Did you know there’s a connection between allergies and mental health? It’s true. In fact, the research shows it’s a surprisingly strong one. So with allergy season approaching for many of us, it seems a perfect time to explore how allergies can cause and/or exacerbate mental health conditions, like anxiety and depression.
Understanding this connection doesn’t just help us in terms of prevention. Armed with this knowledge, we can better target how we manage symptoms once they arise. And simply knowing allergies might lie at the root of our anxious or low moods – instead of attributing it to other life circumstances – can shift how we experience them. All in all, if allergies are contributing to our mood states, it’s good to see it for what it is. So we can make the choices that most support our mental health.
My Recent Run-In With Allergies & Mental Health
As is often the case here on my blog, I found inspiration for this post from a recent experience of my own. A few weeks ago, I noticed my motivation and energy levels had dropped. My head felt foggy, and my breath was shallower, more labored – even when I focused on drawing deeper breaths. All of this was cutting me off from my usual sense of clarity and peace of mind. Instead, I kept noticing moments of inexplicable edginess and discontentment. I felt uninspired generally, which meant I was getting less work done. But perhaps most unsettling, I felt ungrounded, which is way out of character for me.
At the same time, I also noticed I was sneezing more frequently than usual. Chronic or seasonal allergies have never presented a problem for me. When I do get them, it’s typically just a mild nuisance. But with this episode, I became increasingly aware I was having difficulty breathing, despite having only minimal nasal congestion. It was like something was blocking the passage of air, but nothing was there. Again…very unusual for me.
So, eager to get back to freer and deeper breathing, I decided to try some of my husband’s steroid nasal spray. (He suffers from chronic allergies.) I wasn’t sure it would work, but I was willing to try anything. I also washed our linens and blankets on the allergen cycle. We have three cats, and though I’ve never been allergic to them, I figured why not eliminate pet dander as a potential irritant?
Within a day, my nasal passages cleared, and my breathing returned to normal. This, I’d somewhat expected. However, what surprised me was the rapid shift in my mental state. Like magic, my head fog disappeared. My energy and motivation levels resurged, and the low-grade edginess I’d been feeling evaporated. Basically, I felt like me again.
Knowledge Is Power
The reality of the situation dawned on me. My allergies were messing with my mental health.
Now, this wasn’t exactly news to me. Several years ago, I went down this rabbit hole while doing research to help a loved one who was struggling with some mental health issues. But I’d never experienced it directly, for myself. Not knowingly at least. Maybe that’s why with my recent mood shift, it didn’t occur to me immediately that allergies might be the culprit. If I’d drawn that connection sooner, I could have shifted the dynamic right away. Instead of letting it drag out for a whole week, wondering why I was feeling so out of sorts.
That’s why I decided to write this post – to bring awareness to this connection. It’s not my intention to offer advice for treatment, nor to replace professional help. Mental health symptoms – such as anxiety and depression – are complex and can arise from a variety of causes, some of which are completely unrelated to allergies. However, I’m highlighting this lesser talked-about potential factor, because allergies are so prevalent. And many people – like me – don’t even think about them when shifts in mood arise.
The old saying – knowledge is power – rings true. When we know allergies might be playing a part in causing or exacerbating mental health symptoms, we’re in a better position to cope. And to make informed choices about how to take care of ourselves.
So without further ado, here’s a taste of what the research has to say about allergies and mental health…
Allergies And Mental Health: Some Statistics
Statistics that draw a correlation between people who struggle with both allergies and mental health issues provide one of the most telling indicators of the connection between the two. Consider this data from an article published with the U.S. National Institute of Health (NIH), which found “having a lifetime allergy was significantly associated with:
- 28% greater odds of reporting mood disorders
- 43% greater odds of reporting anxiety disorders
- 38% greater odds of reporting eating disorders”
Or this study published with the U.S. NIH, which draws the following correlations between allergic rhinitis (AR) and mood disorders and suicide:
- “In adolescents, a pediatric diagnosis of AR is predictive of an adult diagnosis of major depression or bipolar disorder”
- “Evidence suggests that AR often occurs co-morbidly with mood disorders, such as depression, and suicidal behaviors”
- “Exposure to aeroallergens has also been associated with death by suicide”
- “Pollen-specific IgE positivity is associated with worsening of depressive scores in bipolar disorder patients during high pollen season”
- “AR in early life is associated with depression later in life”
- “Bipolar disorder in later life has also been associated with AR, with a possible immune link involving a likely immune causation.”
The article linked above provides a treasure trove of information on the subject. If you’re wanting to dive in more deeply, you might want to give it a full reading. It explores in great detail the possible pathways by which allergies might lead to mental health issues, some of which I’ll touch on in a bit.
Anti-Depressants & Anti-Histamines
In this article, you can find several more studies drawing similar connections between allergies and mental health. But perhaps most interestingly, it points out “the first antidepressants produced were actually formulated from antihistamines.” It seems tricyclic anti-depressants are actually powerful antihistamines. And the author, Dr. Mary Beck, suggests this may be why they’re so effective for treating depression. They’re getting to a root cause of the symptoms.
What Causes The Connection Between Allergies And Mental Health?
While the exact way in which allergies might cause and/or exacerbate mental health conditions hasn’t been settled, evidence points to several possibilities.
Cytokines & The Inflammatory Response System
According to this NIH study, “mounting evidence indicates that inflammatory cytokines contribute to the development of depression in both medically ill and medically healthy individuals.” They’ve found people with medical illnesses that cause increased levels of cytokines also experience higher rates of depression than the average population. On the other hand, people who have major depression – but not an accompanying medical illness – have higher levels of cytokines and inflammatory markers in their system. Perhaps most tellingly, they’ve discovered that when cytokines are administered to humans and lab animals, it produces symptoms and behavior changes consistent with depression.
