Stress is one of the most common underlying triggers of autoimmune diseases and chronic diseases. In fact, several retrospective studies have reported that up to 80% of patients have uncommon emotional stress before the disease onset. Chronic and extremely acute stressful situations including trauma or significant life stressors can negatively impact the body and make it more susceptible to disease.
Let’s talk about the research. There was a really interesting study published in 2018 in the Journal of American Medical Association that looked at a large population and a sibling match cohort from a Swedish database. They basically broke up all these patients into different groups. They had a group of patients who had already had a diagnosis of a stress-related disorder. Then they had a group of people who they matched by birth year and sex who did not have any stress-related issues. Then they actually took siblings from that stress-related group into a separate group. They looked at everyone who had a stress-related disorder, people who didn’t have a stress-related disorder, and then the siblings of the people who had a stress-related disorder.
They followed these groups for over a 10-year period, looking for any diagnosis of an autoimmune disease. If the unexposed participant were diagnosed with a stress-related disorder, they would be moved into the stress group. After 10 years they found that the incidence of an autoimmune diagnosis was 9.1% for the stress-related group, 6% in the unexposed group, and 6.5% for the sibling group. There’s a pretty significant jump between the 6% and the 9% for people who have a stress-related condition and developing autoimmune diseases.
How Does Stress Affect Your Body?
Stress can throw off many of your body’s systems. One of the first things it does is affects your hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. Your HPA axis is a collection of glands that help regulate hormones related to stress, and also your sex hormones. It turns on when your body needs it, and then it turns off to help return everything back to normal.
One of the major hormones that it regulates is cortisol. Cortisol is a stress hormone. It’s released when your body senses it, when the stress is over cortisol production drops and your body goes back to normal. However, when your body is under constant stress, you don’t actually shut off the production of cortisol. So you’re left with elevated levels of cortisol in your body.
What’s really interesting is that cortisol is actually a really good hormone. In normal cases, it acts as an anti-inflammatory, and it helps to regulate the immune response. However, when the body is chronically stressed and constantly pumping out cortisol, the immune system becomes desensitized to cortisol. Therefore, cortisol fails to control inflammation, and in turn, your body produces more inflammatory cytokines, which just leads to more inflammation. We all know that inflammation is kind of that underlying, nagging trigger of autoimmune diseases as well.
To make things worse, it also decreases your body’s white blood cells called lymphocytes. Lymphocytes are the cells that help fight off infection. The fewer of these white blood cells you have floating around, the more susceptible your body is to infections.
Stress can trigger dysbiosis. A study done on mice show that stress changed the intestinal bacteria and that intestinal bacteria that it was changed to actually stimulated your cells to attack its own body. So, stress can actually cause the growth of bacteria that then encourages your body to attack itself, which is what we see in autoimmune diseases.
The second way stress affects your gut is leaky gut. Stress can increase intestinal permeability. As I’ve said before, leaky gut is a hallmark sign and potential trigger of autoimmune diseases in and of itself. When you have stress, you have more intestinal permeability, and more things can come sneak through your intestinal lining. But then you also have fewer white blood cells to attack those things.
How Do You Reduce Stress?
If you know you are a stressed out person, what should you do? Just because you’re stressed doesn’t mean you have to be a stressed-out person forever.
The first step is to identify the stressful things in your life. I want you to write down the stressful things that trigger stress in your life on a piece of paper. Then I want you to look at the list, and for each stressor, write down three things you can do to better manage that particular thing. For instance, let’s say your job is causing you a lot of stress. Is there a different role that you can focus on within your job or within your company that will be less stressful for you? Is it your manager? Can you move to a different team or maybe it’s time for a career change? As scary as that sounds, you may have to consider your health as something just as important as your job.
The second thing that you can do is to find some stress-relieving tools to keep in your toolbox. This could be deep breathing. It could be meditation. You could also try using an inner balance trainer. Or just going for a walk outside and spending time in nature. Practice a few to see what you know what really works well for you.
Therapy is also another great option. There are several therapy approaches that work on stress. It’s up to you to find which one clicks for you. But if you go to Psychology Today, you can find a therapist in your area that specializes in your specific need and therapeutic modality.
Today we focused on how stress can be a trigger for your autoimmune disease and a few ways that you can start tackling your stress.
If you need additional support managing your gut issues or your autoimmune disease, please contact me for a free discovery call. You can also follow me on Instagram at @the.autoimmune.dietitian or Facebook at @annierubinnutrition or my website.