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Allergy sufferers are more susceptible to stress and tend to suppress emotions

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Do allergic and non-allergic individuals differ in their response to acute stress and in how they handle emotions? A research team led by Lisa Maria Glenk from the interuniversity Messerli Research Institute (a joint institution of Vetmeduni Vienna, MedUni Vienna and the University of Vienna) investigated these questions in a recently published scientific study – and came to astonishing results.

Allergies are on the rise worldwide, especially in developed countries with a high standard of hygiene. About one in four people suffer from asthma, hay fever and other allergic diseases, with women being more affected than men. Stress can activate or inhibit the immune system, though its complex effect in association with allergies has not been fully explored. Earlier research has already shown that allergy sufferers are more anxious and more susceptible to stress than people without allergies.

A research team led by Lisa Maria Glenk from the Messerli Research Institute in Vienna examined healthy and allergic persons using a standardized stress test. The study participants completed a questionnaire before and after the stress induction in which they were asked about their emotion regulation strategies and their perceived stress level. The scientists also measured the participants’ concentrations of the hormones cortisol and oxytocin.

Increased susceptibility to stress due to unsuccessful emotion regulation
After the stress test, both allergic and healthy participants reported increased levels of anxiety and stress. Allergy sufferers, however, exhibited a higher concentration of the stress hormone cortisol and had a longer recovery period. Differences were also reported between allergic and non-allergic individuals with regard to the secretion of oxytocin, also known as the “cuddle hormone” or “bonding hormone”. Oxytocin levels were significantly higher in allergy sufferers before the test but dropped as a result of the stress induction. With the healthy participants, it was the other way around. Interestingly, allergic individuals suppressed their emotions more than non-allergic participants. Study director Erika Jensen-Jarolim: “We repeatedly see that allergic patients deny the severity of their chronic symptoms.” Allergic persons who used emotional reappraisal recovered more efficiently from the stress-induced situation. Co-author Oswald D. Kothgassner from the Medical University of Vienna adds: “These findings suggest that mechanisms of stress regulation play a crucial role in the co-occurrence of allergies and depression.” The present study thus suggests that allergy sufferers and healthy people have different emotion regulation strategies, which in turn influences their stress tolerance.

The article “Salivary cortisol responses to acute stress vary between allergic and healthy individuals: the role of plasma oxytocin, emotion regulation strategies, reported stress and anxiety” by L. M. Glenk, O. D. Kothgassner, A. Felnhofer, J. Gotovina, C. L. Pranger, A. N. Jensen, N. Mothes-Luksch, A. Goreis, R. Palme, E. Jensen-Jarolim was published in Stress.