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What is an allergy?

Wednesday April 7, 2021
What is an allergy?

In today’s modern society it seems we’re increasingly developing an allergic reaction to many natural and manmade substances around us. Be it animal fur, house dust mites, pollen – as we enter the hay fever season – our bodies’ immune systems are over-reacting. For some people, this can lead to the need for a significant change in their diet and lifestyle.

The list below shows the number of conditions caused by hypersensitivity of the immune system.


The most common include:

  • food allergies (eg gluten in wheat products)
  • sensitivity to grass, weed and tree pollen (hay fever) 
  • reactions to pet fur
  • dust mites 
  • latex
  • nickel 
  • household chemicals (including hand sanitisers)

Sound familiar? Here are common reactions to allergens:

  • itching
  • sneezing
  • wheezing
  • rashes
  • swelling of facial features
  • soreness
  • red eyes
  • digestive pain

However in more serious cases, this can lead to life threatening conditions such as severe asthma and anaphylactic shock. If anaphylaxis is suspected, medical treatment should be sought.

What is an allergy?

An allergy is a reaction which involves the immune system, to a substance or food that is not normally harmful to the body. During an allergic response, the body will activate white blood cells to fight the ‘invader’. When contact with the allergen occurs again, the immune system will respond by releasing antibodies and histamine which triggers the symptoms of allergies. 

Histamine is an organic nitrogenous compound made by the immune system from the amino acid histidine. The release of histamine and other inflammatory mediators from mast cells and basophils is involved in the cause of acute allergic and inflammatory responses.

Mast cells are found in the highest concentrations in the body, in the blood vessels of the respiratory tract, conjunctiva, gastrointestinal tract, and the skin. Following contact with an allergen, the body will often respond with inflammation as a method of protecting itself from the threat.  This activity can have negative effects on health as allergic responses such as hay fever (allergic rhinitis) and allergic dermatitis.

The onset of an allergic response such as hay fever is not just the discomfort of the symptoms but can leave you feeling drained and lethargic, subsequently it can affect mood.  As the allergic response itself requires a lot of energy from the body to produce.  

The difference between sensitivities and intolerances

Sensitivities and intolerances are different to allergies. Although they may show similar symptoms, allergies involve a specific response from the immune system. On the other hand sensitivities or intolerances do not result in the release of antibodies by the immune system. Whereas sensitivities to objects or elements found in our everyday environment can affect quality of life but are less severe than allergies.

Anaphylaxis is a severe allergic response which can affect the whole body with a rapid onset from exposure to the allergen, the most well-known allergen to cause anaphylaxis is peanuts, which can trigger breathing difficulties, extreme inflammation, swelling and even death.

What causes an allergic reaction?

Allergies are considered a 20th/21st century phenomenon. Although the exact cause of allergic reactions is unknown, some researchers believe it is increased chemical pollution in the air and water supply that cause damage to our internal gut barrier and in turn cause inflammation and allergic diseases[i].

This alongside increased use of synthetic additives and preservatives in our food maybe contributing to the rising levels of allergies seen in the UK and Europe.

In addition, levels of allergic compounds in food appear to have changed through the ages. There is evidence to suggest that wheat flour historically contained much less gluten compared to flour we use today.[ii] This maybe a leading cause of the rising incidence of gluten sensitivity and coeliac disease seen in today.

What causes allergies in children?

Evidence suggests there is a genetic factor with allergies whereby children born in families where both parents suffer with allergies, are more likely to suffer themselves[iii]. This suggests instances of hay fever in children can occur,  if both parents have an allergy to pollen.

Am I allergic?

Blood tests can assist by checking for the presence of specific antibodies in response to an allergen. Skin patch tests are used to investigate allergic skin conditions. When it comes to food allergies and intolerances, elimination diets have proven helpful in determining what substance is the cause of negative reaction.

What will the GP recommend?

Antihistamine medication is most commonly recommended or prescribed to relieve the symptoms of allergies, however in serious cases steroid medication may be prescribed.

They work by reducing inflammation associated with an allergic reaction. Anti-histamines are frequently purchased as over-the-counter medication and assist by preventing histamine from binding to our cells and causing a reaction. However, both types of medication are associated with side effects such as weight gain, hypertension, drowsiness and nausea. Never suddenly stop taking medication without consulting with your health practitioner.

Helpfully, there is a wealth of dietary and lifestyle advice as well as research into nutritional supplements that can offer relief for chronic and seasonal allergic reactions, without the side-effects commonly experienced with prescribed medications or over-the-counter pharmaceuticals.

Author: Aimee Benbow, BSc (Hons), MSc, ANutr. is Technical Director at Viridian Nutrition.


 [i] Fukuoka A, Yoshimoto T. Barrier dysfunction in the nasal allergy. Allergol Int. 2018 Jan;67(1):18-23. doi: 10.1016/j.alit.2017.10.006. Epub 2017 Nov 14.Review.

[ii] Van den Broeck, H. C., de Jong, H. C., Salentijn, E. M. J., Dekking, L., Bosch, D., Hamer, R. J., … Smulders, M. J. M. (2010). Presence of celiac disease epitopes in modern and old hexaploid wheat varieties: wheat breeding may have contributed to increased prevalence of celiac disease. TAG. Theoretical and Applied Genetics. Theoretische Und Angewandte Genetik, 121(8), 1527–1539.

[iii] Yilmaz-Demirdag Y, Prather B, Bahna SL. Does heredity determine the allergy manifestation or the sensitisation to a specific allergen? Allergol Immunopathol (Madr). 2010 Mar-Apr;38(2):56-9. doi: 10.1016/j.aller.2009.07.003. Epub 2009 Oct 22.

The information contained in this article is not intended to treat, diagnose or replace the advice of a health practitioner. Please consult a qualified health practitioner if you have a pre-existing health condition or are currently taking medication. Food supplements should not be used as a substitute for a varied and balanced diet.


TAGS: NewsAllergy, Hay fever, Pollen


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