So, what does all this data about cytokines and depression have to do with allergies? Cytokines get released during an allergic response. They function as part of our body’s immune system, jumping into defensive action when an intruder like an allergen enters our system. This article explains the process in greater detail, but basically, the chain reaction causes an inflammatory response intended to protect us. However, it appears this protective process can inadvertently create new problems for us. “Cytokines in circulation…have been associated with depressed mood, anxiety and memory difficulty.” (source)
The Sleep Factor
In addition to the cytokine response explored above, the connection between allergies and mental health could involve sleep disturbances. It’s been well-established prolonged sleep disturbances present as both a risk factor for, and a symptom of, mood disorders. Unfortunately, people who suffer from allergies often also experience problems with their sleep.
“Sleep disturbances are very common among those with AR, with 48% of seasonal AR and 68% of perennial AR patients reporting sleep disturbances.” Allergies make it harder for us to breathe. And when we can’t breathe, it’s harder to sleep. But more than that, the pesky cytokine response we’ve been talking about can also interfere with healthy sleep patterns. “Cytokines involved in allergic reactions such as IL-4 and IL-10 have been shown to inhibit spontaneous sleep in rodent models. ” (source)
Breathing & The Vagus Nerve
As a yogi, I’m acutely aware of how my breath can alter my internal states. That’s why the difficulty I was having with my breath during my recent allergy episode stood out so much to me. I knew I could use deep, diaphragmatic breathing to shift my ungrounded, unenergized, and discontented state back to normal. However, because I couldn’t draw deep breaths, my usual practices didn’t produce the usual results. Hence, why I ended up seeking my husband’s nasal steroid spray.
Allergies can congest and inflame our nasal passages, making it harder to breathe. And when we can’t breathe deeply, it can interfere with our vagus nerve function. The vagus nerve plays an important role in our parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), which helps us feel calm and relaxed. When we experience a fight or flight response, our sympathetic nervous system (SNS) kicks in. This stimulates the parts of our body considered vital for facing threats, while suppressing other parts deemed unnecessary. So a surge of stress response chemicals rush through us when we’re confronted with a stress-inducing situation. And once the threat has cleared, our PNS – driven largely by our vagus nerve – calms us down again, restoring our whole system to a relaxed state.
The Vagus Nerve & Mood
Research has shown stimulating the vagus nerve improves symptoms of depression. In fact, the FDA has approved vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) devices for treatment of both unipolar and bipolar depression. While there hasn’t been as much research into the efficacy of VNS for anxiety, studies have shown diaphragmatic breathing does improve symptoms of anxiety.
The vagus nerve is connected to our breathing. When we breathe deeply and slowly – as in diaphragmatic breath – it stimulates the vagus nerve. And when the vagus nerve is stimulated, we feel more at ease, less anxious. We dwell in a balanced state of homeostasis. (If you want to learn more about this phenomenon, this study provides a fascinating read.) Therefore, the prolonged state of not being able to breathe deeply and fully that allergies induce could contribute to the connection between allergies and mental health.
The Lifestyle Impact of Allergies on Mental Health
Lastly, when people have allergies, they tend to feel sick. Depending on the severity, this can keep them from going to work, interacting socially, and tending to other self-care activities. Interestingly, this phenomenon – called sickness behavior – has also been tied to cytokine release. Essentially, when our immune response gets activated, it sends out signals telling our body to slow down and conserve energy, so we can fight off the illness. Allergies can stimulate this effect.
Over a period of time, this lack of ordinary, healthy activity combined with the drain of feeling sick can lead to a more depressed mood.
What Can We Do About Allergies And Mental Health?
As I stated previously, this article isn’t intended to provide medical advice or make treatment recommendations. However, when you’re aware of this connection between allergies and your mental health, you’re more empowered to take care of yourself. You can do things like:
- Find out what you’re allergic to. Get tested, or start paying attention to when your symptoms arise. What allergens are in the air? (You can check this online)
- Clean you air vents and change your air filters regularly. This is recommended every 90 days. Even better, use the higher grade allergy filters.
- Consider an air purifier.
- If possible, remove carpet from your home. If not, be sure to vacuum it regularly.
- Keep your home and car windows closed during peak allergy seasons.
- Use a neti pot to cleanse your nasal passages and relieve inflammation.
- Talk to your doctor about allergy treatment options. Be sure to communicate all your symptoms, including any related to your mood.
- Discuss the connection between allergies and mental health with your healthcare provider.
- Remind yourself of this connection when you’re experiencing it. This can help prevent you from falling into mental traps of depressed or anxious thinking. Counter thoughts that fuel your negative mood with ones that tell you something like, I’m feeling bad because I’m having allergies right now, but it will pass.
- If you do breathing techniques while experiencing allergies, focus on your exhale instead of your inhale. Extending your exhale longer than your inhale activates your vagus nerve. However, be sure to maintain a breathing pattern that feels comfortable for you.
For me, it makes a difference when I understand why I’m feeling a certain way. If I’m feeling anxious or low, I want to know why. Obviously, knowing the why helps me find the best path to feeling better. But it also creates a little mindful gap between what I’m experiencing and my sense of self. It’s not that I’m depressed or I’m anxious, but instead, I’m experiencing low mood or I’m experiencing anxious feelings…and this is why. Being able to pinpoint the why shifts my whole experience.
Recognizing the connection between allergies and mental health gives us that why. Or, at least, one of the why’s. If you struggle with allergies and mental health symptoms, I hope this post serves in some way to ease your suffering. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the subject. Please feel free to share your experience and/or wisdom in the comments section below.