Agave is my enemy
March 22, 2010 3:06 PM   Subscribe

When I eat or drink more than a bite's worth of anything with agave or agave syrup in it, including tequila, I get confused, irritable, and light headed. I see spots and get tunnel vision and I often get a buzzing noise in my head. I feel like I'm on the short road to passing out. When it's over I'm headache-y and exhausted. WTH?

There are a handful of other things that do a much lesser version of the above, and I seem to be more sensitive to high glycemic things than most people, but nothing does me in like agave does.

In summary: What the heck?!

It didn't use to matter but agave is suddenly in EVERYTHING.

Secondary question: Is this an allergy? I don't get hives or stop breathing, which makes me think it isn't.

Tertiary question: If it's not an allergy, what's a good way to refer to it to hosts and waitstaff that will emphasize how much I desire to avoid it. Sensitivity? Intolerance?

In case it's related, I've often used aloe topically on burns and haven't had a bad reaction.
posted by small_ruminant to Health & Fitness (24 answers total)
what's a good way to refer to it to hosts and waitstaff that will emphasize how much I desire to avoid it. Sensitivity? Intolerance?

Whatever it is, just tell them you're allergic. They're not going to give you a polygraph.
posted by nathancaswell at 3:26 PM on March 22, 2010

Answering the tertiary question only.....

I have an odd reaction to shrimp. It's not a typical allergic reaction but I would almost prefer to stop breathing over the almost instant severe gastrointestinal distress that shrimp ingestion causes me (insert TMI apology here).

When questioning hosts and waitstaff about it I refer to it as an "allergy" because it is a word that most understand clearly (in my case I am often concerned about foods in establishments where english is not the first language of many of the employees). I also make sure that they understand that I really, really, really need to know if there is shrimp in what I am potentially ordering (or consuming of on a buffet) and kinda-sorta-jokingly (but politely) ask if they have a phone nearby to call 911 if they are incorrect about the information they are giving me.

More than once I have had waitstaff come back from the kitchen and inform me that yes, the dish I was interested in does indeed contain shrimp and I should make another choice.
posted by labwench at 3:36 PM on March 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

Allergic and other adverse reactions to food can manifest in other ways than hives or difficulty breathing. I have a friend who gets sores in her mouth from eating tomatoes, for example. Whether that's technically an allergy or not, it's a reaction that she gets every single time she eats a tomato, so she just tells waitstaff she is allergic. "Allergy" is the magic word with regards to food reactions in restaurants.
posted by bedhead at 3:36 PM on March 22, 2010

I have known people who declared allergies when they just didn't like a thing and I've known waiters who've assumed everyone was doing that (with exceptions for shrimp & peanuts). I am afraid of contributing to the watering-down of the word allergy.
posted by small_ruminant at 3:47 PM on March 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

That actually sounds like a type of allergy. i don't think you would be lying to say that you have an allergy. You are not saying it because you do not like agave -- you're saying it because it causes you severe distress that limits your ability to function in your day to day life. It doesn't cause you to stop breathing, but all allergies do not manifest that way.

I would see a doctor about this problem.
posted by k8lin at 3:54 PM on March 22, 2010

Your reaction sounds like really low blood sugar to me.

The Wikipedia article on Agave syrup fingers it as a culprit in blood sugar badness:

However, the extremely high percentage of fructose can be deleterious and can trigger fructose malabsorption, metabolic syndrome[9], hypertriglyceridemia, decreased glucose tolerance, hyperinsulinemia, and accelerated uric acid formation.[10][11][12]

Hyperinsulinemia could produce very low blood sugar levels.
posted by jamjam at 4:01 PM on March 22, 2010

Since small_ruminant has the same reaction to tequila, fructose is almost certainly not the culprit.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 4:09 PM on March 22, 2010

If you don't want to say allergy, just say, "agave makes me very, very sick and I can't have anything that contains it or else I could end up in the hospital." No waiter wants to be the one who doesn't take that seriously and ends up getting the restaurant in trouble or making them look bad if you get sick.
posted by ishotjr at 4:11 PM on March 22, 2010

To expand on what jamjam has said - first thought I had was that you're reacting to the high concentration of fructose in agave. There's a malabsorption syndrome called fructose intolerance - I have it, you can check my posting history for more if you're interested. FWIW, I've also got metabolic syndrome/hyperinsulinemia, and my endocrinologist mentioned that they often go hand in hand.

Technically speaking it's not an allergy, but an intolerance. You're not going to go into anaphylactic shock, although it's possible to pass out if your body puts out too much insulin after a high dose of fructose.

Because of my insulin issues, I have to avoid all forms of sugar, including agave, table sugar, and honey. The way I deal with it with waitstaff is this: "Are there any added sweeteners in this dish? I have a medical condition that requires that I avoid all sweeteners."
posted by chez shoes at 4:28 PM on March 22, 2010

Since small_ruminant has the same reaction to tequila, fructose is almost certainly not the culprit.

