Turns out, your red meat allergy can put your heart at risk.
University of Virginia School of Medicine researchers linked sensitivity to an allergen in red meat - a sensitivity spread by tick bites - with a buildup of fatty plaque in the arteries of the heart. This buildup might increase the risk of heart attacks and stroke.
The bite of the lone star tick could cause people to develop an allergic reaction to red meat. However, many people who do not exhibit symptoms of the allergy were still sensitive to the allergen found in meat. UVA's new study linked sensitivity to the allergen with the increased plaque buildup, as measured by a blood test.
The researchers emphasized that their findings were preliminary but said further research was warranted.
"This novel finding from a small group of subjects examined at the University of Virginia raises the intriguing possibility that asymptomatic allergy to red meat may be an under-recognized factor in heart disease," said study leader Coleen McNamara. "These preliminary findings underscore the need for further clinical studies in larger populations from diverse geographic regions."
Looking at 118 patients, the researchers determined that those sensitive to the meat allergen had 30 percent more plaque accumulation inside their arteries than those without the sensitivity. Further, the plaques had a higher percentage with features characteristic of unstable plaques that are more likely to cause heart attacks.
With the meat allergy, people become sensitized to alpha-gal, a type of sugar found in red meat. People with the symptomatic form of the allergy can develop hives, stomach upset, have trouble breathing or exhibit other symptoms three to eight hours after consuming meat from mammals. (Poultry and fish do not trigger a reaction.) Other people can be sensitive to alpha-gal and not develop symptoms.
In fact, far more people are thought to be in this latter group. For example, up to 20 percent of people in central Virginia and other parts of the Southeast may be sensitized to alpha-gal but not show symptoms.
UVA's new study suggested that doctors could develop a blood test to benefit people sensitive to the allergen. "This work raises the possibility that in the future a blood test could help predict individuals, even those without symptoms of red meat allergy, who might benefit from avoiding red meat. However, at the moment, red meat avoidance is only indicated for those with allergic symptoms," said researcher Jeff Wilson.
The study appears in Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis and Vascular Biology.