On a Stress/Allergy Rollercoaster?
Studies Show the Two Are Connected
By Julie Williamson
I’m about to make my mom very happy: she was right all these years. See, ever since I was a little kid, she’s been claiming that my food allergy systems were exponentially worse whenever I was stressed or anxious. A test at school? That’d do it. A looming doctor appointment? Yep, that, too. A super-fun week at summer day camp, a slumber party at a friend’s house or our annual family outing at the amusement park? Yeah, even eager anticipation was sometimes read by my hypersensitive body as “stress” and would send me into a migraine-meets-digestive-hell tailspin. A full-body freefall. A runaway car on a seemingly endless track.
I face similar reactions as an adult, and my mom (and, now, my hubby) continue calling me out on the stress/allergy correlation. And they’re right: When my workload is crazier than normal or I’m going a mile a minute prepping and preparing for a big party, for example, my body goes haywire. Hard-to-kick headaches, stomach cramps, hives, itching, bloating, heartburn, inflammation, joint pain – they’re all the more prevalent when my food allergies/sensitivities and high stress loads collide. Those with seasonal/environmental allergies are also impacted by stress.
Turns out, there’s a science behind the madness. According to a study published in the American Journal of Pathology, psychological stress is believed to trigger inflammatory processes, including allergic reactions in the gut and other organs, and depression or anxiety may exacerbate symptoms in inflammatory disorders of the intestines.1The authors observed in an animal study that intestinal antigen uptake increases during chronic stress; this then sensitizes the host (our bodies) to mast cell-induced enteropathy on secondary exposure to the same antigen.1 In a nutshell, this means is that mast cells release histamine and cause inflammation when cross-linked with immunoglobulin E (IgE) receptors. When IgE binds to mast cells, a flood of allergic reactions can occur. This helps explain how allergies can worsen on subsequent exposure to the same antigen and how certain foods that previously caused no reaction seem to “flip” to an allergy or sensitivity practically overnight.
In keeping with numerous other studies, researchers Yang et al in the American Journal of Pathology study found a correlation between stress, allergies and gut permeability (also known as “leaky gut”). In particular, several studies have shown that children with allergies tend to harbor anaerobic bacteria in the gut and are less likely to be colonized with lactobacilli, when compared to nonallergic children. And when stress is present and, especially, chronic, it can erode the intestinal lining and perpetuate the inflammatory process, thereby leading to heightened reactions to food and other antigens. If this is left unchecked, it may contribute to a slew of other inflammatory conditions, including Crohn’s Disease, ulcerative colitis, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, multiple sclerosis and more.2
Those will seasonal/environmental allergies should also work to sideline stress. According to a study published in the April 2014 issue of Annals of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology, allergy sufferers with persistent stress experience more allergy flareups.3
Stress is practically ever present these days, but how we manage it can play a critical role in our health. If food-related reactions seem to have worsen, it’s wise to keep a detailed daily log of food and stress (Look! I created one for you!), making sure to note anything out of the ordinary that may have contributed to the heightened reaction (e.g., stress/anxiety triggers, such as long hours, pressing deadlines, day-long multitasking, poor food choices). It’s critical that we pay attention to how our bodies react to stress. Usually, our bodies give us many warning signs (rapid heart rate, stomach cramps, neck and shoulder tension, headaches, sweaty palms.…), but we often ignore them – and when we do, the body just keeps throwing out more red flags in an effort to get our attention (migraines, bowel disturbances, depressed mood, hives, decreased energy, poor sleep). At this point, our bodies stop flashing the yellow “warning” light and are now trying to smack us square between the eyes until we finally stop and say, “Hey, what’s going on here?!” The sooner we detect our body’s stress-related reactions, the sooner we can be on our way to reversing them.
Tips for calming the system
If you’re wondering how to fix this stress mess, rest assured, there are some simple things we can incorporate each day that can make a big difference. Studies show that exercise and meditation (how about both!?) can go a long way toward balancing the parasympathetic nervous system (the one responsible for digestion) with the sympathetic nervous system (the one that causes the “fight or flight” response). So it’s important for us allergy-addled people to get out there and take a walk, a quick dip in the pool or a pedal around the park (of course, if you’re plagued with environmental allergies and pollen counts are sky-high, you’ll probably want to exercise indoors). If you truly can’t help but be holed up in the office from wee hours to dusk (I’ve been there many times, so I can’t judge), take a 10-minute break to stretch, meditate and breathe (I mean REALLY breathe, not just this shallow, chest-barely-moves kind of inhaling/exhaling we tend to do way too often). Just straightening your posture (sitting or standing tall, as if someone’s pulling you upright by a string attached to the top of your help, with abdomen tucked in and shoulders back) and focusing on deep breathing – with a three- to five-second inhale through the nose and a long, controlled exhale through the mouth — can help us stay calm and centered.
Oh, and you probably knew this was coming: don’t underestimate the importance of a well-balanced diet. When we’re stressed, we often grab “comfort” foods (processed, greasy, salty or sugary “junk” that make us feel better in the moment, but then quickly causes our bodies to tank (discomfort food is more like it). Take it from me, that Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup, bag of greasy chips or bowl full of M&Ms is not your friend. It’s like a toxic mate that pumps you full of lies, leaves you in a lurch and then keeps you coming back from more like a glutton for punishment. Sugar, especially, is known to erode the intestinal lining, increase inflammation and directly contribute to mental and bodily stress. And if we’re knowingly or unknowingly consuming foods that cause allergic (IgE) or sensitivity (IgG) reactions, we’re just dropping a match on a powder keg. KABOOM!
It’s a vicious cycle that’s sometimes tough to break, I know. I’ve been on that rollercoaster more times than I’d care to admit, but when I pull myself back on track, it’s one amazing, feel-good ride – one that’s well worth the effort and price of admission.
- Buret AG. How Stress Induces Intestinal Hypersensitivity. American Journal of Pathology. Vol. 168, No. 1. January 2006. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1592668/
- Burtchell J. ‘Leaky Gut Syndrome’ Implicated in Multiple Sclerosis. September 25, 2014. Healthline News. http://www.healthline.com/health-news/leaky-gut-implicated-in-multiple-sclerosis-092514
- American College of Allergies, Asthma & Immunology. Want Spring Allergy Relief? Avoid Stress. April 2014. http://www.acaai.org/news/want-spring-allergy-relief-avoid-stress