Have you ever noticed that when you’re stressed, it’s not just your mind that feels the pressure? Maybe you’ve experienced your heart racing, your stomach twisting in knots, or even a sudden rash appearing on your skin. That’s because, beneath the surface of our daily lives, there exists a remarkable interplay between stress and every cell in our body.
And there’s one type of cell in particular that’s especially sensitive to stress – your mast cells. And when these sensitive cells get stressed, it can spell trouble for your health.
Today we’ll dive into exactly what mast cells are, what happens to these complex cells when you experience stress, and most importantly – some steps you can take to soothe and stabilize these stressed-out cells. Let’s dive in.
Mast Cells: What Are They and What Is Their Function?
Mast cells are highly evolved, highly advanced, and indispensable components of your immune system. You see, these tiny immune cells are designed to serve as your immune system’s “front line soldiers” – standing guard and vigilantly watching for any potential threats. When a threat is detected, your mast cells spring into action and undergo degranulation – a process in which they rapidly release a medley of inflammation-stoking signaling molecules.1
These pro-inflammatory signaling molecules serve as the alarm bells, triggering the immune response and summoning other immune cells to join the battle. As additional immune cells converge on the threat, mast cells continue to produce and release a continuous flow of signaling molecules – continually replenishing their arsenal and perpetuating the cycle of inflammation.2
Now, in a healthy, balanced response mast cells are designed to ramp up inflammation, neutralize the threat, and then allow inflammation to taper off until your body returns to homeostasis. But sometimes, this delicate balance can get thrown off-kilter and cause your mast cells to essentially get stuck in the “on” position – leading to what’s known as mast cell activation syndrome.
Mast Cell Activation Syndrome: What Causes Overactive Mast Cells?
In mast cell activation syndrome, or MCAS, your mast cells get stuck in overproduction mode – causing your mast cells to release too many inflammatory mediators too frequently. And because mast cells are dispersed throughout your body and their degranulation sparks an inflammatory response, these malfunctioning mast cells can lead to a slew of symptoms that may include:3
- Skin issues: Such as hives, itching, swelling, and/or flushing
- Digestive woes: Like nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal cramping, and/or bloating
- Cardiovascular concerns: Including things like low blood pressure, rapid pulse, passing out, and/or vascular permeability (inflammation and swelling)
- Respiratory problems: Such as wheezing, shortness of breath, coughing, increased, mucus production, and/or asthma-like symptoms
- Brain, mood, and cognitive disruptions: Like brain fog, anxiety, headaches, difficulty concentrating, sleeplessness, neuropathic pain, and/or vertigo
But these aren’t the only concerns that can be triggered by misbehaving mast cells. Oversensitive and overactive mast cells play a pivotal role in a wide range of inflammation-mediated conditions.
Conditions Linked to Overactive Mast Cells
Just some of the conditions that involve mast cells and can, at least in part, be traced back to overzealous mast cells include:4
- Allergies and severe allergic reactions (anaphylaxis)
- Atopic dermatitis (eczema)
- Autism spectrum disorder
- Chronic inflammatory response syndrome (CIRS)
- Irritable bowel syndrome
- Food allergies
One of the cardinal aspects of these mast cell-related conditions is the cyclic waxing and waning of symptoms with varying degrees of intensity. These “flare-ups” occur because when your mast cells are hypersensitive, there are a number of triggers that can launch them into overproduction mode. And one of the biggest, and most often overlooked triggers is psychological stress.
To better understand this process, let’s zoom in on exactly how your mast cells respond to stress.
The Link Between Stress and Mast Cells: How Do Mast Cells Respond to Stress?
When you encounter psychological stress – a mental and emotional state typically characterized by feelings of tension, pressure, and discomfort – your body has a distinct response. Your mast cells fit into this stress equation in a process that goes something like this:4,5,6
- Stress perception and brain activation: When you experience stress, your brain becomes activated – particularly the parts responsible for the stress response, like the hypothalamus.
- Sympathetic nervous system: Stress activates the sympathetic nervous system, also known as the “fight or flight” system, which prepares your body for action in response to a perceived threat.
- Release of stress hormones: Activation of the sympathetic nervous system leads to the release of stress hormones, such as adrenaline and noradrenaline, into your bloodstream.
- Nerve signaling: These stress hormones can signal peripheral nerves (nerves outside the brain and spinal cord) to release neuropeptides. Neuropeptides are small molecules released by nerves that float through your body and eventually bind to specific receptors on the surface of your mast cells.
- Mast cell response: When neuropeptides attach to these receptors on mast cells, it triggers a response in the mast cells, leading to degranulation.
- Degranulation process: During degranulation, mast cells release various substances including histamine and other inflammatory mediators as well as a cocktail of stress-related hormones like corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH) and adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH).
- Amplification of inflammation: Stress-induced mast cell activation can amplify the body’s inflammatory response – creating an upward spiral that increases levels of pro-inflammatory molecules and exacerbates inflammation.
- Immune dysfunction: Prolonged or chronic stress can lead to immune dysfunction, including dysregulated mast cell responses – ultimately contributing to inflammation-mediated conditions (like those listed above).
Studies have found that stress levels can have a monumental impact on both the development and management of mast-cell mediated conditions. So what can we do to address stress in order to stabilize mast cells, alleviate symptoms, and move towards healing this underlying imbalance?