Not necessarily. The key word from the Wikipedia extract in this regard is "trigger"; her previous experience of the high fructose content of agave syrup could very well have conditioned Small_ruminant to produce lots of insulin at the taste of agave. Insulin production is well known to be conditionable.
posted by jamjam at 4:30 PM on March 22, 2010

jamjam' symptoms look eerily right. The tequila thing only happened once because I haven't drank it since.

Part of what makes the agave so weird is that it happens really quickly- within 5 minutes. I do react to refined sugars but much MUCH less than agave and slower: 15 to 30 minutes, depending on how empty my stomach is.

I can eat honey and other unrefined sugars in moderation without a problem.
posted by small_ruminant at 4:40 PM on March 22, 2010

I don't have any problems with any type of Sugar.

I can hold my own drinking. In my early twenties I never drank much Tequila, but when I did it was always a rough time. I just attributed that to being a crazy night.

A few years ago, I was out with friends and someone bought two rounds of Jose. I was completely obliterated. A splitting headache like someone had jabbed a railroad spike into my brain. It was horrible.

That is when i started to realize that something was odd. Normally two shots and a beer and I wouldn't even be feeling anything. With this I was violently sick for the entire next day.

I have a friend who uses Agave syrup to make cookies for her MS related special diet. Same effect.

A friend grows his own peppers and made a kick ass salsa. But he used tequila as a flavering. Two chips in salsa without knowing and I had a horrible headache/drymouth for the next 24 hours.

I have not been able to find anything relevent online about this, when I have looked from time to time over the last 2 or 3 years.
posted by PlutoniumX at 5:31 PM on March 22, 2010

small_ruminant, what happens if you drink a can of regular (non-diet) soda, the kind with high-fructose corn syrup?
posted by exphysicist345 at 5:41 PM on March 22, 2010

I should have said 'really good point, but not necessarily', Devil's Advocate.

PlutoniumX's comment make it look like an even better point than I thought.
posted by jamjam at 5:45 PM on March 22, 2010

Regarding waiters not taking you seriously - if I suspect at all that they might not take my allergies seriously, I kind of smile wryly and say "Trust won't be pretty!" Yeah, TMI, but then really wouldn't be pretty.
posted by MexicanYenta at 5:51 PM on March 22, 2010

here in NoFL we grow lots of agave - pretty much everybody has a blue octopus or striped century plant in the yard. when they get too big or in the way, people weedwhack them.

some of these people spend the following week in bed with a tv tray holding the sheets up off of them, because of the astonishing, angry, blistering, swelling, spreading rash that ensues once they wipe all the agave pulp off their skin and clothes.

most other people are unaffected, but everybody knows somebody with a spectacular "Agave? Nah, man, I stay away from that stuff" story.

perhaps you are one of those people. In fact, next time I see one, I'll ask him (it's always him) if he drinks tequila any more.
posted by toodleydoodley at 6:20 PM on March 22, 2010

It's not the most likely possibility, but that could also be migraine symptoms. Migraines manifest in all sorts of ways (not necessarily including the traditional blinding pain and/or visual aura) and can have all sorts of triggers (often foods). I don't know if it's of any practical help for you to know if it's a migraine or not, but you could see if you have any other typical migraine symptoms or triggers. OTOH, if it is a migraine, I think the only legit medical advice you're likely to get is to avoid the trigger, which I assume you're doing anyway.

WRT terminology, I have a food “sensitivity”. Which is to say, it's not an allergy (not an immune reaction), it's not an intolerance (for some terminological reason I don't remember), but it makes me pretty miserable for a couple of days, and the catchall term appears to be “food sensitivity”. I usually just tell waiters that I “can't have” X, and reluctantly call it an allergy if I can't get the point across otherwise.
posted by hattifattener at 7:35 PM on March 22, 2010

I can speak only to the tertiary question, but here goes: I have a doctor-diagnosed intolerance to peanuts that isn't the (possibly anaphylactic) allergy but can cause real distress (intestinal blockage, end up in ER, not fun, expensive). In restaurants I say a variation of what chez shoes mentioned: "My doctor has told me to avoid eating anything with peanuts in it. Can you help me make sure that my meal here is completely free of peanuts? Thanks!" People have generally been very helpful, and mentioning my doctor's orders seems to get the point across well.

Good luck figuring out what's going on with your reactions. It really helped me to talk with a doctor and then an allergist who could figure out what was happening and help me learn the difference between allergies and intolerance, what that all meant for my eating choices.

On preview: my docs said that my condition is an intolerance because for whatever reason my body doesn't digest peanuts, and for whatever reason that causes bad problems in my GI system. It's different from an allergy as hattifattener says because it's not a reaction of the immune system. So while I don't eat peanuts and am careful to ask about them in restaurants, I don't worry about it the same way I would if I had the "wow, people die from this" allergy.
posted by stillwater at 7:52 PM on March 22, 2010

This sounds a little like ocular migraines or acephalic migraines to me. But then again, I get those, so I tend to suspect them everywhere! But the "funny visual symptoms" followed by a refractory period of exhaustion and headaches really says "some kind of migraine" to me.

