Allergy sufferers need to be careful what they eat, what they touch and where they are. This psychological stress puts additional strain on the immune system. Relaxation exercises help relieve itching and shortness of breath.

The life stories of allergy sufferers often tell of unfulfilled dreams, marginalization and fear. Rashes, itching, and shortness of breath are just the obvious symptoms. The physical effects of allergies are also very psychologically stressful: Many allergy sufferers sleep poorly, cannot concentrate properly or feel unsightly because of their rashes.

“25 to 40 percent of allergy sufferers develop psychological problems, especially fears,” says Uwe Gieler from the Clinic for Psychosomatics and Psychotherapy at the University Hospital in Giessen and Marburg. In a kind of feedback effect, psychological stress can aggravate an allergy, possibly even trigger it. This was the result of numerous molecular biological research projects on the subject.

Stress increases allergy symptoms

“75 percent of allergy sufferers react to stress with an allergy surge,” says the biopsychologist Angelika Buske-Kirschbaum from the Technical University of Dresden. They put allergic test subjects who suffered from eczemasuffered from a stress test. The test persons had to solve arithmetic problems in a mock application situation and present themselves to a critical committee. Interestingly, after this stress test, allergy sufferers had significantly less of the stress-regulating hormone cortisol in their saliva than a non-allergic control group. The neurodermatitis sufferers had a significantly worsened skin appearance the next day: reddened areas were now significantly larger and more inflamed. “One of the tasks of cortisol is to regulate the immune system, particularly inflammatory reactions, in a stressful situation and to prevent an excessive immune response,” explains Buske-Kirschbaum the result. This control brake is obviously missing in allergy sufferers. Your immune system remains on the highest alert, and inflammation is free.

Tenderness alleviates allergy stress

At the University of Gießen and Marburg, Eva Peters, who heads the psychoneuroimmunology laboratory, researches the direct effects of psychological stress on the immune system and the skin. In 2008 Peters and her team discovered that a messenger substance called “Substance P” mediates stress in the skin. It acts like an interpreter between the nervous and immune systems. “If we exposed mice to terrifying noise for a long time, a certain type of nerve cell would multiply in them,” explains Peters. “These neurons communicate via substance P directly with those immune cells that aggravate allergic inflammation.”

Entrenching is not a solution

Complete isolation from the stressful environment is no solution. “It is not recommended to just lock yourself in at home and avoid any excitement,” says neuroimmunologist Peters. Repeated stress in small doses with plenty of breaks in between is even good. “The body becomes more tolerant of stress and produces more cells that suppress inflammation.”

Caresses and massages provide an additional immune kick. The more often couples exchanged tenderness, the lower the concentration of stress hormones in their saliva, according to a study by the University of Zurich. Relaxation exercises such as mindfulness training and meditation also help. In a study by the University of Basel, the symptoms of pollen allergy sufferers improved when they put themselves mentally in an allergen-free environment, such as on a ski slope.

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