Addressing Stress to Soothe Mast Cells
Addressing psychological stress is a pivotal piece of the puzzle when it comes to helping your mast cells regain some sense of equilibrium. Some ways to manage stress to help soothe your mast cells might include:
- Stress management techniques: Practicing relaxation techniques like deep breathing, meditation, or mindfulness can help reduce stress levels and promote relaxation. It can be especially helpful to practice these techniques with the help of a relaxation-enhancing and endorphin-boosting mat like HigherDose’s Infrared PEMF Go Mat (get 15% off with code JILL15).
- Regular exercise: Physical activity releases endorphins, which are natural stress-relievers. Aim for regular, moderate exercise to help keep stress in check.
- Healthy diet: Modern-day diets can leave you overstimulated and malnourished. So focusing on building your meals around fresh, whole, and nutrient-dense foods can help your mast cells and immune system find balance. If you need some inspiration to freshen up your diet, be sure to check out my recipe library.
- Adequate sleep: Sleep deprivation is a surefire way to kick your stress levels into high gear. So it can be helpful to create a bedtime routine and maintain a consistent sleep schedule. If slipping into a peaceful slumber is a challenge it may be time to incorporate an all-natural sleep aid like Dream Powder or Sleep Essentials.
- Social support: We are hardwired for love and connection – meaning feelings of isolation or loneliness can spike stress levels. So make time to connect with loved ones and seek support when you need it.
- Mind-body therapies: Therapies like acupuncture, neurofeedback, or aromatherapy can help alleviate stress. It can also be immensely helpful to “train” your brain to spend more time in a relaxed, stress-free state by using a wearable device like Apollo Neuro.
- Stress-busting supplements: Your body and mind are intricately intertwined – meaning psychological stress is equal part mental and physical. Help your body physically bounce back from and combat stress by incorporating stress-busting supplements like Cortisol Essentials and Adrenal Boost to support a balanced stress response.
Keeping your stress levels in check is a piece of the puzzle you simply cannot afford to ignore when it comes to treating any mast-cell-related condition. However, addressing stress works best when combined with some other big-picture strategies to help your mast cells find stability.
Other Ways to Stabilize Mast Cells Naturally
Some other strategies that can help address and stabilize overactive mast cells include things like:
- Avoiding environmental triggers: Like heavy metals and environmental toxins (read more about environmental sensitivities and mast cells here)
- Tackling any mold exposure: As mold is a major trigger of mast activation cell syndrome
- Limiting high-histamine foods: Check out my article Mast Cell Activation Syndrome: Here’s What You Need to Know When Histamine Goes Haywire to learn more about histamine
- Addressing underlying infections: Learn how in my article Hidden Infections and Mast Cell Activation Syndrome: What You Need to Know
To learn more about mast cells and how you can address these cells when they malfunction, be sure to check out the following resources:
- Dr. Jill interviews Beth O’Hara
- Dr. Jill Interviews Beth O’Hara on Mold and MCAS
- The Surprising Link Between Ehlers-Danlos Syndromes & Mast Cell Activation Syndrome
- Mast Cell Activation Syndrome: How It’s Diagnosed and 2 Exciting New Treatments
- Mast Cell Activation Syndrome: 9 Powerful Treatments – and a Surprising Newcomer | Dr. Jill Carnahan, MD
These resources are an excellent place to start. But if you’re concerned that your mast cells may be overactive and contributing to your symptoms, I cannot overemphasize the importance of working with an experienced Integrative and Functional Medicine Doctor. They can help you navigate the complexities of your condition, get to the bottom of your imbalance, and streamline your path to healing.
Mastering Stress is Key When It Comes to Addressing Overactive Mast Cells
The more we learn about ourselves as human beings the more evident it is that our bodies and minds are intricately connected. There is no separating the body, mind, and soul – they must all be nourished to tap into true healing and vibrant health. And nowhere is that more evident than in the case of malfunctioning mast cells.
The key to stabilizing your mast cells, addressing any other underlying imbalance, or simply taking your health to the next level is finding the sweet spot that allows you to cultivate your physical, mental, and spiritual well-being. That’s why I’m so dedicated to empowering you – my patients and readers – with the tools and resources you need to do exactly that.
I’ve got loads of science-backed resources on my blog and YouTube channel (and I drop new content every week, so be sure to sign up for my email list). And I really dive deep into my personal journey while sharing a repeatable roadmap to create a life full of vibrant health, true connection, and deep purpose in my new book Unexpected: Finding Resilience Through Functional Medicine, Science, and Faith.
- The Role of Mast Cells in the Defence against Pathogens – PMC (nih.gov)
- Mast Cell: A Multi-Functional Master Cell – PMC (nih.gov)
- Mast Cell Activation Syndrome: Proposed Diagnostic Criteria – PMC (nih.gov)
- The impact of psychological stress on mast cells (annallergy.org)
- Mast Cell Activation in Brain Injury, Stress, and Post-traumatic Stress Disorder and Alzheimer’s Disease Pathogenesis – PMC (nih.gov)
- Mast cell activation by stress – PubMed (nih.gov)
* These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. The product mentioned in this article are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. The information in this article is not intended to replace any recommendations or relationship with your physician. Please review references sited at end of article for scientific support of any claims made.