The Role of Chronic Stress in Autoimmune Disease

Is there a link between chronic stress and autoimmune disease? Can being chronically stressed cause an autoimmune condition?

What the Research Says

A 32-year long study conducted by researchers in Sweden revealed that chronic stress may be the culprit behind many autoimmune conditions, such as lupus and rheumatoid arthritis.

Researchers behind the study analyzed over 100,000 people diagnosed with stress-related disorders, such as acute stress reactions and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and compared them with their siblings, and with over a million unrelated individuals who did not have stress-related disorders.

The study found that participants who were previously diagnosed with a stress-related disorder developed autoimmune conditions at a higher rate than those who did not have a stress-related disorder.

In addition, the study also found that those who suffered from stress-related disorders were more likely to develop multiple autoimmune diseases (as opposed to just one), and had a higher rate of autoimmune disease the younger that they were.

Impact of Stress on the Immune System

Although this study doesn’t necessarily prove that chronic stress triggers autoimmunity, it is proven that stress can negatively impact your body’s immune system.

For example, when stressed, the hormone-producing glands in your body release adrenaline and cortisol into the bloodstream. This, in turn, activates immune cells, which leads to the production of inflammatory proteins called cytokines. While cytokines play an important role in the body’s immune system, the overproduction of cytokines can result in painful and inflammatory conditions, including autoimmune disease.

How to Combat Stress

To combat stress, Dr. Vedrana Tabor, a Hashimoto’s patient herself, suggests getting a good night’s rest, as sleep has a restorative impact on your body and can help maintain a lower stress level. Reducing alcohol consumption and quitting smoking, as well as improving one’s diet, are important, as malnutrition will amplify the negative effects of stress.

Getting regular exercise can also reduce stress by boosting your body’s production of mood-enhancing neurotransmitters called endorphins. Practicing mindfulness techniques, such as meditation, have also shown to work well for the majority of people.

In addition, the Swedish study referenced above found that in patients with stress-related disorders that were being actively treated using an SSRI (a type of anti-depressant), the increased chance of developing an autoimmune disease was less dramatic, suggesting that seeking treatment for mental health issues could have a protective benefit.

Final Thoughts

Whether you’re going through stress at work, school, home, or other aspects of your life, don’t just accept chronic stress as part of your life—actively take steps to combat it. Doing so can not only protect you from developing an autoimmune disease (or developing more, if you already have one), but also have a huge positive impact on your overall health and well being.

 

If you enjoyed this article, check out my last article, 10 Facts about Systemic Lupus Erythematosus (SLE).

10 Facts About Systemic Lupus Erythematosus (SLE)

According to the Lupus Foundation of America, lupus is a chronic autoimmune disease that can damage the body’s vital organs, skin and joints. Read on to find out 10 facts about this chronic autoimmune condition.

1. It is more common than you think

Lupus affects 5 million people worldwide, and 16,000 new cases are reported every year, reports the Lupus Foundation of America. In the United States alone, lupus is estimated to affect up to 1.5 million people. The exact prevalence of lupus among the general population is hard to determine, however, since the symptoms often mimic those of other disorders. For reasons unknown, lupus has become 10 times more common in industrialized Western countries over the last 50 years.

2. It mostly affects women

According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, Females develop lupus nine times more often than their male counterparts. It is more common in younger women, peaking during the childbearing years; however, 20 percent of lupus cases occur in people over age 50. Because lupus largely impacts women, sex hormones are thought to play a role in the onset of this complex disease.

3. Your ethnicity may play a role

In the United States, lupus is more common in people of color, including those of African, Asian, Hispanic/Latino, Native American or Pacific Islander decent. In these populations, lupus is known to develop at a younger age and tends to be more severe as well.

4. Skin problems are a telltale sign

One of the characteristic signs of lupus is a red rash across the cheeks and nose bridge, which worsens when exposed to sunlight, called a ‘butterfly rash’ due to its shape. Other skin problems include calcium deposits under the skin, damaged blood vessels in the skin, and tiny red spots called petechiae, which occurs as a result of bleeding under the skin. Ulcers may also occur in the mucosal lining of the skin. To read more about how lupus affects the skin, click here.

5. Heart problems are also common

Pericarditis, an inflammation of the sac-like membrane around the heart, and abnormalities of the heart valves, which control blood flow, can occur in patients with lupus. Heart disease caused by fatty buildup in the blood vessels, called atherosclerosis, is more prevalent in those with lupus than the general population. To read more about how lupus affects the heart, click here.

6. Lupus affects the nervous system too

A lesser known fact about lupus is its impact on the body’s central nervous system. For example, lupus causes damaging inflammation, which may result in peripheral neuropathy, which involves abnormal sensations and weakness in the limbs. Lupus can also cause cognitive impairment, also called ‘brain fog’, which makes it difficult to process, learn and remember information. Seizures and stroke may also occur.

