Stress May Be Making Your Allergies Worse

A man sneezing into a tissue

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Key Takeaways

  • A new study suggests that there may be a connection between the corticotropin-releasing stress hormone and seasonal allergies.
  • The study's findings suggest that the corticotropin-releasing stress hormone may cause the activation of mast cells, which causes allergies and other conditions.
  • More research is needed to see if blocking the corticotropin-releasing stress hormone would be an appropriate and effective way to minimize or eliminate allergies.

If you find your allergies getting worse this spring, elevated stress from the pandemic or your day-to-day may be the culprit.

Researchers from the Osaka City University in Japan found that the presence of a stress hormone in the body may worsen nasal allergies. In the study, stressed mice were more likely to release the corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH), which induced the proliferation of mast cells—the cells responsible for immediate allergic reactions. The study was published in the International Journal of Molecular Sciences in March.

CRH drives the body's response to stress and helps release cortisol, one of the primary stress hormones.

"What they concluded was that corticotropin-releasing hormone induces mast cells in our skin to release their enzymes and mast cells (MCs) are involved in the allergic response in our bodies," Ekta Perera, MD, an allergist and immunologist at ColumbiaDoctors and assistant professor of medicine at Columbia University Irving Medical Center in New York, who was not involved with the study, tells Verywell.

Stress-Induced Allergies

The study consisted of two different research components. First, the researchers added CRH to a nasal polyp organ culture and noticed that the number of mast cells in the human nasal mucosa (lining of the nasal cavity) substantially increased.

They then used a restraint stress mouse model. The researchers instigated a stress response in mice by restraining them for three hours a day for seven consecutive days. The researchers evaluated the CRH levels in mice after one day (acute stress) and after seven days (chronic stress).

The mice that were restrained produced higher levels of CRH and mast cells, which can work to trigger allergic reactions. Both Amina Abdeldaim, MD, MPH, clinical assistant professor at NYU Langone and medical director of Picnic Allergy, and Perera caution that results from studies in mice might not be replicated in humans.

However, Abdeldaim and Perera noted that there likely is a relationship between stress and allergies. "It's beautiful from these clinical observations that we make, that remain anecdotal, to actually have some scientific evidence for it," Abdeldaim tells Verywell.

The Relationship Between Allergies and Stress

For more than a decade, research has suggested that there is a link between allergies and stress. For example, a review published in Annals of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology found that "Psychological stress augments allergic activation of MCs, but the available human evidence…indicates that stress also stimulates MCs through CRH directly or together with other peptides to release proinflammatory molecules that contribute to the pathogenesis of atopic diseases." Perera says that research on human subjects would need to be done to see if blocking the CRH could potentially become a treatment for people with allergies.

"We understand that stress can impact allergies, and we understand that stress potentially is ramping up the immune response in patients with allergies and other conditions, but...we just don't understand what's causing it," Perera says.

Whether or not the CRH is the most consequential hormone causing stress-related allergy symptoms, Perera says it's important that a specific relationship between hormones and stress be investigated. "It's good that this study is looking at a particular neurotransmitter, or neuro-hormone because in a lot of ways, stress ramps up hormones and causes a lot of medical conditions or symptoms that we experienced, but we just don't have that understanding of," she says.

What This Means For You

Blocking CRH is not yet a recommended treatment for managing allergies. If your seasonal allergies are bothering you, there are different types of medications you can use to help manage your symptoms like oral antihistamines, decongestants, nasal sprays, and more. Talk to a healthcare provider if you are worried about the allergies you're experiencing.

Potential Effects on Other Conditions

In addition to allergies, there are other conditions characterized by mast-cell activity, including mast cell activation syndrome (MCAS), mastocytosis, and atopic dermatitis. The 2020 review in Annals of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology found that the common symptoms associated with mast cells that are exacerbated by stress include:

  • Angioedema
  • Anxiety
  • Brain fog
  • Diarrhea
  • Fatigue
  • Flushing
  • Headache
  • Heart rate
  • Hives

Abdeldaim says that people with allergies, MCAS, mastocytosis, or another mast-cell-related condition need more available treatment options to help manage their symptoms. "Any further study, safely done, is the right answer to looking for other targets besides histamine when we treat these diseases," she says.

Taking Care of Yourself During Allergy Season

Fred Pescatore, MD, physician advocate for Pycnogenol and natural health expert based in New York City, tells Verywell that, in addition to managing stress, he encourages his patients to make sure that they are taking steps to practice good hygiene to limit continuous exposure to pollen.

"There are all sorts of things [you can do] to mitigate the pollen that is in your life," Pescatore says. "Washing your hands, washing your hair [...] before bedtime because your hair can carry a lot of pollen."

Pescatore also recommends people take measures to control their mast cell activation before allergy season even starts by addressing inflammation. Research suggests that allergies and inflammation are closely interlinked. "You want to make sure you're doing what you can to reduce inflammation, which will then reduce the body's response to mast cells that causes us to have those horrible symptoms that nobody likes," he says.

Although it may be impossible to avoid allergy triggers, there are also steps that you can take to help manage your symptoms. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends taking a few steps to protect yourself during pollen season, including:

  • Check pollen forecasts on local news and online sources and plan to spend less time outdoors when pollen levels will be high.
  • Take your allergy and/or asthma medications as prescribed by your healthcare provider.
  • Don’t touch your eyes while you are outside, and wash your hands when you go back inside (before you touch your eyes).
  • Shower after being outside to remove pollen from your skin and hair.
  • Change your clothes after being outdoors.
  • Keep windows closed during pollen season.
  • Use high-efficiency filters in your home’s heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) system. 
4 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Yamanaka-Takaichi M, Mizukami Y, Sugawara K, et al. Stress and nasal allergy: corticotropin-releasing hormone stimulates mast cell degranulation and proliferation in human nasal mucosaInt J Mol Sci. 2021;22(5):2773. doi:10.3390/ijms22052773

  2. Theoharides TC. The impact of psychological stress on mast cells. Ann Allergy Asthma Immunol. 2020;125(4):388-392. doi:10.1016/j.anai.2020.07.007

  3. Bellanti J, Settipane R. Inflammation and allergic disease: An irrefutable combinationAllergy Asthma Proc. 2019;40(1):1-3. doi:10.2500/aap.2019.40.4198

  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Pollen and your health.

By Julia Métraux
Julia Métraux is a health and culture writer specializing in disability.