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.
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.
Managing Stress to Ease Allergy Symptoms
The experts disagree when it comes to managing stress to ease allergy symptoms. Grossan tells WebMD that after weeks of sneezing, the body's immune system is exhausted. "Going to bed and resting can help to restore the body's resistance and is definitely good stress-relief therapy."
Contrary to this opinion, William E. Berger, MD, MBA, professor of medicine at the University of California, tells WebMD that allergies create stress because you cannot focus on tasks and your coping skills decline.
"When people run, they can breathe better because epinephrine pours throughout the body," says Berger, past president of the American College of Allergy and Immunology and author of Allergies and Asthma for Dummies."Epinephrine is also triggered during stressful moments, which should add to better breathing -- not worse!"
That said, no two people respond to stressful events in the same way either. What may be a source of emotional excitement for you may cause fear for a friend. For instance, you may love to skydive on your weekend while your best friend cringes even thinking about flying in an airplane. That's because we all perceive and respond to stressors differently. Again, it's the inappropriate responses that influence your health and may influence your allergy symptoms.
When we're exposed to a stressful situation, our bodies prepare for confrontation. This "fight or flight" response is controlled by our hormones and nervous system and dates back to prehistory, as we prepared to fight or flee our stressor.
Though we may not fight wild animals anymore, there are still "wild animals" facing us daily in the form of arguments, a phone that won't stop ringing, and perpetually full in-boxes. Now when you add miserable allergy symptoms, you've got a recipe for disaster -- unless you take time to do something for stress relief.
Stress Relief Strategies When Allergy Symptoms Escalate
To get back in control when allergy symptoms have you reeling, consider the following stress-relief strategies:
- Figure out what's adding to your stressful feelings and remove or reduce the source. If your stress is from overwork, learn to delegate, especially during allergy season. If your stress is from overextending yourself, rethink your priorities.
- Get plenty of sleep every night, not just on weekends. Getting in bed and resting can restore the body's balance and help the allergic body heal.
- Set priorities and budget your time to allow for a little relaxation. Having a more balanced life with moments of R&R each day can help you deal with allergy symptoms more effectively.
- Exercise daily. Even if you only have time to take a walk, exercise helps reduce stress hormones that may cause you to feel keyed up. And remember, exercise produces epinephrine, which acts as a natural decongestant, helping you breathe better.
- Learn to meditate. Twenty minutes of meditation once or twice daily can help you reduce stress and feel more relaxed.
- Keep taking your allergy medications. While that may not sound like a stress-relief strategy, it might surprise you. Stress may cause anxiety and depression, says Marshall, and depressed individuals are less compliant with their medications. So stay on track!