7. It may be genetic

Lupus tends to run in families. However, the exact inheritance pattern is unknown. Certain gene variations can increase or decrease the risk of developing the disease; however, not everyone with the disease will get lupus. Relatives of those with lupus have a 5-13% chance of developing the disease. Sometimes, someone with a family member with lupus may inherit a different, but related, autoimmune disease, such as Sjögren’s Syndrome or Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA).

8. Lupus can impact one’s quality of life

According to research conducted by the Lupus Foundation of America, 65% of lupus patients state that chronic pain is the most difficult part of having the disease. Furthermore, 76% of patients say that the disease has caused them to develop fatigue so severe that they have had to cut back on social activities. A further 89% of patients report that they can no longer work full-time as a result of their disease. Lupus can also cause mental health problems such as anxiety and depression.

9. The prognosis of the disease varies

Patients with lupus often have episodes during which the condition worsens (called ‘exacerbations’ or ‘flares’), followed by periods of remission. However, since lupus does not currently have a cure, it is a life-long condition. Lupus is known to get worse over time, and damage to the body’s vital organs can be life-threatening. This is why it is important to work with a team of medical professionals that understand the disease.

10. There is hope

If you or a loved one has been newly diagnosed with lupus, check out the Lupus Foundation of America’s newly diagnosed webpage. It is full of resources about the disease, including treatment options, financing your care, and tips on how to live a healthy lifestyle with the disease. You can also sign up for their 8-week email series with tips and resources to empower you to learn more about your condition. The foundation also recently released a new research center on their website, Inside Lupus Research, so that you can keep up-to-date on all of the latest scientific reports, disease management and treatment news.

Thank you for stopping by Autoimmune Warrior. If this article was helpful for you, please like, share, and comment below!

 

3 Things Not to Say to Someone with a Chronic Illness

1. “Why don’t you just try exercising more and eating healthier?”

This is one of the most common questions I get asked when I first tell a friend that I have a chronic illness. And while it may be a well-intentioned question, the reality is, autoimmune conditions do not yet have a cure, and eating well and exercising is unlikely to make one’s symptoms dissipate.

While some patients may swear by a certain diet, such as going gluten-free, or adopting a particular exercise regimen, many others do not see a noticeable difference in their symptoms, despite extensive lifestyle changes. Also, such a sentiment often puts an unnecessary burden on the patient, who may feel like they ‘deserve’ their disease for not adopting ‘enough’ of a healthy lifestyle, when in fact, many scientists believe that there is a strong genetic component to autoimmune and other inflammatory conditions, which is beyond the patient’s control.

So please, the next time you think to tell someone to eat more kale to cure their painful rheumatoid arthritis- think again.

2. “Are you sure that’s what you really have? Maybe it’s just depression?”

When someone confides in you that they have a chronic health condition, they want to feel supported. The last thing they want is a friend or family member putting doubt into their mind about their health.

Furthermore, many patients go years from doctor to doctor seeking an answer about their health problems. When they finally get a diagnosis- although shocking and often devastating- there is a certain amount of relief that one experiences in at least knowing ‘what you have’ and the reassurance that what you’re going through is real. Asking someone “if they’re sure” about their condition, is essentially invalidating their health issues, right when that individual has finally found some closure.

Finally, asking if “it’s just depression” is simply unacceptable. Studies have shown that people with autoimmune conditions have a higher incidence of mental health problems such as depression. However, this shouldn’t be brushed off as “just” depression. Moreover, when I personally have been asked this question in the past, it made me think, ‘is this person saying it’s all in my head?’ This, in turn, made me more reticent about sharing health-related news in the future.

3. “It can’t be that bad, can it? You’re just exaggerating!”

For someone else to brush off your disease is the ultimate slap in the face. Many people with chronic health problems have an invisible illness, meaning that on the outside, they may look fine, but on the inside, they are suffering. Symptoms like chronic pain, organ and tissue damage, and fatigue are not usually noticeable to the naked eye.

Even health care professionals often don’t empathize with their patients’ complaints, telling them that they are exaggerating, or accusing them of being a hypochondriac. The result is that the patient may internalize their suffering, and not turn to their physician or loved ones for the medical help and support they need.

Unless you yourself have experienced the relentlessness of having a chronic condition, you can never know what someone with an invisible illness is going through. All you can do is listen and be there for them.

 

Did you like these tips on what NOT to say to someone with a chronic illness? If so, please like, share, and comment below!

When your doctor doesn’t believe you

Have you ever complained to your family physician about your symptoms, only to be totally dismissed?

