but asked if she thought it would help. I had taken probiotics before when I had to take antibiotics, just to keep things balanced, but had never thought about taking one every day.  Within a few days, I started taking a CVS store-brand probiotic and formulated my plan to return to a carnivorous lifestyle.

I took my capsules religiously, once per day for six weeks before I decided to attempt to eat fish. I missed seafood more than anything else, so my boyfriend and I headed to Bonefish Grill for dinner one night. He ordered fish tacos, and I ordered fish and chips. I knew that choosing fried fish might not be the best choice since the grease could cause it’s own issues, but at that point it was go big or go home! I have never, in my entire life, been so nervous and excited for a plate of fish and fries. Usually, if I’m going to have a reaction from food, it happens within about twenty minutes of beginning the meal, so I had already found the restrooms just in case. We ate. We waited…..Nothing! No reaction, no running to the restroom, no cramping, no nothing! Y’all, I’m not ashamed to say that I almost cried.

It took several more months before I decided to try chicken, and the first few attempts were a little uncomfortable, but eventually, I was able to eat poultry without any problems too. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to eat red meat again, but I’m okay with that. I really don’t miss it anyway.

The label for the probiotic that I take says that it has “3 billion unique bacillus coagulans”, which are naturally protected bacteria. I’ve read that as a general rule, a probiotic should have at least 1 billion CFUs (colony forming units), but I’ve seen packages that claim to have up to 12 billion. I’ve also read that you should change your probiotic every 6 months or so because your body gets used to them and they become less effective. Since I’m not a medical professional and since it’s usually not a good idea to trust what Doctor Google says, I don’t know if that’s true. I just know that the one I’m taking is working for me right now. If it stops working as well, I’ll change it up. Your results may vary.

As always, consult your physician before taking any medications or supplements, but if you’re suffering the way that I was, ask if a probiotic might be a good addition to your diet.

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