More than half the UK adult population (53 per cent) now suffers from an allergy, and researchers recently suggested that everyone could have an allergic condition by the year 2030!
The reason why is not fully understood, but probably relates to our increased exposure to chemicals and pollutants (including cigarette smoke), changes in our diet, excessive use of antibiotics and increased attention to hygiene. These last two factors reduce our exposure to beneficial bacteria that help to prime our immunity against allergic responses.
Researchers recently found, for example, that children growing up on farms have fewer allergies because they are exposed to more bacteria than other children. Around one in eight people is also thought to have an inherited tendency towards allergies, known as atopy, which increases the risk of developing asthma, eczema, hayfever, and sometimes food allergies, too.
One of the best ways to stay allergy-free is to avoid the causative allergen(s) - assuming you can identify them. This is rarely easy, however, and in many cases, avoidance is impractical. Several dietary and alternative approaches are available however.
Allergic inflammatory conditions such as asthma and eczema have been linked with an imbalance of dietary fats. Ideally, we need a balanced intake of omega-3 fatty acids derived from fish oils and of omega-6s derived from vegetable oils, but the average UK diet now provides seven times more omega-6s than omega-3s. Eating more fish may be beneficial, or try taking supplements containing a good balance of omega-3s such as fish, flaxseed or hemp seed oil.
Eat plenty of fruit and vegetables, as those with high levels of antioxidants (especially vitamins E and C) seemed to have the lowest risk of asthma. High dose vitamin C and bioflavonoids (found in citrus fruits, blackcurrants and rosehips) also have a natural antihistamine action.
Exposure to bacteria helps the immune system to mature, and friendly probiotic digestive bacteria (eg lactobacilli) normally found in the gut can reduce the effects of childhood allergic reactions to milk protein and improve symptoms such as diarrhoea. Giving a probiotic supplement to infants with atopic eczema and cow's milk allergy (or to their mothers if breastfeeding) has been shown to significantly improve infant eczema during the study period. Probiotic capsules (eg Culturelle), fermented milk drinks (eg Yakult, Actimel) and non-dairy, fruit based probiotic drinks (eg ProViva) are now widely available from chemists, health stores and supermarkets.
Aloe vera helps to reduce inflammation. Weleda's Rhinodoron Nasal Spray contains aloe vera gel in an isotonic saline solution and is designed to clear stuffy noses, flush out pollen and reduce itch. It is available from independent health stores, pharmacies, mail order (tel: 0115 9448222) or from weleda.co.uk.
Extracts of the traditional Chinese herbal remedy for allergies, Perilla frutescens, are now available in the UK to reduce sneezing and runny nose due to hayfever - 85 per cent of those taking them finding them effective. Allermin is available from Omni Nutraceuticals (tel: 01480 406700).
Several products now contain Butterbur (eg Bioforce Petaforce capsules - for stockists phone 01294 277344). Butterbur reduces allergies such as hayfever, with a recent study involving 131 people showing it was as effective as an over-the-counter antihistamine (cetirizine) but without the latter's side effects of drowsiness and fatigue.
Another herbal remedy, Luffa Complex, is widely available in healthfood stores and contains seven plant extracts that relieve hayfever symptoms in 75% of people taking it.
Redbush tea (rooibos) made from the leaves of a South African shrub and has an anti-allergy activity. It is widely available in supermarkets and healthfood stores, via mail order (Tel: 0845 6012658) or from redbushtea.com.
A homeopath can recommend individually prescribed anti-allergic remedies. Chrome alum is sometimes recommended as a preventative against hayfever, for example, while Pollens C30 can reduce symptoms once they have started.
Several aromatherapy oils are helpful against allergies, including chamomile and melissa. A lovely anti-pollen blend containing lemon, eucalyptus and Roman chamomile essential oils is available from Senses Fragrance Therapy (Tel: 01424 219290).
If you think you have a serious allergy, always consult your doctor. You can also contact the British Allergy Foundation (Tel: 0208 303 8583) and The British Society for Allergy Environmental and Nutritional Medicine (Tel: 0906 3020010) whose members are doctors with a specific interest in this field.