Study: Stress Could Be Making You Sick, Especially If You’ve Got Allergies

EAST LANSING, Mich. — Do you find you get sick more frequently when your nerves are wound up? A research team at Michigan State University found that different types of stress react to immune cells and can affect how those cells respond to allergens, potentially worsening a person’s reaction and symptoms.

The study illustrates how a particular stress receptor, called corticotropin-releasing factor, or CRF1, sends signals to particular immune cells, called mast cells, to control how they defend the body from infection and pathogens.

Stressed woman screaming
A new study finds that certain types of stress may cause more severe reactions to allergens, potentially making a person more sick than they would be under less stressful conditions. (Photo by Gabriel Matula on Unsplash)

“Mast cells become highly activated in response to stressful situations the body may be experiencing,” explains Adam Moeser, an associate professor who specializes in stress-induced diseases, in a university release. “When this happens, CRF1 tells these cells to release chemical substances that can lead to inflammatory and allergic diseases such as irritable bowel syndrome, asthma, life-threatening food allergies and autoimmune disorders such as lupus.”

Histamine, a chemical substance that helps the body flush invading allergens like dust mites, pollen, or proteins found in foods like peanuts, can be kicked into overdrive, leading to potentially-dangerous reactions in those with severe allergies. However, histamine response can also be affected by stress levels.

Moeser conducted his study on mice, comparing the histamine responses to psychological and allergic forms of stress conditions when the immune system is overworked. One group of mice had normal CRF1 receptors, while another group had mast cells that lacked CRF1.

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“While the ‘normal’ mice exposed to stress exhibited high histamine levels and disease, the mice without CRF1 had low histamine levels, less disease and were protected against both types of stress,” says Moeser. “This tells us that CRF1 is critically involved in some diseases initiated by these stressors.”

More specifically, Moeser found that the mice without CRF1 that were exposed to allergic stress had a 54 percent reduction in disease. The rodents put in psychologically stressful situations had a 63 percent decrease.

The results of the study could change the way diseases like asthma are treated, as well as gastrointestinal maladies like irritable bowel syndrome.

“This work is a critical step forward in decoding how stress makes us sick and provides a new target pathway in the mast cell for therapies to improve the quality of life of people suffering from common stress-related diseases,” says Moeser.

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