The relationship between anxiety and food or other allergy is a complicated and puzzling one. Research has shown that stress can exacerbate allergy symptoms, and there are indications that allergies can trigger or contribute to anxiety, but how much each condition influences the other is yet unknown.
There are, however, at least five theories about the relationship between allergies and anxiety:
- Some allergies cause physical brain and body changes that trigger anxiety.
- Living with an allergy creates discomfort and stress which may cause individuals to develop anxiety.
- Allergies are not a cause of anxiety but can worsen anxiety symptoms.
- Allergies do not effect anxiety, but anxiety can worsen allergy symptoms.
- Anxiety and allergy have some commonalities, for instance, both affect our immune system functioning, but each condition arises and exists independently.
None of these theories have yet been ruled out, and maybe some or all of them will turn out to be true for different people. Definitive answers are difficult to determine since each person’s body reacts uniquely to both anxiety and allergy.
So far, anxiety does not seem to be a direct cause of allergies, but at least one study revealed that allergic reactions are stronger and last longer when people are experiencing significant stress and anxiety.
Anxiety’s effect on allergy symptoms is likely related to two things. One is that stress and anxiety disturb our immune system functioning, potentially making allergic reactions worse. The other is the body’s release of cytokines during stressful periods. Cytokines are associated with inflammation and could have a worsening effect on allergy symptoms.
Allergies may turn out to be more of a culprit since there is some evidence that an allergy can physically trigger anxiety. This is especially true with food allergies. For example, gluten sensitivity sometimes creates blood flow issues to the brain, and this seems to set-off anxiety symptoms.
However, it’s just as probable that allergy’s effect on anxiety is only related to the mental and physical stress of living with an allergy—stress that diminishes the quality of life while fueling worries and tension.
Breaking the Relationship
The most likely conclusion of allergy-anxiety research is that each condition affects the other, but exists independently:
- Anxiety worsens allergies by affecting the immune system and the release of increased allergy-causing hormones.
- Allergic reactions make anxiety worse by putting a crimp in quality of life and causing symptoms that are concerning and difficult to live with.
It’s easy to see how the two ailments can create a vicious cycle, each problem continuously intensifying the other. To effectively disrupt this cycle, allergies and anxiety need to be treated separately.
You may already know that seeing a doctor or allergist to discuss testing, allergen avoidance, and medications are generally recommended for the management of allergies.
Most anxiety can be reduced or alleviated through proper diet, regular exercise, and the use of relaxation techniques such as breathing exercises, or mindfulness meditation. Support groups can also be a great help. Working with a mental health professional can help individuals with persistent anxiety find relief, usually without the aid of medication. If you are anxious and unsure of how to proceed, consult with your doctor.