Allergic Reactions – Cellular Processes Intensified by Stress
Allergies can cause distress any time of year, but they are especially prevalent when pollen is released as plants burst forth in the Spring. Allergy symptoms range from mildly irritating to nearly incapacitating. We can begin to reduce the impact of allergies if we understand how our bodies create an allergic reaction and the role stress plays in the frequency and intensity of allergic responses.
Biology of an Allergic Response
An allergy is a hypersensitive immune system response to a trigger that is typically tolerated by most people. Triggers fall into several categories. A few of the common ones are pollen, pet dander, mold and bee stings.
First, the body is sensitized to a foreign substance when it is inhaled, ingested or injected – like bee venom. It is first processed by a group of immune cells called “antigen-presenting cells” (APCs), and with the APCs it migrates to the lymph nodes.
Helper cells (TH) that have specific receptors for the specific allergen are primed, prepared to recognize it the next time. They then mature into beneficial TH1 and TH17cells or TH2 cells, which are responsible for the allergic reaction. In allergic sensitization, the process is pushed towards creating TH2 cells, which release a variety of cytokines, a group of proteins that act as messengers.
Some of the cytokines act on B cells to promote production of IgE allergen-specific antibodies. Others play a role in the release of toxic granule proteins that cause inflammation and tissue damage, and one (IL-9) regulates mast cell activation, telling mast cells when to release histamines.
Re-exposure to an allergen, once the body has been primed, causes the formation and release of mediators, including histamines. These mediators create allergic reactions and can impact multiple body systems, including the respiratory, digestive, lymphatic, circulatory and immune systems, as well as muscle tissue. They can also trigger hives and other allergic reactions on the skin.
Histamines cause enhanced mucus production and gastric acid secretions, and they affect the smooth muscles of airways. The familiar symptoms when they react on the upper respiratory system, causing allergic rhinitis, are: sneezing, coughing, runny nose, and red, watery eyes. More severe reactions can lead to allergic asthma and even anaphylaxis, a true medical emergency.
Addressing symptoms and balancing the immune system can help diminish the impact of allergic reactions, but stress is also an important factor.
The Impact of Stress on Allergies
The immune system and the nervous system are intricately interrelated. The immune system regulates the central nervous system, and the CNS drives our immunity.
When a physical, cognitive/emotional or chemical factor impacts the CNS, we experience a perceived stress, which leads to a physiological response. That response contributes to our allostatic load – the price we pay for responding to the need for adapting to the stressor.
If the allostatic load increases significantly due to the frequency or intensity of the problems we face, we enter a phase of chronic stress, which causes an imbalance in our immune system and deregulation of the mediators that your body produces during the stress response. It suppresses the body’s ability to fight infectious pathogens, and it results in decreased production of beneficial TH1 cells and increased production of TH2 cells, intensifying our response to allergen triggers.
Allergies: A Whole-Body Issue
You may feel an allergic reaction in your sinuses or on your skin, but allergic reaction is a whole-body issue, initiated on the cellular level. Symptom relief may be your first priority, but managing stress will greatly help reduce or eliminate allergic reactions.
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