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Allergies and Anxiety

Daniel Sher, MA, Clin Psychology
Allergies and Anxiety

Allergies are a common condition affecting millions of Americans in various ways. Some people have mild allergies, consisting of a few sniffles when confronted with dust. Others experience profound and dangerous allergies, putting them at risk of death if they encounter the allergic substance.

Allergies are interesting, because even now more and more types of allergies are being discovered. Studies have shown that stress levels can actually increase allergy symptoms, and some foods that previously caused a bit of discomfort may actually be causing allergic reactions. There are also reasons to believe that allergies themselves can cause or contribute to your anxiety symptoms on a physical level.

Even if your allergies are contributing to your anxiety, there is plenty you can do to control it. Anxiety is still an emotional reaction despite a physical cause, so learning to control your anxious thought processes can still help you living a high quality of life.

The Relationship Between Allergies and Anxiety

The relationship between allergies and anxiety is complicated and not yet fully understood. Each person's body reacts differently, both to allergies and to anxiety, so it's difficult for researchers to pinpoint the causes and effects. However, there are several theories to explain the relationship between anxiety and allergies. 

  1. Certain allergies cause changes to the brain and body, which internally cause anxiety.
  2. Living with allergies causes stress and discomfort, which may cause people to develop anxiety.
  3. Allergies do not cause anxiety, but make anxiety worse.
  4. Allergies have no effect on anxiety, but anxiety makes allergies worse.
  5. Allergies and anxiety are independent of each other but may have some common condition between them, such as differences in immune system health.

Researchers have found that any one of these could potentially be true with regards to anxiety. But even more likely is that all of them are true to some extent; and are simply more or less pertinent for different people.

Allergies Causing Anxiety

Whether allergies can cause anxiety physically is still unclear. Some allergies, like food allergies, do appear to have a link. Those with gluten sensitivity or coeliac disease are more likely to have anxiety disorders, according to a study published in the World Journal of Gastroenterology. Other food allergies may also potentially contribute to anxiety, though "how" they do that is not entirely clear.

On the other hand, perhaps it is simply more likely that living with allergies puts stress on the body and mind. The coughing, the nose blowing - you encounter all types of allergies every day, from pollen, dust, medications, foods, and chemicals, and its possible they put stress on you and put stress on your body. All chronic stress has the potential to contribute to anxiety, and also reduce your quality of life (which also affects anxiety).

In this sense, allergies may be causing anxiety, but the specific reactions as a result of allergies are not the direct cause. Further, several studies link living with some allergies as anxiety-producing. Skin allergies appear more associated with anxiety, presumably because skin allergies are visible and those that have them experience fear and embarrassment when their allergies arise.

Anxiety Causing Allergies

Anxiety does not appear to cause allergies directly. But it does appear to have an effect on the severity of allergy attacks. Researchers at Ohio State University found that not only did allergy attacks become stronger when a person was going through significant anxiety and stress - they also lasted longer, often moving on to a second or third day after the initial attack is over.

During stress, the body releases cytokines, and cytokines have an effect on the severity of your allergy attacks. Furthermore, stress and anxiety may make it harder for the immune system to do its job properly, which may make normal allergic reactions worse.

Those suffering from this issue likely developed anxiety separately from their allergies, but their anxiety still affects their allergic reactions.

Both Affect Each Other

The most likely scenario - as is often the case with anxiety comorbidities - is that the two are independent, but affect each other. Allergy attacks likely make anxiety worse, because they cause an even poorer quality of life and physical symptoms that may contribute to further anxiety. Anxiety makes allergies worse by altering the immune system and releasing more allergy-triggering hormones. Together, they become a cyclical problem that may not stop without the right treatment.

How to Stop the Allergy/Anxiety Cycle

Allergies and anxiety need to be address separately. A doctor can talk to you about your options for reducing your daily allergies. Several over the counter medications are available, and most are enough for basic allergies. Food allergies need to be carefully assessed and managed according to the recommendations of a doctor, especially allergies to foods that contain gluten.

There are many possible treatment options for anxiety. Exercise is a simple but powerful way of managing your anxiety on your own. Therapy is also an option, although it may be expensive if you’re not covered for mental health care on your health insurance plan. Medicine should be taken as a last resort, especially if you are prone to allergic reactions - this is especially true of natural medicine, which can still cause allergies like any other and is often done without a doctor's supervision.

Article Resources
  1. Annesi-Maesano, I., Beyer, A., Marmouz, F., Mathelier-Fusade, P., Vervloet, D. and Bauchau, V. (2006), Do patients with skin allergies have higher levels of anxiety than patients with allergic respiratory diseases? Results of a large-scale cross-sectional study in a French population. British Journal of Dermatology, 154: 1128-1136. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2133.2006.07186.x
  2. Häuser, Winfried, et al. Anxiety and depression in adult patients with celiac disease on a gluten-free diet. World Journal of Gastroenterology: WJG 16.22 (2010): 2780 - 2787. 
  3. Thoren, C. ten, and F. Petermann. "Reviewing asthma and anxiety." Respiratory medicine 94.5 (2000): 409-415. 
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