The secret link between the mind and the immune system
Emotional factors can improve or worsen a health crisis.
Did it ever happen that, after being in bed, enduring a coughing attack that appeared all of a sudden, it disappeared as quickly as it came once you entered the emergency room?
Minutes earlier you were having difficulty breathing, while you thought about asphyxiating.
Once in the hospital, your agitated breathing calmed down. Just knowing that you were close to the doctor, made the respiratory stress go away.
There was no need for taking any drug because the culprit of the respiratory crisis was not the pollen or dog hair, but the anxiety of being in that situation.
The experience was the result of a large amount of stress that your body was able to somatize and turn into physical pain, a reaction that, apparently, had the same symptomatology as an asthma attack caused by an allergic reaction.
Emotions can improve or worsen your health
The scenario described above is a sign of the link between the psyche and the body, a relationship that can torment many people and that, despite not being new to science, still holds many mysteries.
It has been many years since scientists discovered that emotional factors can improve or worsen an allergy.
Nervous people are generally more prone to suffer from prolonged sneezing attacks.
Clinical trials have confirmed a high incidence of apparently psychosomatic symptoms in allergic patients.
A survey showed that only 2% of 2,000 people who had itching when eating several foods turned out to be truly allergic when they were tested on the skin.
Another example is a recent German study that showed that patients with allergic rhinitis, despite knowing they were receiving a placebo, noticed that their itching and secretions were decreasing as they were taking it.
What do these studies mean? Is it that our mind is capable of causing an allergy?
The risks are brought by anxiety and depression
Allergy always occurs through two consecutive phases:
The first is sensitization, in which there is the first contact with the external allergen through the mucous membranes or the skin, which triggers an immune response in the individual but without clinical manifestations.
Then comes the allergic or reaction phase, also called clinical or symptomatic phase, in which allergic symptoms develop on the second contact with the allergen.
Depending on the mechanism of hypersensitivity responsible for the allergy, symptoms occur immediately or delayed with respect to exposure.
Under negative emotional states such as anxiety and depression, it is more likely to develop diseases related to the immune system.
According to studies done in psychoimmunology, there is a relationship between allergic exacerbations and stress. The latter can worsen allergy symptoms by triggering the activation of the cells involved in the reaction.
According to these studies, psychological factors mainly influence respiratory allergic reactions such as rhinitis and asthma, and inflammatory skin diseases such as dermatitis, a disease that causes numerous discomforts.
It also occurs in food allergic reactions, in which these emotions are exacerbated, and can lead to reactions as strong as clinical pictures of anaphylaxis, in which the patient’s life may be at stake.
It is now known that anxiety disorders occur more than twice as often in people who have had asthma attacks.
We know that in situations of stress -which affects the memory- the activation of a part of the nervous system called vegetative or autonomous system greatly influences the suffering of health crises.
We also know that hormones like corticoids are produced in greater quantity in unpleasant emotional moments and that they diminish the capacity to defend ourselves of our immune system.
Unfortunately, the mechanisms by which emotions influence these diseases are known only in part.
Inversely, physical symptoms also affect mental health
You can also suffer the reverse situation: patients with allergic disorders end up suffering from anxiety or depression because of the symptoms caused by the pathology.
Some research describes a possible relationship between allergic-type diseases and panic and phobic disorders such as agoraphobia.
A recent study published in the journal Frontiers in Psychiatry has found a clear association between rhinitis, asthma and dermatitis with suffering anxiety and depression.
This research suggests that the same stress generated by having to live with itching and other discomforts of allergy can generate episodes of depression, although scientists have also observed that the same type of inflammation that leads to allergic episodes also causes psychiatric diseases.
There are allergic diseases that cause great suffering and such suffering does not have much visibility.
It is the case of children who have allergies to multiple foods, something that is becoming more frequent. A few years ago these food allergies were very rare, but today there are children with serious food allergies almost everywhere.
They are healthy children, but if they accidentally come into contact with what causes them allergies they have a reaction that can even lead to their life being in danger if they do not act quickly.
Children live this situation with anguish, since they have many limitations and few people are aware of their suffering.
For example, it is not uncommon for them to be excluded from school activities, field trips, peer’s birthdays … for fear of having allergic reactions. How will not all this also have an impact on their psychology and development?
It is common to find patients who have outbreaks of dermatitis because they are living in problematic family situations or because they are in full exam season.
Another example is people with difficulty breathing in times of intense anxiety, which can be confused with asthma attacks. Sometimes getting to differentiate both conditions is quite difficult and can even lead to erroneous treatments.
Given this situation, it would not be a bad idea to have mental health professionals in emergency rooms.
It is shown that if patients are experiencing problematic times due to their personal, family or social circumstances they will notice a worsening in the symptoms of their allergic diseases.
The human being is a unit, so that everything that goes through our heads influences our body and vice versa.
The symptoms that the body experiences have their impact at a mental and emotional level, so doctors should always keep in mind that separating the psychological from the corporal is something that ultimately does not help patients.
On the other hand, we can take advantage of this influence between the psyche and the body to improve allergic diseases and include interventions such as mindfulness, training programs in stress management and other psychotherapeutic techniques that have shown improvement in the quality of life of patients, people with severe allergic diseases, and also in caregivers.