Integrative Nutrition Blog

Insights on Autoimmune Health and Inflammatory Conditions

Stress & Autoimmune Flares

Jun 12, 2024 | Inflammation & Autoimmune Disease

Stress is a huge problem for autoimmune diseases. It’s one of my biggest triggers for flares, and for so many of my clients as well. Stress resilience is one of the most important skills to learn when you have an autoimmune disease. This skill will help you minimize flares and keep your disease in remission. So, it is important to understand what your stress response is, why stress triggers flares, and ways you can increase your stress resilience.

What is the Stress Response?

Stress is a normal physiological response that your body can usually handle. When your body senses stress, the adrenal glands release epinephrine, or adrenaline, into the bloodstream. Epinephrine stimulates the sympathetic nervous system to prepare your body to fight or flee. It increases your heart rate, blood pressure and respiratory rate. This all pushes more blood and oxygen to your muscles and lungs to help you survive. Also, the adrenal glands release cortisol, your major stress hormone. Cortisol frees stored glucose in your body that increases your blood sugar levels. This gives your body more energy to use for fighting or fleeing. 

After the stressful event, your body is supposed to go back to its stress-free baseline. The parasympathetic nervous system puts the brakes on the stress response and reverses all of the effects that stress has on the body. This system is made up of cranial nerves that connect your brain to the organs in your body. The vagal nerve is the largest nerve and makes up almost 75% of the parasympathetic nervous system. Are you familiar with the term “brain-gut connection”? This is because the vagal nerve links the organs of the digestive system to the brain. 

Why does Stress Trigger Flares?

Stress is underestimated for its effect on the human body. In fact, chronic stress has been linked to the development of cancer, cardiovascular disease, mental health conditions and autoimmune diseases. Chronic stress is different from an acute stress response, the latter of which is normal and healthy for you. When your body is constantly under stress, the parasympathetic nervous system stops working well. The body doesn’t return to a normal resting state and remains in a heightened state. Epinephrine and cortisol production doesn’t shut off. This keeps blood pressure and blood sugar elevated. 

Consistently elevated cortisol also raises inflammation. While cortisol, in small amounts, acts as an anti-inflammatory hormone, it can have the opposite effect when it is constantly produced in the body. Persistent cortisol disrupts the feedback loop of the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. It also creates an inflammatory response in the body and suppresses the immune system. Therefore, this combination of high inflammation and poor immune system functioning may trigger a flare in those with autoimmune diseases.

How Do You Increase Stress Resilience?

One of the most important tools for managing your autoimmune disease is to learn how to increase stress resilience. There are a number of tools at your disposal for doing this. The key is to find the one that fits your lifestyle and budget. Additionally, it’s good to have both short term and long term tools in your toolbox

Short term tools

Short term tools are things you can do during a stress response. These options help activate your parasympathetic nervous system to get your body back to baseline. They include:

  • Breath work: Breathing is an incredibly effective tool for lowering stress. I see this first hand when my kids are having a meltdown. Using breathwork, especially breathing out, almost immediately calms the body down. There are several techniques for breathwork including deep belly breathing, the 4-7-8 technique and box breathing.
  • Humming: a small study demonstrated the stress reducing benefits of humming using HRV parameters.
  • Nature exposure: spending time in nature lowers overall stress. One study found that spending 120 minutes per week in nature significantly lowered stress levels. That’s only 17 minutes per day.
Long term tools

Long term tools are things you do over the long run to keep your stress levels down and your parasympathetic nervous system active. They include:

  • Meditation: a daily meditation or gratitude practice does wonders for your long term stress. There are several modalities and techniques that work. The key is finding the one that fits you best.
  • Cold exposure: ice baths, cold water swims and cold showers can all lower stress and inflammation. I just got this cold plunge for my backyard and so far I’m loving it.
  • Therapy: there are several therapy techniques that help with stress resilience. Again, it is important to find a therapist you click with, as well as a modality.

Stress is inherently in our lives forever. However, it doesn’t have to ruin your autoimmune journey. Learning how to be more stress resilient will help keep inflammation down and minimize flares. For more information about how to better manage your autoimmune disease, follow me on Instagram, Facebook and YouTube. You can also contact me for a more personalized approach to healing.

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