Stress and depression – the allergy link

At the recent Anaphylaxis Campaign conference in November 2011 we learnt from Dr Rebecca Knib of the University of Derby about an interesting study into families where one or more child had allergies. Both parents were analysed as well as the children to find out what the impact of food allergy was on anxiety in the family. Interestingly the mother of the family seemed to be experiencing much, much higher stress and depression worrying about their child’s condition.
Anaphylaxis can cause feelings of impending doom
We know that stress is one of the contributors to depression, but this study found that the child with the allergy was not really as stressed about things as you might imagine, probably because the mother was doing a fantastic job of making sure their life was as normal as possible. So we know that having allergies and living with someone with allergies can cause degrees of anxiety and stress, which can lead to depression.

Does the actual food protein trigger a reaction in the allergic person?

What interests me though is the chemical interaction that creates the depressive state. I know for a fact that I get depressed when I’m having an allergic reaction and this feeling lasts until well after the reaction has subsided and cleared up. One of the recognised sypmtoms of anaphylaxis is a feeling of impending doom so perhaps I’m experiencing this in different degrees. Even a mild reaction, which for me would mean hives all over my body, itchy rashes with clear liquid ooozing out and stomach cramps, will bring with them the depressed feelings of living in a haze, not really caring, struggling to cope, not sleeping etc.

Just these sypmtoms on their own are unpleasant and so could be argued to cause low mood. After all, noone wants a bloated painful churning belly and a face full of hives. However, if you’re used to getting on with life and coping with these sypmtoms you can put on a brave face and carry on.

So what’s actually going in the body when certain foods are eaten?

When you have an allergic reaction your body releases cytokines, which react to tiny protein particles which affect the body’s immune response to allergens. Cytokines promote inflammation and may reduce levels of the hormone serotonin, which helps maintain feelings of well-being. Cytokines effect the IgE response the body makes, so these white blood cells which do such a good job at fighting bacteria and germs react uneccesarily when it comes to allergens, when the actual thing, food or whatever it is won’t harm the body at all if left alone.

Allergy medication can exacerbate the problem

It’s well known that some common allergy medications, like corticosteroids, can cause anxiety and mood swings. Just read the contra-indications on the side of a box of steroids and you’ll put them straight back down again. Whilst they can produce feelings of incredible well being in some, they can also promote a higher metabolism, meaning some patients put on excess weight and can also cause depression.

There is the added stress just from having allergies; worrying about staying safe, not being a burden to anyone, not being a pain or appearing awkward or difficult, just simply getting by without drawing attention to yourself.

Not to mention the stress any skin rashes or hives etc. will bring. Not only can they hurt, burn and itch constantly but if they are visible you’ll be feeling that it’s blatantly obvious and that everyone is staring at you, which is rarely the case. Though I have had a few helpful comments like, ‘You should really visit your doctor if your skin is that bad.’ Oh! Really? Thanks for that – I hadn’t thought of that one! or my favourite, ‘Have you ever thought of wearing make-up to cover up the eczema on your face?’ What? You mean you find my face so offensive? It really needs to be masked and covered up?

Anyone who has eczema, whether caused by allergies or not, will know that wearing make-up to cover up blemishes is not only uncomfortable, but also impractical and painful as many will agravate the skin. Next time you see someone whose skin looks painful, don’t ever say something thoughtless like this.

You wouldn’t go up to someone who was overweight and say, “Why don’t you just stop eating and do some exercise?” Would you? I hope not! You might think it, but really, it’s not helpful, or polite, and you don’t know what that person is going through to try to correct whatever situation they’re struggling with. They may have chronic asthma and be taking steroids that make them put on weight, with the added problem that getting enough exercise when you have asthma can be frightening and hard to get started.

Throw away comments like these just add to the depressive thoughts and may compound the problem.

Can we prove there is a link?

A study last year reported in the New York Times examines how “Allergies Can Increase the Risk of Depression”.

I found another really interesting article entitled “How Modern Eating Habits May Contribute to Depression” by Ron Hoggan M.A. & James Braly M.D. In this study the premise that many people suffering from depression may have underlying digestive problems, iritable bowel, leaky gut syndrome and digestive enzyme deficiencies is discussed.

When food isn’t digested properly it can pass through the lining of the gut and cause allergic reactions and perhaps, as is discussed here, depression. The role of gluten was examined too; there could be many undiagnosed coeliacs who have IBS symptoms and mild depression who are struggling on in discomfort and doing untold damage to their gut lining.

The way we treat depression in this country could be turned on its head if tests were done to pinpoint any food allergies, intolerances and how about a test for coeliac disease if IBS is also a problem? Cutting out certain foods for a few weeks could determine any food intolerances but this kind of help, advice and treatment on the NHS has to be fought for. Instead, if someone is depressed and they actually get taken seriously they might get anti-depressants. But what advice do they get about a healthy diet and how foods can effect their moods?

Further reading about allergies and depression…

If you’re still interested there are more articles on the Foods Matter website.

And finally I discovered a YouTube video which examines the diets of countries across the world to compare the amount of processed foods, protein, carbohydrates and wholefoods. Very eye opening. Thanks to Deborah Mumm for this link. Watch What foods the world eats from Hungry Planet

Taking this further we can look at the global statistics for depression, which suggest that our western diet and lifestyle definitely have a part to play, though these things are complicated and never that clear cut. Read Global Depression Statistics on Science Daily.

We know also that allergies are far more prevalent in English speaking countries so is there a link here? The UK has the highest prevalence of allergies anywhere in the world which could have quite a lot to do with what we put into our mouths and the chemicals surrounding us in dyes, coatings, off-gasing etc.

I’ll leave you with the old saying, “You are what you eat!” If you eat rubbish processed foods you’ll probably feel pretty rubbish too!

Do you think your allergies bring on low mood or depressive feelings? What do you do to shrug them off? I take a good dose of vitamins, minerals and get outside for some fresh air and brisk walk. I might have to keep my head down to hide my puffy eyes, but I’ll always, always feel much better afterwards.

Ref: Knib and Semper 2009, King et al 2009, Dr Adam Fox, Anaphylaxis Conference Nov 2011.

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About Ruth

Ruth works freelance as a copywriter and writes the What Allergy blog to share information with people who have allergies, eczema, asthma and food intolerances. was voted in the top 5 allergy blogs and Ruth also judges regularly for the FreeFrom Food Awards and FreeFrom Skincare Awards. She also won the Foods You Can People's choice Best FreeFrom blogger award 2014.


  1. Great post, Ruth – thank you. Thanks also for the link to our ‘depression’ section but there is some more material that your readers minds find helpful in our Food/nutrition and mood sections here and

  2. Very interesting post and so true! When I was diagnosed with IBS over 10 years, trying to solve my symptoms, and getting very little assistance from my doctor I became anxious and tearful with frustration, I was diagnosed by the GP with depression, fortunately the pills given to me made me feel worse, and I would not take them, so I went down the food elimination route. Eventually I was told I was over anxious and stressful and recommended CBT which I found it very helpful, but the elimination of gluten solved the majority of my IBS problems. But Stress and anxiousness is always present when eating out or going on holiday!

    I agree that more research and testing is needed on allergies, and intolerances, and the testing for Coeliac disease needs to be more routine as the symptoms are varying, it would probably save millions in prescriptions costs!!!

    Take a look at who are working to improve this area for all food related allergies


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