If you look at the media and in health food shops you’d be under the impression that the majority of the population in the UK has a severe allergy or intolerance.
Just the other day on the escalator on London Underground I saw a poster for the Allergy Show – a whole show just related to various things to help with allergies – I’m sure that we’d never have thought of this 15 years ago.
So what’s going on – do we all now just have more reactive immune systems, is it lifestyle, environment, stress?
To start with we need to look at the difference between what is an actual allergy and what is an intolerance.
An allergy is considered a disorder of the immune system – and is a quick response. Our immune system is quite complex, with many different soldiers within it – these are all there to protect our bodies from attack. On occasion the immune system is confronted by something we would normally consider harmless but it sees it as an attacker (this is called an allergen). The response to this is predictable and fast. Certain white blood cells and a type of antibody called IgE is activated and causes an inflammatory reaction, releasing chemicals called histamines. These histamines are responsible for the classic allergy signs of sneezing, itching, running nose, rash etc. In the worst case they can also cause swelling of the respiratory system and airways, which can create anaphylactic shock. An example is hayfever or nut allergy.
Diagnosis isn’t always straightforward, but will often require blood tests and skin reaction tests, where the very specific IgE antibody related to a particular allergen is tested. So often it can be a matter of doing a variety of these IgE antibody tests to find what the cause is. Sometimes the cause is very clear.
An intolerance is harder to diagnose and is very different from an allergy. These symptoms can be much slower to show and may take hours to days. Most intolerances that are mentioned and tested for are food related intolerances, and are thought to be due to not having the correct digestive enzymes – however there may be other reasons too.
Diagnosis for intolerances is even more difficult than for allergies. The main way to find out if there is an intolerance is to try the elimination diet. So that means removing the suspected food from the diet to see if symptoms improve and then re-introducing it to see if the symptoms then return.
Some firms offer to do a blood antibody test and in this case it is antibody IgG rather than IgE that they are looking at. However, it’s important to note that IgG antibodies are the most common antibodies we have are they are part of the immune system that fights diseases and infections caused by bacteria, fungi and viruses. And through recent research it has been found that there is no direct link between our IgG levels and showing intolerances to foods – especially as our IgG antibody level vary daily depending on what we’ve eaten for several days.
But why am I allergic or intolerant?
So what is the cause of the increase in allergies and intolerances in the UK, and what can be done about it? Sadly, there is no firm evidence to show exactly why this has occurred, but one line of thought is that we are less exposed to germs and bacteria when we’re babies and children so our immune system is able to mature and then falsely attacks innocent things. Also our internal bacteria, many of which help us, has been altered or declined. The overuse of antibacterial cleansers, soaps and so on, combined with children not playing outside as much seems to have added to this.
BBC Horizon have run a few programmes related to the rise in allergies and the causes – in 2008 and in 2014. These showed lots of new research being conducted on the subject and that it seemed to be linked in with over hygiene and low exposure to bacteria.
So what should you do if you suspect an allergy or intolerance?
My advice is to keep a diary of your symptoms for a few weeks making note of everything you have eaten or been exposed to. See if you can see a pattern, but even if you can’t keep this handy. Then speak with your GP to start with, giving them a copy of this diary and listing all your specific symptoms. If you suspect an allergy they should be able to organise the specific IgE blood test or skin tests. If you suspect an intolerance then with your GP work to eliminate certain food groups until you find the culprit. You can also speak with a trained nutritionist or naturopath who is trained to work with allergies. The Allergy UK helpline and website are also a good source where you can find details of your nearest allergy clinics to get private testing done.
What I would definitely suggest you don’t do is a home testing kit. These kits have been shown to be expensive and inaccurate, leading to misleading information and advice. Some kits test for the wrong antibodies or then the firm will ask for more money to get a full report. They don’t have trained personnel to interpret the findings either. For these sorts of tests it’s always best to go via a trained expert.
Coeliac disease is neither an allergy or an intolerance, it is an auto-immune condition and must be diagnosed and treated by a doctor
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