Have you ever wondered how stress may affect your health? Or if there’s a connection between stress and allergies? According to Dr. Z, stress is one of the most significant factors behind everything he sees on a daily basis in his practice, from asthma and seasonal allergies to hives and food sensitivities. “It’s all related to stress, because stress triggers an inflammatory response in the body,” he says.
What is stress and how can it cause so many problems?
First of all, stress is your body’s natural response to changes or challenges you’re facing, both big and small. In the short term, stress can be a positive response by keeping us alert, motivated, and ready to handle danger as in the “fight or flight” response. But when stress lingers without relief for an extended period of time (days, weeks, months, even years)—what we call chronic stress—that’s when it can cause problems. “Chronic stress affects so many systems in the body. It impacts everything from the quality of sleep to what we eat to our physical and emotional health,” says Yoko Kawashima, a national board-certified health & wellness coach who partners with AAPRI’s Center for Functional Medicine.
Because stress impacts all of your body’s major systems—hormonal balance, digestive, cardiovascular, immune, and nervous system—the continued activation of the stress response causes wear and tear on your body resulting in a cascade of physical and emotional health problems. This prolonged stress triggers inflammation in the body that can worsen allergies and asthma, weaken the immune system, and result in poor sleep, lack of focus, brain fog, illness, aches and pains, anxiety, depression, and many other conditions. “When I work to help people with an imbalance in their bodies, that can manifest in an allergic response, for example, it’s essential that we understand where stress is coming from, perhaps through their relationships, work and/or living environment, or even poor diet,” says Yoko.
The stress/inflammation/gut connection
What actually happens in the body when you’re experiencing stress? You may feel anxious or nervous, and your heart beats faster. Your body releases adrenaline and cortisol, which is the body’s main stress-induced hormone as well as other chemicals like histamine. Histamine is the powerful chemical that triggers allergy symptoms like itchy eyes, nose, and throat, sneezing, and hives.
When cortisol levels remain high for an extended period of time it affects your immune system’s ability to do its job of fighting off infections and disease—and that means you’re more likely to get sick or develop other health problems.
So how is all of this related to inflammation and the gut microbiome? “Allergies and inflammation are closely connected through the gut microbiome,” explains Dr. Z. “We’re exposed to so many kinds of stress—physical stress such as an injury, chemical stress like pesticides in our food and toxins in the environment, and emotional stress from what’s happening in our daily lives—all of these stressors cause an inflammatory response and it all starts in the gut.”
What can you do to relieve stress?
As a functional allergist, Dr. Z’s mantra is “treat the cause, defeat the symptoms.” This means that in order to get rid of your symptoms (whatever they may be) we have to figure out what’s causing them. At the Center for Functional Medicine we use this common-sense approach to dig deeper to find the root cause of your symptoms, which often means more diagnostic testing. “We need to test deeper to understand what’s going on in the microbiome, the gut, hormones—everything,” says Dr. Z. “The goal is to get the body into balance.”
If you’re struggling with allergy symptoms, fatigue, difficulty sleeping, or any other health concerns, now is the time to contact us at the Center for Functional Medicine. In the meantime, here are some quick tips you can start doing right now to relieve stress:
- Exercise – Physical activity is a great way to reduce stress, even if it’s a short walk around the block.
- Eat right – Getting plenty of organic fruits and vegetables and healthy fats in your diet, while avoiding sugar and overly processed foods, is one of the best ways to improve gut health.
- Relax – Slow down, and make time each day to do something you enjoy.
- Breathe – One of the best tools for reducing stress is to take deep breaths.
Stress and COVID-19
COVID-19 has affected all of us in one way or another. All of the worries associated with COVID-19 and the pandemic have resulted in an unprecedented level of stress—and it’s taking a toll on our health. Be sure to get help if you need it. Here are some additional resources from the CDC:COVID-19: Stress and Coping