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Brain Body Well ~ Natural & Lifestyle Medicine / Digestive Wellness / Mental Health

10 Ways Allergies Cause Anxiety

Whether you suffer from asthma, eczema, hayfever, seasonal allergies or food reactions, you may have noticed that allergies and sensitivities of any kind, can really affect your mental health.  Research supports this idea too. It’s been found for example that those with eczema and asthma are significantly more likely to have anxiety and depression as well.

Allergy symptoms and anxiety symptoms can also be so similar that they cross over.

Symptoms like;

  • Dizziness
  • Breathing problems
  • Nausea
  • Sweating
  • Increased heart rate
  • Tingling sensations

Many of these symptoms can be a result of asthma, a food allergy or a panic attack. Because of this we can sometimes have trouble telling the difference between an allergic reaction and anxiety. It’s even been suggested that when no medical cause of an allergy can be found, a psychiatric diagnosis should be considered instead. In other words, if your allergic reaction doesn’t show up on paper, you may be treated as an anxiety or other mental health patient rather.

However the link between allergies and mental health goes beyond just the confusion of common symptoms. It's definitely deeper than that. Having allergies and sensitivities can impact our moods and mental health in many ways. This includes both psychological as well as physical influences.

Here are 10 ways allergies can cause anxiety and influence our mental health.

1. Allergies are Stressful

Let’s start by stating the obvious. Having allergies can be stressful and anxiety provoking. Going through an asthma attack or an anaphylactic reaction can be especially traumatic and can even lead to post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).  If you live with allergies and sensitivities to particular foods or environmental substances it's also common to experience increased hypervigilance in your daily life by having to think so much about everything you or a child eats. With the amount of eating we do in a day, it’s no wonder that this leaves us feeling stressed out and anxious.

In fact we are training our brains to become more “threat aware” as we practice careful planning of meals, checking every ingredient label, querying how foods are made at restaurants and take aways and carefully inspecting all food we are given. Of course we have to do this, but the side effect often is more hypervigilance and more anxiety.

2. The Body-Mind Effect

Did you know that simply changing your posture and body language can alter your emotional and mental state? So, for example, whether you are slouching right now or sitting up straight, can directly affect how confident you feel, and even how much cortisol (stress hormone) you are producing. Our body learns by association and it's pretty amazing isn’t it?

A similar process may happen when we experience physical allergy symptoms like "increased heart rate" or "shortness of breath". Just as our body associates “standing up straight” with confidence and calm, and responds as if we are feeling that way, our body may also interpret physical allergy symptoms like shallow breathing, as fear and respond as if we are feeling that way.  We can also develop and deepen these associations over time if we repeatedly experience high levels of stress and anxiety when we are exposed to a particular allergen or allergy symptom.

3. A Threat is a Threat

It may not matter whether a threat comes in the form of a food you’ve eaten, a pollen you’ve inhaled, or a hungry bear you've encountered in the woods. Your brain and body may respond in a similar way. What we know from research is that all sensory information coming from inside and outside the body, is monitored by the amygdala, a part of the brain involved in activating the "fight or flight response". 

Physical anxiety and panic attacks are the result of this survival response which triggers a surge of adrenaline, increased heart rate, rapid breathing, shaking and many other physical changes. What's more, the amygdala monitors unconscious information, including the presence of toxic or threatening substances. So we may not need to be aware that we have been exposed to a "threatening" allergen in order for the body to respond with a fight or flight response. Ever woken up from sleep with a panic attack? An exposure to an allergen or "toxic" substance could be one reason for this phenomena.

4. Breathing and Oxygenation

Whether you suffer from asthma or nasal congestion, when you can’t breathe properly it can affect your mood and mental health. Those with nasal congestion are more likely to experience sleep problems including insomnia, snoring and sleep apnoea. Nocturnal breathing issues such as snoring and sleep apnoea are associated with a much higher risk of depression. Changes in oxygen and carbon dioxide levels have also been found to trigger panic attacks in susceptible people. This means that allergies that affect breathing and oxygen or CO2 levels could trigger panic and anxiety in this way.

