Has your health professional told you that you need to reduce your stress? You may think, “Easier said than done.” It’s easy for a medical professional to recognize that you are overstressed, because your body shows the effects of stress, and those includes allergies. You don’t want those effects, but the effort to reduce stress is nothing to sneeze at. On second thought, maybe it is!
The relationship between stress and allergies
First, what is an allergic reaction? It is an over-reaction of the immune system to something that may be a legitimate irritant, but shouldn’t require a major immune reaction. The immune system’s approach to dealing with foreign invaders is engulf, destroy and to expel; and just like soldiers in a war, they are not subtle about their work. The immune system is notorious for causing collateral damage. In the case of allergies, it has become hypersensitive, so it takes a sledgehammer to what should be a small problem. You suffer the sledgehammer effects.
Why would your immune system overreact? Is it a mistake? Should we suppress the immune system because it is misbehaving? What does stress have to do with it?
Steps to an allergy
The first step is simply being exposed to a foreign substance. Our environment is full of substances that are foreign to the body, and anything foreign is a potential threat as far as the immune system is concerned. It determines something as foreign because it is “non-self” — it is not something that is on the body’s list of approved items that belong to it. When the body goes so far as to consider something that is really “self” as foreign, this leads to self-destructive auto-immune diseases, such as lupus, multiple sclerosis, Crohn’s colitis, Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, type one diabetes, and rheumatoid arthritis to name a few of the over 100 named autoimmune diseases. With allergies, however, the body is correctly reacting to something foreign as not belonging in the body, but not at an appropriate level.
Your body has foreign material expulsive procedures that do not require a significant immune system response. You are exposed to so many foreign substances from your environment that your immune system doesn’t have the resources to identify them all and prepare attacks against all of them. Barriers such as your skin; trap-and-remove defenses as mucus, tears, and skin oil; stomach acid; and simple coughing all expel or destroy many foreign invaders without your body taking the next step towards allergy, which is the development of antibodies.
Allergy antibodies are proteins called immunoglobin E (IgE) that are developed by a type of white blood cell called a lymphocyte (also known as a B cell) as the immune system “learns” how to handle an invader over time. Once these cells figure out the “signature” of the invader, they make IgE antibodies that direct the rest of the body how to destroy it. Once learned, antibodies can be produced quickly when that invader appears again, making for a rapid response process which, when it occurs for environmental irritants, means that your body has become “allergic” to that irritant, which is now considered an “allergen”.
Antibodies signals other cells in the body. Mast cells, which reside in tissues, and basophils which circulate in the blood, have thousands of IgE receptors. The allergen binds to the IgE that then binds to the mast cell or basophil. This signals the destruction of the allergen by causing the mast cell to secrete histamine which causes vasodilation to wall off the allergen for attack. This histamine production causes the allergy symptoms. Cytokines are also released, which are usually highly inflammatory and cause collateral damage along with signaling the body to make even more IgE. Even if you use antihistamines, you are still left with the cytokine response, which if you inhibit that, you are suppressing your immune system and opening your system up to bacteria and virus attack.
The hyper immune system
A “calm” immune system may not even bother to prepare antibodies against some invaders, but a hyperactive system is on the lookout for everything. Like a military put on a high alert, it is proactively looking for invaders and taking them on. This is where stress is a major factor. Stress keeps sounding the alert, telling the immune system to not rest and to stay vigilant. Such a system is more likely to take on even minor irritants as threats.
A study conducted at the Ohio State University Medical Center, used skin-prick allergy tests with participants having varied levels of stress, then gave them “speech stressor tests” to determine their current psychological stress levels at that time. Those who scored poorly on the stress test also had significantly larger “wheals” (inflamed red areas) at the pricked areas for both the day of the test and the day after — about 75% larger for the “moderately stressed” participants vs. the non-stressed. They also showed higher levels of interleukin-6 (IL-6) cytokines for the more stressed participants, and IL-6 is known to be part of the allergic immune system response.
Researchers at Osaka City University, in a study published in the International Journal of Molecular Sciences, found that the introduction of a stress hormone promoted the growth of mast cells and increased the allergenic reaction, while inhibiting this hormone (corticotropin-releasing stress hormone, or CRH) also inhibited the allergenic reaction. CRH is released from the hypothalamus in the brain during stress, and it causes the release of adrenocorticotropic hormone from the pituitary gland, which then causes the adrenal glands to secrete cortisol. CRH suppresses appetite and raises anxiety and alertness, which helps when there is a “fight or flight” situation, but that is meant to be temporary. Chronic stress means high levels of CRH, which this study shows promotes allergy reactions. It also is linked to inflammatory diseases such as arthritis and colitis — all of which trace back to a hyperactive immune system.
Stress puts the immune system on high alert, but high alert cannot be maintained forever. Eventually the system is fatigued, and then the high alert status becomes the new normal. At this point, the allergies are chronic, and autoimmune system diseases are a risk. An army can only fight so many battles at once, and the hyperactive immune system is now overworked, unable to provide proper protection against real invaders. Overworked equals weakened, and the immune system that has been fighting trivial threats is now less able to handle real ones. Reducing stress takes down the high alert, calms the immune system, and allergies are less likely to take hold. Over time, the immune system can even forget about its overreaction to certain allergens, making you less reactive to them. The antibodies have still been developed, and your body is still more responsive to those allergens, but it may relax its reaction if your overall stress is lowered.
Since your immune system can only fight so many battles, another helpful allergy fighting strategy is to de-load the system. Allergy sufferers may also have trouble in the household cleaning aisle of a store, for instance, because they have reached their limit on what their system can handle. Reducing overall immune load, whether by a better diet, reducing chemical exposure or by better thoughts, should also relax allergenic responses as your immune system is less challenged.
Exercise plays a part in reducing allergies. When your blood is flowing rapidly, stagnant allergens are mobilized, so they don’t cause local inflammation from staying in one place. Exercise itself is anti-inflammatory to the whole body, it reduces stress effects as stress chemicals are metabolized, and in the process reduces the CRH/cortisol impact.
Basically, if you settle down mentally and emotionally, so should your allergies. Less toxic exposure, exercise, rest, good thoughts, plenty of water —these all should help. What is good for your health is also good for reducing allergies.
Dr. Nemec’s Comments:
What is an allergy? Just an immune response to a foreign substance. Why does a mast cell produce histamine to cause this fluid to go out of the vessels into the extracellular spaces? It does it to wall off the invader so it does not travel to vital areas while it works on killing and eliminating it. Why is your system reacting? Usually because it is overloaded with chemicals, toxins, inflammatory foods, and conscious and subconscious stress programs. Remember an allergy is an effect, not a cause, just like cancer is an effect, not a cause, and when you reduce the 10 major causes of inflammation then you will improve the pathogen or allergen being taken care of by your immune system. So what should you do? Take allergy medication the rest of your life? That is one option just like taking chemotherapy for cancer. It might help for a season but remember you are not trying to get rid of an effect but to get rid of all the causes so the effect goes away permanently.
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