We shine a spotlight on the latest research and provide tips for calming your mind and nourishing your body to counter the harmful allergy-anxiety cycle.
Having an allergy can be a stressful business. Nearly half of allergy sufferers live in a state of fear over a potentially fatal reaction, according to a recent report, and people with allergies generally tend to feel more anxious than non-sufferers, because of the impact their condition has on their lifestyle.
But many of us don’t know that stress can actually make allergies worse. It’s a vicious circle, with allergy symptoms and health worries causing stress, while stress levels increase the severity of allergic reactions.
How allergies cause stress
It’s not just the worst-case scenario of fatal anaphylactic shock that affects stress levels: food allergy can impact on everyday lives and affect our health in many ways. The daily strain of avoiding an ingredient – constantly checking labels, planning ahead and cooking the majority of meals from scratch – can wear a person down. Research shows adults and children with allergies feel restricted and unable to enjoy life to the same extent as those who are allergy-free. Many allergy sufferers find that fear of suffering a reaction puts a hold on socialising. Over half of people with allergies avoid meeting with friends and 21 per cent say it stops them forming relationships. Missing out on opportunities to bond can ultimately lead to psychological conditions like depression and anxiety.
If allergy symptoms are causing you to feel physically unwell, then you’re also likely to feel emotionally down. There’s a strong link between our physical and our mental health, making it yet more likely that allergy sufferers will feel stressed due to their condition.
Can anxiety worsen allergic symptoms?
Experts are now looking at the other side of the coin: the effect that stress has on allergy symptoms. Scientists have found that allergy attacks can become stronger – and last longer – when a person is going through significant anxiety and stress. (Researchers suggest that stress hormones may stimulate the production of antibodies causing allergic reactions.)
This scenario will cause extra problems if your food allergy causes digestive issues, thanks to the interplay between our brain and stomach. As anyone who’s felt ‘sick with nerves’ or had ‘butterflies’ due to anxiety will know, psychological factors can negatively affect our gut.
So, with stress leading to more severe allergic episodes, and causing pain and inflammation in the stomach, people with food allergies are being hit with a double whammy of worsening symptoms when they’re under pressure.
Beating the cycle
The first step in tackling food allergies is a proper diagnosis and then avoiding problem foods. This will minimise reactions, but can also help your health generally. For instance, if you’re allergic to gluten but are still eating it, your body may not be able to absorb nutrients properly; studies show that vitamin and mineral deficiencies are common among newly diagnosed coeliacs.
If you’re following a restricted diet, it’s also important to get advice to ensure that you’re not missing out on important nutrients. As we’ve already seen, poor physical health can lead to poor emotional health.
Diet can play a part in helping to lower stress, too. Magnesium (found in leafy greens and nuts) is important for our psychological health and for reducing tiredness and fatigue. Or why not double up the stress-busting effects of magnesium with a relaxing bath? Studies show that adding Epsom salts to your tub increases the levels of magnesium in your body. It may also be worth eating ‘live’ foods containing friendly bacteria. Current research is looking at whether these can help reduce anxiety.
A healthy diet and avoiding your allergens can do wonders for your health. In combination with some stress-busting mindfulness or exercise, you can break the allergy-anxiety cycle.