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Stress Relief Strategies to Ease Allergy Symptoms

Do daily pressures have your allergy symptoms spiking? Try these simple tips for stress relief.
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WebMD Feature

If you suffer with allergy symptoms, you know all about the stress of having a chronic condition. Not only is it difficult to breathe with allergy symptoms, but poor sleep can lead to fatigue and problems concentrating. Allergy medicines can cause appetite changes, low energy, and even irritability. All you want is relief: from the stress, the symptoms, all of it.

How Is Stress Related to Allergy Symptoms?

Stress is your body's response to situations, inside and out, which interfere with the normal balance in your life. Virtually all of the body's systems -- digestive, cardiovascular, immune, and nervous system -- make adjustments in response to stress.

When you're all stressed out, your body releases hormones and other chemicals, including histamine, the powerful chemical that leads to allergy symptoms. While stress doesn't actually cause allergies, it can make an allergic reaction worse by increasing the histamine in your bloodstream.

Unfortunately, stress and allergies go hand in hand, says Los Angeles-based ear, nose, and throat doctor, Murray Grossan, MD. Once the allergy season is full-blown, the combination of miserable allergy symptoms, nights of fitful sleep, and fatigue, definitely leave you in need of stress relief.

And to add insult to injury, "After weeks of sneezing, coughing, and blowing your nose, your body's natural resistance is completely exhausted, too," Grossan tells WebMD.

Chronic stress that persists for weeks or even months produces cortisol, the body's main stress-induced hormone. When cortisol becomes elevated and remains so for awhile, it affects the cells that comprise your immune system. The immune system can't keep infections or diseases at bay as it would do normally. Viruses or bacteria proliferate to the point where they can infect many cells, leading to symptoms and increased chance of illness.

Does Stress Cause Allergy Symptoms?

Respected scientists have revealed groundbreaking evidence on the effect of stress on immune function.

One study was performed on 45 medical students taking final exams to see if stress negatively affected their resistance to disease. Specifically, these students were studied three to four weeks prior to exams, then again during exams to see how they responded to a hepatitis vaccine. Compared to students who received the vaccine under relaxed conditions, the stressed students showed much weaker immune system responses to the vaccine.

Allergy symptoms are an example of an overreaction by the immune system to otherwise harmless substances, says Gailen D. Marshall, MD, PhD, professor of medicine and pediatrics at the University of Mississippi.

Understanding the mechanisms of allergy is recent -- just over the past 35 to 40 years, says Marshall, who is director of the division of clinical immunology and allergy at the University of Mississippi Medical Center.  While allergic diseases have both genetic and environmental components there's still so much about allergy we don't know.

"In the late 1960s, we'd ask people how many had allergies and an estimated 1 in 10 people reported some form of allergy," Marshall says. "Now compare that with 1 in 3 people in 2000 having some form of allergy."

So, what's changed? While genes don't change that fast, probably our environment has. Marshall believes more air pollution, along with a "squeaky clean society," each play a role in increasing allergies.

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