Your child is squirming on the couch, picking fights with their siblings, and is irritable. You try to get him ready for bed- but he’s difficult. Finally, after going to the bathroom, he settles down for a bit, and you can get his PJ’s on and brush his teeth. But then the bad mood comes back- he’s just not settled, his gassy- and on the toilet again. An hour later, he is calm enough to go into bed- late again! And oh’ so sad. You know it’s going to be a long night…… Sounds familiar?
Emotional responses to food allergies
For a child with food intolerance or food allergy- all it takes is an oversight to be uncomfortable and in pain for the rest of the day. Consuming a food allergy causes a wide range of symptoms that understandably affects a person’s mood and makes it difficult to function at an optimum level. Now consider someone with anaphylaxis. ( Anaphylaxis is a severe, potentially life-threatening allergic reaction) Having a life-threatening allergy causes an enormous amount of fear regarding the potential of accidental allergy consumption, which increases stress and anxiety.
Another possible contributing factor to an emotional response is antihistamines, which can cause sleep disturbances, causing tiredness, which can be the source of side effects such as irregular sleep patterns and increased irritability. At the end of the day, a person with allergies and experiencing the symptoms could just be worn down! Life doesn’t suddenly stop when a person has an allergy flare-up. Kids still have to go to school, parents to work- a combination that is both mentally and physically draining.
The importance of emotional healthcare for patients with respiratory and food allergies has drawn researchers and healthcare professionals' attention- after noticing the increasing number of people with allergies and mental health issues. This has led to a tentative step towards clinical research in the hope of understanding this connection further.
Are emotional symptoms of having a food allergy a result of the physical symptoms- or does food allergies directly cause emotional symptoms?
Many studies have been conducted over the past 15 years focusing on the link between allergies and mental health. However, they show a connection but not a cause. This study shows that those who suffer from allergies are 50% more likely to experience depression. A study conducted in 2002 found that allergic reactions to ragweed caused significant fatigue and mood changes. In no way do these studies mean that all people with allergies have a mental health issue or that all people with depression have allergies, but experiencing allergic reactions seems to increase the risk of developing a mental health issue. In 2008 a study showed a connection between depression levels and allergy symptoms when examining tree pollen allergies.
Respiratory, skin, and food allergies, as well as food sensitivities, have been linked to several emotional, behavioral, and developmental issues in children (Beurkens,2018), such as:
- Bipolar disorder
- Conduct disorders
However, none of the studies tell us why.
An allergic reaction is a form of inflammation. When the body experiences this, 2 things happen. Firstly, the immune system responds by releasing cytokines, protein molecules used in communication between cells. These molecules send signals to the brain inducing feelings of sickness that often come with the flu. It is also believed that cytokine negatively affects the brain and mental health, causing sadness and depression.
Secondly, the allergic reactions trigger cortisol release, a stress hormone that interferes with serotonin- a ‘feel-good’ brain chemical. When there is an imbalance with serotonin, research says that depression and anxiety might be induced.
What can you do?
The good news is that you can do something actively to protect your mental health. In 2013 a study found that patients who had been treated for their allergies were less likely that their mental health was affected than those whose condition was left untreated. If you have noticed that you are susceptible to increase feelings of sadness, anxiety, and depression during an allergy flare-up- it is essential to get control of your allergies and their symptoms so you can physically feel better and start to heal again.