"Pass the F*cking Kale." Food Additives, Allergies, and Anxiety

Friday, February 27, 2015 by Meg   •   Filed under Anxiety

Do you have anxiety? It might be what you’re eating. You might even have allergies. 

Now, I know what you’re thinking: “DUH, Meg, I’d KNOW if I was allergic to something! What the hell are you wasting our time for?”

Well, because you might not know that contrary to popular belief, allergies are not just indicated by hives or trouble breathing. Allergies might also show up as anxiety, depression, panic disorders or even behavioral conditions such as ADHD.  

Now, I am not saying that all anxiety or mood disorders are related to allergies. That simply isn’t true. But they can be and that’s a problem because the general population has no idea that this is the case. We aren’t taught to look at anxiety as a mental health issue; the first line of defense is generally anti-anxiety drugs or cognitive behavioral therapy. While both may have merit in some populations, we must also consider that what we put into our bodies has the ability to trigger mood issues. You never know what you will uncover when you look at the whole person as opposed to just one isolated symptom, such as “I feel nervous.”

But it isn’t just new-agey bullshit. Let’s look at the research on food, anxiety and allergies.

Food and Mood Disorders

In the past we’ve talked about certain foods and their ability to trigger and anxiety and depression. The most common culprits are processed foods due to chemical additives such as aspartame (discussed more here). Outside of sweeteners, things like artificial food dyes lead to behavioral issues such as ADHD symptoms, anxiety and depression in rats7. But these affects decline after they stop pumping rodents full of Lucky Charms. At least I think that’s what they used, mostly because it amuses me to think of that jolly elfin bastard getting his face chewed on by a mouse. But whatever. I think I just have issues with leprechauns. 

Worst. Irishwoman. Ever.

Anyway, none of this food-causes-brain-issues is new information to the food industry. Some of these chemicals are used purposefully to excite brain cells, creating an explosion of feel good endorphins, which makes you crave it more. Unfortunately, that explosion also excites brain cells to death leaving us more susceptible to depression and anxiety due to less ability to repair. And because of the nature of those chemicals, you might be craving the very thing that is making you ill. (More on brain repair and cell death in Depression and Brain Changes and check out Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us and Fat Chance: Beating the Odds Against Sugar Processed Food, Obesity and Disease). 

Okay, okay, so food additives =  brain cell excitement and death. Bummer. But this is what those additives are supposed to do for everyone, though we don’t always recognize it. So how about when you’re allergic to these chemicals, or have undiagnosed allergies to foods that are usually healthy?

The Relationship Between Mood Disorders and Allergies

The immune system dysfunctions involved in allergies are similar to those in highly stressed populations1, and most studies conducted on the links between mood disorders and allergies have found relationships between the two4. Those with allergies tend to have much higher rates of anxiety, panic disorder, panic attacks, depression, and bipolar disorder than the general population2. And in some studies, when the allergy is treated effectively, mood disorders disappear or are reduced to the point that they are not longer significant2

This is also true of those with seasonal allergies. Higher levels of allergens like pollen in the air lead to higher anxiety (and some depressive symptoms) in those who are sensitive3. And when these people underwent desensitization allergy treatments, their anxiety lessened as well. 

But why? How does allergy alter mood? 

It is suspected that allergies increase the risk for anxiety issues by triggering the immune system and cytokines, proteins involved in cellular signaling4. And if you get enough signals going haywire you end up with neurotransmitters freaking out or getting all confused. 

Imagine that your body is a brick house (I hear it’s might, mighty). You’re going to be sensitive to invaders, things that lead to stress. You might even overreact if you see a tarantula,  perhaps lighting the whole fucking thing on fire as opposed to just getting rid of the spider. 

This is what your body is doing. It knows that what you ate is not good for it by the presence of increased mast cells and other immune system changes, even if it is below the threshold for you to recognize hives or breathing issues. And all those changes trigger nervous system reactions such as anxiety.

With this in mind, it is no wonder that panic disorder is especially related to allergies. Panic disorder is characterized by going into fight/flight mode, often without cause. Some researchers believe that panic disorder results from this hypersensitivity of the immune system and encourage that allergies be considered as a potential cause for those with panic attacks5


Interestingly, this immune overreaction seems to work both ways because stress makes both conditions worse. For instance if you treat anxiety responses, you can reduce allergy symptoms, such as the itching in atopic dermatitis6 (or eczema). This is also why I have a whole different post on stress and autoimmune responses (so stay tuned). 

Your anxiety is more likely to be allergy related if you have other symptoms such as skin rashes, irritable bowel syndrome or stomach aches. If you aren't sure whether you have allergies, see an immunologist for testing. However, allergy tests are expensive and not 100% accurate. The best way to determine if you are sensitive to something is to start with a food log. Track what you eat and when you eat it for a few weeks. Chart when you have anxiety reactions or other issues with mood, along with things like rashes, eczema flares, upset stomach, diarrhea or other gastrointestinal issues. If you notice that you get anxious every morning twenty minutes after eating Cocoa Puffs, stop eating them and other foods that have similar ingredients. If you have panic attacks three hours after you eat citrus, don’t buy oranges or grapefruits. See if your symptoms improve. And after a few weeks without it, try the food again and see if the symptoms come back. If they do, you’ve found (at least one of) your problem foods. 

You might also want to check out Gut and Psychology Syndrome for ways to increase intestinal health (and reduce inflammation) in the long term. As a disclaimer, while the overall information is great, there are some generalizations made which don’t hold true in all cases, specifically with regard to autism. However, I have had many clients swear by the tactics and show great improvements in allergies and mood issues, so it’s worth a shot. It’s mostly probiotics, eating green veggies, upping good fats and avoiding allergens. There’s not a lot of downside there. 

Anxiety hurts. Panic hurts. Depression hurts. Most would give anything to reduce them, even incrementally. If you suspect your issues may be stemming from undiagnosed allergies or food additives, take steps to eliminate what you can. The worst case is that you lose the privilege of eating Lucky Charms. But not having that smug, pot-of-gold-chasing bastard peering out of your cupboard everyday is really its own reward.  

Related Posts: 

  1. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3264048/
  2. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23181792
  3. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2678838/
  4. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21860841
  5. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11990892 
  6. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16954786
  7. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4061018/

Topic-Relevant Resources

Fat Chance: Beating the Odds Against Sugar, Processed Food, Obesity, and Disease
A look at the effects of processed food on the brain.

Why Do I Still Have Thyroid Symptoms (when my lab tests are normal)
Exploration of the causes and effects of thyroid malfunction on mental health and other body systems

Prescription for Nutritional Healing
Guide to natural health practices

Salt, Sugar, Fat
Exploration of the psychological mechanisms involved in food addiction, particularly the processed variety, and the evolution of the food industry.

Gut and Psychology Syndrome: Natural Treatment for Autism, Dyspraxia, A.D.D., Dyslexia, A.D.H.D., Depression, Schizophrenia
An additional piece to the puzzle for those suffering from allergies and certain types of neurological issues. Food matters for mental health. This helps to explain some of those processes.

Nourishing Traditions: The Cookbook that Challenges Politically Correct Nutrition and the Diet Dictocrats
Great book on nutrition that includes old world recipes to get back to basics