Yeast. Legion eukaryota responsible for bread and beer and wine. They’re quite literally everywhere. In the water you just drank. In the food you just ate. I don’t mean to alarm you, but you’re probably breathing some into your mouth and lungs right now.
Normally, that’s no big deal. Our bodies love to play host to microorganisms, especially bacteria and other single-celled-soldiers that keep our homeostasis all homey and stasis-y. To a healthy, balanced body, neither the infection causing candida albicans nor our beloved saccharomyces cerevisiae pose much of a physical threat. Despite populations beyond count, yeast aren’t exactly challenging ebola and influenza for the title of “most dangerous tiny thing in the world.”
When we write and talk about beer and wine, lose ourselves in the revelry of recording good times, it’s easy to forget there are quite a few people out there who don’t drink. Some abstain for moral or religious reasons. Others, while it may seem baffling to me and my kin, legitimately don’t like the taste of alcoholic beverages. Others simply grew up in households without, and as adults, hold a casual indifference towards libatious sorts.
And then there are those who love beer and wine, and would drink it if only they could. Those unfortunate souls who have developed a yeast allergy. Not an alcohol intolerance (which is bad, but not nearly as miserable), but a full-fledged histamine reaction to yeast. They’re the real victims in this crazy kettle of fermented life; willing but not medically able, banished from enjoying pales ales or sandwiches or any products spiked with nutritional yeast, lest they incur the wrath of the anaphylactic gods.
Yeast allergies can be serious and life threatening (like allergies to nuts and bee stings) but they generally present through the antibodies IgG (Immunoglobulin G), which slowly build up sensitivity to certain foods over years of exposure. IgG allergies sneak and snake through your system, presenting very subtly, and getting worse over time. There’s also no (known) genetic marker for a yeast allergy, so in theory, anyone could develop one at any time.
As a beer lover who has woven brewing into the fabric of his being, that’s sort of terrifying.
The symptoms are bad enough: sudden weight gain, complete lack of alcohol tolerance, frequent headaches, dehydration, sometimes even dermal rashes. Worse are the treatments: there are none. Well, no medications. The only real remedy is to avoid foods that contain yeast.
Sounds simple enough, right? Stop drinking beer and wine. There will be a ten minute period where you’re completely inconsolable, but hey, life goes on.
But much like aspartame and high fructose corn syrup have dastardly crawled into more products than expected, yeast can be found in many things you might not have imagined. Cheese fan? Bleu and brie both contain large amounts of yeast. Pretty much all leavened bread? Yeast-city. Many restaurants season broths and soups with yeast, and “nutritional” yeast is a staple in some vegetarian and vegan dishes. Suddenly eating becomes a game of gastrointestinal Russian-roulette, hoping yeast isn’t in the chamber when you pull the dinner-trigger.
It may seem trivial, as yeast allergies constitute a very small percentage of all allergies suffered in the United States. But new research suggests that yeast allergies and intolerance can be linked to celiac disease, the very real and very serious immunological monster that spawned the gluten-free food craze. It’s entirely possible many people who do not have diagnosed celiac but do feel better when they avoid products with gluten – breads, beer, cereal grains – are partially recovering because they’re limiting their exposure to yeast. Both cause your body to reject certain proteins, both present with somewhat similar symptoms.
All medical woes aside, the allergy can also have social impacts for the sufferer. Fellow writer Sheryl Rivett suffers from a yeast allergy she developed in 2007. After years of being a social drinker, her newly developed allergy forced her to dramatically change her lifestyle:
“I’ve found that people often react as if you’re a recovered alcoholic or a teetotaler or even a wet blanket. It can be awkward to explain, “I’m allergic, but please enjoy one for me!” There is such a social element to drinking. Some friends were so uncomfortable with our lack of social drinking that they stopped inviting us to events…I could choose to just drink wine and beer, but I’d weigh an extra 20-30 pounds, I’d never sleep, and my GI system would be my worst enemy.”
The relatively innocuous allergy even changed her plans for the future:
“In the beginning, I had hope that I would one day travel with my husband to Italy or France and drink wine. I still really love the image of the two of us sitting at a Parisian café with glasses of wine in our hands. But as I’ve faced additional health challenges, I’ve come around to embracing a full, healthy life without alcohol…My philosophy, coming through these changes, is that life is to be enjoyed; the trick is to figure out what that life looks like for you specifically. And in my case, it means learning new ways of enjoying life and social situations.”
Yeast allergies don’t command much attention in the medical media, but they’re a serious reality for a lot of people, even if not because of immediate, mortal consequences. Having to remove beer and wine (it should be noted that distilled spirits contain no yeast, so they’re still fair game) from one’s lifestyle may be easier on paper than in practice. It may mean a radical change in behavior and diet. It may mean completely changing activities and groups of friends. It may even mean rebooting what you consider fun, realigning your life in a way that involuntarily but necessarily shuns fermentation.
The good news, as I noted, is that even if you do develop a yeast allergy at some point, you can still drink scotch.
(It may interest the more beery folks to know that the bacteria, Lactobacillus acidophilus [the same bacteria that makes some sour beers sour], helps to naturally balance the amount of yeast in our bodies. Sheryl noted that she can eat sourdough without much problem, a bread made with a heaping scoopful of lactobacillus. It also helps facilitate lactose digestion, so if you’re lactose intolerant [like me], it’s basically the most glorious bacteria in the world.)