People suffering from allergies may be prone to mental disorders, such as anxiety and depression
The correlation between mental health and allergies is an ongoing debate, but recent studies have shed light on parallels that can improve the treatment of patients.
Allergies themselves can have a significant impact on a person’s mental health.
Why is this so and how can the medical community broaden the conversation to avoid stigmatising allergies?
First, some basics about allergies
Allergies are a reaction of the immune system to a foreign substance, also known as an allergen.
The immune system releases antibodies to protect the body from these allergens.
An allergic reaction can develop due to food or environmental factors.
According to the American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology, allergies are the sixth leading cause of chronic illness in the United States.
Common symptoms of allergies can be
- itchy eyes
- sneezing, sniffling and coughing
- hives, which form a raised rash
- heavy breathing through the mouth
- shortness of breath
More serious symptoms may also be
- ear pain and ear infections
- nose bleeding
- gastrointestinal problems.
Although common, allergies can be difficult to diagnose because symptoms can resemble other medical problems.
There is no specific cure for allergies, but treatment can minimise symptoms.
Allergy medications, called antihistamines, are designed to improve symptoms, but side effects include drowsiness that can interfere with daily activities and sleep patterns.
The impact of allergies on mental health
Some researchers believe that the inflammatory substances that cause allergic reactions in the body may also affect the brain, playing a role in the development of depression and anxiety.
Similarly, for a person living with a mental health condition, the symptoms of an allergic reaction can increase levels of the stress hormone cortisol.
A 2019 study conducted by, among others, the Sackler Faculty of Medicine at Tel-Aviv University, Israel, and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, UK, found that treated atopic eczema was associated with a 14 per cent increased risk of developing depression and a 17 per cent increased risk of a subsequent diagnosis of anxiety.
The authors concluded that ‘these findings highlight the importance of a comprehensive bio-psycho-social approach to limiting common mental disorders in people with atopic eczema and could guide recommendations for the management of atopic eczema’.
Allergy symptoms involve an external and perceptible reaction by the body.
As a result, up to 53% of adults with allergies avoid social interactions, which can lead to isolation and a lower quality of life, according to data from a recent survey by Allergy UK.
In addition, symptoms can interfere with regular sleep cycles, contributing to physical fatigue and worsening mental health conditions.
According to the same Allergy UK survey, 52% of people living with allergies feel the need to minimise their symptoms for fear of judgement from family, friends or employers, leading to feelings of fear, isolation and depression.
Parents of children with allergies also experience mental stressors: 54% reported feeling anxious about a possible allergic reaction from their children while eating lunch outside the home.
For children, severe allergy symptoms can interfere with outdoor activities, while food allergies can trigger stress towards peers at school and limit social gatherings.
A 2016 study examining behavioural changes in children with allergic diseases concluded that ‘the increasing number of allergic diseases with internalising behaviour at age 7 has substantial clinical implications’, as children may develop anxiety or depression later in life.
Mental health: a 2018 study also found a strong correlation between seasonal allergies and mood disorders
A significant implication of this study is the need for early and integrated care, screening children and young adults with allergies for mental health conditions as a preventive measure.
Some communities may be less likely to access preventive care.
Expanding research groups to include historically marginalised communities – which are less likely to manage allergic diseases through access to professional healthcare – may shed light on the socio-economic determinants that play a role in research and access to the right care.
Preserving mental health from the effects of allergies: Lifestyle recommendations
Since allergies are linked to inflammation, doctors recommend that patients follow an anti-inflammatory diet rich in fibre, omega-3 and probiotics.
Adding fresh fruit and vegetables, rich in antioxidants, also strengthens the immune system.
Avoiding fragrances such as perfumes and candles can also help eliminate triggers.
Doctors also encourage adults and children to follow an active lifestyle that contributes to physical and emotional well-being.
Dismantling stigma is key
In addition to identifying and treating physical symptoms, doctors encourage people with allergies to talk openly about any mental health symptoms they may be experiencing.
Talking to a mental health professional can help reduce stress levels and provide tools for managing emotions.
Some people may also find encouragement by connecting with others who are dealing with similar conditions.
The correlation between allergies and mental health is not a frequent topic of discussion, which unfortunately contributes to the stigma surrounding allergies
Recent research implies that there is a direct correlation between mental and physical well-being and that each exists in synchrony with the other.
This shows that the human experience must be evaluated holistically.
Eliminating the stigma surrounding allergies and mental health starts with preparing patients to identify and understand their symptoms, both physical and psychological.
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