5. Pain and disability

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that when we are in pain it affects our mood and mental wellbeing. Allergies can cause pain, whether it’s headaches, migraines, sinus pain or stomach aches.  When we are in pain, we don’t feel good. Research confirms this too and chronic pain conditions like migraines are associated with more depression and anxiety. Pain associated with allergies is not only distressing, it can take away from our ability to function and enjoy life. When allergies affect our ability to work, to do the things we want to do and to experience pleasure, this impacts our quality of life and takes away from our mental wellbeing.

6. That Irritating Itch

A very common symptom of allergies is itching, whether it's itchy skin, eyes, throat, ears or an itchy nose.  Have you ever felt very itchy and very calm at the same time? Feeling itchy makes us feel more irritable and agitated as well! Constant itching can make difficult for us to relax and sleep properly, especially if itching gets worse at night. Those who suffer from hayfever can also experience a prickling sensation in the nasal passages similar to itch, which is equally irritating. In short being itchy all the time can be exhausting and can really take a toll on mood and mental wellbeing.

7. Sleep Deprivation

Allergies are chronic conditions that can really disrupt the quality and the quantity of our sleep.  Whether it's itching, asthma, nasal congestion, stomach pain or discomfort, keeping us up, poor sleep will chip away at mental health overtime. In fact sleep deprivation can increase our risk of depression and anxiety as much as two fold.  The role of sleep in brain and mental health makes sense when we consider newer research suggesting that our brains are "washed" by waves of cerebrospinal fluid when we enter deep sleep.

8. Inflammation and Mood

Chronic allergies can cause ongoing inflammation in the body. We also know that inflammation is associated with low mood and anxiety. When we are inflamed our body produces pro-inflammatory messengers called "cytokines" which directly affect how we feel and how we behave. Increases in pro-inflammatory cytokines have been associated with symptoms like sleep problems, fatigue, general anxiety, changes in appetite and withdrawal from other people and activities. In fact an existing theory, called the “cytokine hypothesis”, suggests that this process may play a key role in mental illness. One way inflammation may affect mental health is by blocking the activity of important brain chemicals. This includes blocking serotonin, which helps us to feel good and sleep soundly, as well as GABA, a calming neurotransmitter that helps us to relax and sleep as well.

When we are sick with the flu we produce the same inflammatory messengers which cause us to engage in sickness behaviour, such as not eating, sleeping and staying away from people and our usual activities. This has a useful function in helping us to heal and avoid spreading sickness to other people, however when we are chronically inflamed because of ongoing allergies and sensitivities, this can also mean chronic feelings of depression and anxiety.

9. Histamine and Anxiety

When we react to foods, pollens, moulds or any type of allergen, we produce large amounts of histamine. Histamine is also a neurotransmitter which simulates the brain and helps us stay alert and awake. Too much histamine in the brain can lead to symptoms like overstimulation, heart palpitations, anxiety, panic attacks, insomnia and even poor appetite. Histamine is likely to be a key player in the link between allergies and anxiety.

10. Classical Conditioning

Finally, while not technically a way that allergies cause anxiety, one of the most interesting ways that allergies and anxiety are linked is through classical conditioning. Many years ago a man called Ivan Pavlov demonstrated classical conditioning by repeatedly exposing a dog to the sound of a bell before giving it food. Eventually the dog learned to salivate when he heard the bell alone.  This process of learning to respond in a certain way, to a particular substance or stimulus, is thought to play a role in the development of both allergies and anxiety.

Food allergies may be more likely to develop when we are exposed to another allergen, such as dust mites, at the same time as the food. Theories of panic disorder that draw on classical conditioning also suggest that panic attacks may be conditioned responses. This response could be triggered by various cues assocaited with a previous traumatic experience. This could be a taste or smell, an environment, a situation or a bodily sensation.

Many years ago a man called John B Watson demonstrated that classical conditioning could also play a role in the development of phobias. This was demonstrated when he repeatedly presented a white lab rat and a loud noise to a 9 month old baby called little Albert. Because of his fear of the loud noise, eventually just seeing the rat and even things that looked like it, would cause little Albert to become distressed.

Some people are quicker to learn conditioned responses than others, and this may be one of the hidden connections between those with allergies and those with anxiety symptoms like panic attacks and phobias. 

Looking for more help with allergies and anxiety?  The Nourished Nerves Program is designed to address exactly this and more. Book a discovery call today to find out you rediscover inner clarity and calm.

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