I Thought I Was Allergic To Exercise — Until I Discovered This Rare Condition

The answer was actually hiding in my diet
exercise allergy

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I eat gluten painlessly. I indulge in lactose-filled desserts without digestive distress. And due to my disproportionate love of peanut butter, I’m frequently grateful to have avoided a peanut allergy. I’m lucky enough not to be allergic to any food, pollen or creature. (Except for bees. I hate bees.) But every now and then during a tough workout or a run outside, I will suddenly break out into an itchy, awful rash. Cute, right? Not so much. When an antihistamine was the only thing that worked to provide relief, I could think of only one logical answer: I was allergic to exercise.

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You might think this allergy was a welcome excuse to skip the gym, but I hated it. Not only do I genuinely enjoy working out, but I am also a fitness instructor. Exploding into a red puffball in front of 30-plus people? No, thank you. And the first time the hives struck, that was exactly what happened.

I stuck it out through the rest of class, doing jumping jacks and wracking my brain as to what triggered the reaction. Nothing I’d eaten was out of the ordinary, I hadn’t used a new laundry detergent, and there were no bees in sight; I was stumped. The hives faded, I shrugged it off, and I moved on.

A few weeks later, they struck again. Then again. I grew to expect these random outbreaks, feeling apprehensive and anxious every time I worked up a sweat. Exercising was my job, and the reactions themselves were worsening.

On one occasion, my throat began to close and my ears puffed up. On another, I had to sprint home to shower and pass out after a hefty dose of Benadryl. It was so frustrating. I worked out all the time. What made those days so special?

It wasn’t until I quit teaching regularly and started exercising first thing in the morning that these breakouts stopped.

Then out of nowhere, the hives struck again. It had been a year and a half since I'd been affected by the strange reaction, and I thought I was in the clear. But there I was, covered in hives. I rushed to the bathroom to run cold water over my skin in a frantic attempt to cool down and keep the rash from spreading. I was anxious. I hadn't brought Benadryl and was over an hour away from home. What if my throat closed again? 

Luckily, my friend Caitie, a registered dietitian, was there to help me. We had been teaching a class for a local nonprofit together when I had the reaction and ran out in a panic. She made sure everything in the class was OK before finding me to ask what was wrong. I was shaking and puffy, murmuring about how she shouldn’t worry — it was just an allergy. I didn't want to ditch the class completely. I just needed to take a break.

Oddly and fortunately enough, Caitie’s gym bag was fully stocked with maximum-strength antihistamines. It turns out I wasn't alone in this painful condition. She had experienced the same mysterious allergy I had — only, thanks to her graduate studies in nutrition, she actually knew what it was.

Caitie and I both suffer from something called “wheat-dependent, exercise-induced anaphylaxis.” It’s a mouthful. Research hasn’t caught up with why it happens, but basically, it means we may have a gluten allergy that is only triggered when paired with exercise. Gluten on its own? Totally fine. Gluten before a HIIT workout? Bad news.

Lo and behold, that very morning I had eaten a bagel. And it’s likely I had eaten something glutenous prior to those other workouts as well. It would explain the intermittent nature of the allergy; this diagnosis would also explain its disappearance once I started working out before dawn. I was safe because I didn’t eat breakfast beforehand.

I know, I know — this sounds like something a bunch of millennials made up out of a fear of bread. I would have thought that, too. But I would never let some half-baked millennial food fear ruin bagels for me. If you know me, you know I hate diet trends and actually go out of my way to debunk myths about gluten quite regularly.

In this case though, I’m a believer. The American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology has a page on its website dedicated to this condition. Research on it is somewhat preliminary, since in-depth studies weren't enabled until a test for the wheat protein was created in 2016. Diagnosis is also rare in part because awareness of the condition is so low and in part because according to this study done on the condition, diagnosis entails a number of lengthy tests. It would be great for me to consult a doctor in a professional medical setting about getting a diagnosis. In general, I think self-diagnosing is dangerous. But access to medical care is difficult and expensive, and for me, it's easier to just stop eating bread before I go work out. Based on my experience so far, cutting out gluten before exercise did the trick. I haven't had a reaction since.

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I also wish someone had told me all this before I started working out. Before you get started at the gym, here are some important things you should know.