Allergies in the UK have reached epidemic proportions
…according to the House of Lords’ Science and Technology Committee’s report on the subject. The UK has one of the highest incidences of allergy, and about a third of us will develop one at some point in our lives. The most common childhood allergies are cow’s milk, egg, peanut, soy, wheat and fish, whereas in adults peanuts, tree nuts, fish and shellfish provoke the most reactions.
Allergies can be described as ‘overreactions’ of the immune system. The immune system is a highly complex and interrelated network of cells and mucous membranes within the body. Over 80% of the immune system is found in the intestines, as our ability to tolerate and absorb food relies on us recognising harmless substances and getting rid of harmful ones. When, for still largely unknown reasons, the immune system is compromised, it can respond inappropriately, triggering unpleasant and, in some cases, life-threatening symptoms. Food allergies are most frequent during the first 3 years of life and contributing factors include genetic inheritance, environmental challenges, a disturbed gut flora and an abnormally permeable gut membrane.
Billions of bacteria form a fine paste on the inside of the intestines. Ingested material passes through this thin bacterial layer which has the job of altering and filtering food molecules. When the layer is no longer intact, the ability of our intestinal mucous membranes to absorb or reject food becomes compromised. Large, incompletely digested food molecules are able to penetrate the gut membrane and enter the bloodstream, triggering allergy symptoms. It is therefore important to restore bacterial flora and the delicate intestinal mucous membrane in allergic patients.
It’s also important to realise that not all reactions to food are allergies. Some people suffer from food intolerances which (unlike food allergies) don’t directly involve the immune system. They occur when we don’t produce enough of a particular enzyme or chemical to digest certain substances. Examples include lactose intolerance and reactions to salicylates, lectins, monosodium glutamate, amines and sulphites in food. Symptoms can be debilitating and include gut problems, fatigue, skin rashes, mood swings and headaches. As these can be delayed rather than immediate, it’s tricky trying to establish a link between the offending food and symptoms.
Foods Matter magazine supports anyone living with allergies or those on a ‘free-from’ diet. For more information visit www.foodsmatter.com.
© 2011 Martina Watts MSc Nut Med, First Published Brighton Argus November 2007