I know what you mean about the watering down of the term "allergy." I have been guilty of saying "I'm allergic" when I just don't like something, but don't want to have A Big Conversation about it.

I think you could say "agave gives me migraines" and it would not be terribly far off, even if what's actually going on is different. People understand what a migraine is, and that it's a Very Bad Thing, and the phrase is specific enough that I think it would get through to your wait staff.
posted by ErikaB at 10:06 PM on March 22, 2010

If anything, toodleydoodley's description of what happens to (some) people who whack their agaves understates the general case:

The juice from many species of agave can cause acute contact dermatitis. It will produce reddening and blistering lasting one to two weeks. Episodes of itching may recur up to a year thereafter, even though there is no longer a visible rash. Irritation is, in part, caused by calcium oxalate raphides.

Calcium oxalate is a potent poison:

Even a small dose of calcium oxalate is enough to cause intense sensations of burning in the mouth and throat, swelling, and choking. In greater doses, however, calcium oxalate causes severe digestive upset, breathing difficulties and—if enough is consumed—convulsions, coma, and death. Recovery from severe oxalate poisoning is possible, but permanent liver and kidney damage may have occurred.

And if you happen to ingest even small amounts of a plant containing calcium oxide raphides-- as all parts of agaves do, according to a site I looked at but am not linking-- you could end up in the ER being treated for anaphylaxis:

Although this most likely will be a localized reaction, it will be treated by the ER as an anaphylactic reaction.

Now, does tequila typically contain oxalates? Yes, all liquors made from agave nectar apparently do:

A large collection (n = 95) of Mexican Agave spirits with protected appellations of origin (Tequila, Mezcal, Sotol, and Bacanora) was analyzed using ion and gas chromatography. Because of their production from oxalate-containing plant material, all Agave spirits contained significant concentrations of oxalate (0.1−9.7 mg/L).

What about agave syrup (aka nectar)? I think it certainly does initially, and I was unable to find any indication that anyone takes steps to remove it. A page set up by a manufacturer of agave sweetener mentions oxalate but never claims their product is free of it, and then goes on to say the syrup provides:

a high Calcium content (17% of your daily requirement per tablespoon).

In light of all this, I no longer think small_ruminant was experiencing (I get confused, irritable, and light headed. I see spots and get tunnel vision and I often get a buzzing noise in my head. I feel like I'm on the short road to passing out. When it's over I'm headache-y and exhausted. WTH?) low blood sugar, I think she was experiencing anaphylactic shock from exposure to calcium oxalate.

That would make it a true allergy, and a pretty dangerous one at that.

(And you were right, Devil's Advocate; that was an excellent insight, and I should have listened to you instead of getting defensive about my answer.)
posted by jamjam at 10:06 PM on March 22, 2010

jamjam: FWIW, your response didn't come across as "defensive" at all to me, simply raising a legitimate point. No apology necessary.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 8:39 AM on March 23, 2010

"Tertiary question: If it's not an allergy, what's a good way to refer to it to hosts and waitstaff that will emphasize how much I desire to avoid it. Sensitivity? Intolerance?"

I tend to say "I'm allergic to X" (even though I'm technically "merely" intolerant), though I'm thinking of starting to always add "... and not in the 'I just don't like the taste of it' kind of way" or "... I wouldn't ask otherwise -- this is important", since the results are too hit-and-miss otherwise.

On average, 90% of the time I'm perfectly fine when the waitstaff tells me the food will be fine (though this is surely often by luck). The remaining 10% of the time, the waitstaff will mislead you, because they either (a) know what you're referring to, but only bother to check one portion of your order, (b) know what you're referring to, but think you're one of those (terrible, terrible) people who fake having allergies, such that it doesn't matter what you're served, or (c) don't know what you're referring to, but pretend that they do, and make everything up as they go along.

The only trick to knowing you're most likely safe is in gauging the reaction of the waitstaff: if they reacts in an attentive manner and know what type you're referring to, you're set. If they bungle their way through an answer, you're no better off than you would be without their input.
posted by astrochimp at 6:18 PM on March 23, 2010

Thank you for your answers! I'm intrigued by the oxalate information. I have heard a lot of people say that being drunk on tequila is unlike being drunk on any other alcohol- maybe that's why?

Since it's in so many things these days (maybe it's because I live on Planet Alternative-Sweeteners) I wonder if I'll start hearing about more people with similar reactions. I hope so. I get a lot of incredulous looks when I mention it. It's the current golden child of sweeteners, seems like.
posted by small_ruminant at 10:57 AM on March 24, 2010

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