Allergic Reaction - Aggression

When Gary Mark Gilmore was asked why he impulsively and deliberately shot a motel manager in cold blood in 1976, all he could say was, ”I just felt like it. I felt like I was watching someone else do it,” In fact, Gilmore barely remembered the incident. Could Gary Gilmore’s aggressive behavior have been an allergic reaction?

Quite possibly. Kenneth E. Moyer, Ph.D., professor on psychology at Carnegie Mellon University, has seen many situations in which aggressive and sometimes violent behavior occurred after an individual ate specific foods to which he or she was allergic. And Dr. Moyer isn’t the only researcher to link aggression with allergies.

”Aggression as an allergic response is a well documented phenomenon that has been known to researchers since early in this century,” says Dr. Moyer in an article entitled ”The Physiology of Violence, Allergy and Aggression” (Psychology Today, July, 1975). Dr. Moyer suggest that aggressive behavior is triggered when the brain swells in response to allergens, just as the skin often becomes irritated on contact with an allergen.

”When this swelling occurs in an area of the brain that contains the nerve connections controlling aggression, the result can be immediate and dramatic,” Dr. Moyer continued. The individual usually becomes impulsive, combative, unruly, perverse and quarrelsome – a lot like Gary Gilmore, in fact.

Behavior that an individual would otherwise control take on a momentum of it's own. Not everyone with allergies is aggressive, obviously. In those who are, says Dr. Moyer, the intensity of the symptoms varies from mild irritability, in which the person is a little more easily annoyed than usual, to a psychotic aggressive reaction.

He cites a typical case: one ten year old girl experienced a prolonged asthma attack when exposed to alcohol. Several times during the reaction, she become extremely belligerent and tried to bite her mother, whom she did not even recognize. The variety of allergens that can produce aggressive behavior ranges from pollens and drugs to many foods, of which milk, chocolate, cola, corn and eggs are some of the most common, according to Dr. Moyer.

There is no easy way to test for allergy triggered aggression, says Dr. Moyer. ”The only definitive way to show that aggression and allergy are interrelated is to eliminate a suspected irritant from a person’s environment. If the symptoms disappear, the irritant is reintroduced to see if it provokes the expected aggressive behavior.”

Unfortunately, Mr. Gilmore is no longer around to benefit from allergy research. But if you have a tendency toward aggression and extreme edginess, controlling allergies may help you keep your cool. Because aggressive symptoms often overlap with hyperactive behavior and learning disabilities in children, or lead to criminal behavior in adolescents, we suggest that parents read the entries Criminal Behavior, Hyperactivity and Learning Disorders.