The Impact of Food and Environmental Allergies on Mental Health

By Dmitria Veselak, BA

It’s no small secret that allergies are having a shining moment in the health world, and for good reason. Many of us have heard of the impact that non-lethal allergens can wreak havoc on our skin, our stomach, and our energy. However, a lesser discussed topic is the influence of allergies on our mood and mental health. The impact of allergies and intolerances on mental health can be as simple as brain fog and spaciness, but can often be implicated in the experience of more severe mental illness, such as depression, anxiety, and even psychosis. This is a huge discovery that has slowly been making its way through the medical community, but if you haven’t heard this before, or if your doctor hasn’t mentioned it, you’re not alone! The focus of food-based allergies and intolerances on mental health is still an emerging and exciting field. It is only recently that allergies have started to be recognized as a cause for many common ailments, including being implicated in the severity of mental and mood disorders. 

Ok, but wouldn’t I already know if I have an allergy?

Not necessarily! Food and environmental reactions are split into two categories referred to as IgE and IgG responses. This is the difference between what is known as a traditional allergy, and an intolerance or sensitivity. An IgE reaction can range from the annoying symptoms of seasonal and environmental allergies like watery eyes, sneezing, and skin rashes, all the way to a severe anaphylactic response. Typically, these allergies are much easier to diagnose as their physical symptoms are quite prevalent, or acutely dangerous. IgG reactions tend to take more investigation to diagnose as the symptoms are delayed immune responses resulting in internal inflammation. This inflammation can produce a variety of symptoms from lethargy, pain, bloating, and a predisposition to certain autoimmune disorders, all the way to influencing mood and behavior dysregulation and disorders. As these symptoms are complex and less obviously associated with food and environmental intolerances, it can be very easy to overlook food as a possible culprit.

I think this might be me! What do I do now?

If you are wondering if allergies and intolerances might be impacting your quality of life, there are a few avenues you can take. 

Elimination Diet

The quickest and cheapest at-home method is simply starting an elimination diet. It takes between 4-7 days for an allergen to fully exit your system, and another few days before your body can begin to noticeably repair itself, so it is generally recommended to commit to a full two weeks before reintroducing foods. However, the good news is that symptoms will usually start to recede on day 5 so you will have a chance to notice and enjoy symptom reduction before a reintroduction challenge. Sometimes, the relief is so obvious, that there is actually no need to reintroduce the foods. At other times, several foods may be causing symptoms, so reintroducing them one at a time can clarify matters. 

If you are eliminating multiple foods at once, try reintroducing each food one at a time so that you can be aware of which food might cause a reaction once reintroduced. For some people, reintroducing an allergen might cause a stronger reaction than they previously experienced while eating the food consistently. This is called an unmasked reaction and is very normal. Our incredible, brilliant bodies are sometimes able to find ways to function around an allergy, but once it’s finally free it makes it very clear that the food is NOT welcome back! 

If you’re worried that your allergen might be environmental the same rules still apply. Try distancing yourself from possible environmental or chemical culprits while keeping track of your symptoms before and after. Often with environmental sensitivities, it’s much easier to notice the difference when you are mindfully keeping track of how you feel with and without exposure. An elimination diet can be intimidating, so it is always recommended to access the help of a doctor, nutritionist, or health coach who can answer your questions and guide you through the process before starting. The Academy for Addiction and Mental Health Nutrition has such coaches listed here in our website.

Get Tested

Most allergy testing done in a doctor’s office focuses on environmental allergens or IgE reactions. If you’ve ever gone to an allergist and had a skin prick test done, they were testing for IgE allergies which cause noticeable physical symptoms. If you’ve done one of these and left with less information than when you started, don’t despair! As mentioned before, IgE reactions are only half the battle. You can still have an IgG sensitivity to foods that will not show up in traditional allergy testing. To test for IgG foods you will need to order a comprehensive blood test. There are several over-the-counter options that you can order online, but as always I suggest finding a trusted practitioner to help you wade through your best options. 

We often hear of the mind-body connection when it comes to our dietary and lifestyle choices, and exploring the path of allergies and sensitivities is an exciting way of examining that connection in depth. I encourage you to believe your body when you experience responses from your food or environment that you wouldn’t normally associate with an allergy, such as a change in mood or behavior. By focusing on our relationship and reactions to our food and environment we can establish more mindful habits as well as become aware of possible sensitivities.

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