Whether you’ve been diagnosed with an autoimmune disease or not, your ailments may be ignored or written off as ‘not a big deal’ by a health care professional.

This has often happened to me over the course of the last 7+ years of having an autoimmune condition. For example, before I was even diagnosed with Sjögren’s Syndrome, I was told that my symptoms, including joint pain, eye and mouth dryness, recurrent ulcers, yeast infections, and fatigue had a plausible, non-disease related cause, and weren’t really a ‘big deal’ anyway.

Even worse, other health care professionals told me my symptoms were nothing more than a figment of my imagination.

Worse yet, after many unproductive visits to doctors’ offices and labs, with little to no explanation for what could be wrong, I actually started to believe…could I be imagining this?

One family MD, for example, told me my joint pain was probably a result of ‘texting too much’. As a fresh-faced teenager, I probably didn’t look like someone who could be experiencing debilitating joint pain. But that shouldn’t matter. In fact, juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, affecting those 16 years and younger, affects over 50,000 people in the United States alone.

Another time, I needed a referral to see a rheumatologist. The nurse who checked me in asked, “How does someone your age need a rheumatologist? Did you wear high heels too much in high school?” Not only was her questioning intrusive, rude, and uncalled for, it invalidated my experience as a patient with a chronic health condition.

As a result, I became even more reticent to explain my health issues with the people who I should be speaking with the most…health care professionals! And sadly, this is too often the experience for others living with autoimmune or other chronic health conditions.

The Sjgoren’s Syndrome Foundation recently shared a tip on social media, stating, “Remember that just because a symptom can’t be seen easily, it is still important. If you feel that a physician dismisses your Sjögren’s symptoms, help educate them and/or find another physician”. Many commenters responded by lamenting their own experiences with not being taken seriously by their healthcare providers. One woman commented, “My dentist keeps telling me to stop making excuses for my bad teeth”, referring to the fact that Sjögren’s often has a devastating impact on patients’ teeth, despite maintaining a solid oral hygiene routine.

If I had to give one piece of advice for anyone with chronic health problems, diagnosed or not, I would say to never give up. If your physician doesn’t take you seriously, move on. This doesn’t mean that you don’t listen to your doctor’s medical advice; this means that if they tell you it’s ‘all in your head’, or ‘it can’t be that bad, can it?’, and you know they are wrong, then you stand your ground.

Remember, you are the best advocate for your own health! Check out these helpful tips published by WebMD about talking to your doctor.

Top News in Autoimmunity – Week of Feb. 20, 2019

Lupus Strongly Linked to Imbalances in Gut Microbiome

Scientists at the NYU School of Medicine have discovered that systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) is strongly linked to imbalances in the body’s gut microbiome.

The study showed that 61 women diagnosed with lupus had five times more Ruminococcus gnavus gut bacteria compared to 17 women who were healthy and did not have lupus. The study also showed that the abnormal levels of gut bacteria appeared to positively correlate with lupus ‘flares’, which are instances when lupus symptoms, such as joint pain, skin rashes, and kidney dysfuntion, increase dramatically.

Dr. Gregg Silverman, immunologist and one of the lead researchers in the study, commented, “Our study strongly suggests that in some patients bacterial imbalances may be driving lupus and its associated disease flares.”

Dr. Silverman also stated that the study may give way to new treatments for the disease, such as probiotics, fecal transplants, or dietary regimens that prevent the growth of the Ruminococcus gnavus gut bacteria. The study also discusses the role of ‘leaky gut’ in triggering the body’s autoimmune reaction.

To read more about the study, click here.

Immunology ‘Boot Camp’ Emphasizes the Role of Chronic Stress in Autoimmune Disease

Leonard Calabrese, Vice Chairman of rheumatic and immunologic disease at the Cleveland Clinic, emphasized the role of chronic stress in the development of autoimmune diseases during an immunology ‘boot camp’.

During his speech, Calabrese cited data that chronic stress compromised the body’s surveillance of pathogens. As a result, modern stressors, such as PTSD, major depression, and the stress associated with being a caregiver, which are chronic in nature, may trigger the pathogenesis of autoimmune disease. This is in contrast to acute stress, which comes in response to immediate dangers, ‘like our ancestors encountering a saber-toothed tiger’, states Calabrese.

The link between chronic stress and autoimmunity has given way to the development a several new therapies. For example, parasympathetic and vagal nerve stimulation are now in development to treat pain-related and autoimmune conditions, such as Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA) and fibromyalgia.

To read more about this research, click here.

Interested in reading more? See last week’s top news in autoimmunity here.

Top News in Autoimmunity – Week of Feb. 13, 2019

Benefit Event Organized for New York Woman with Scleroderma

A benefit event has been organized by the friends of Krislyn Manwaring, a 25-year old woman with Scleroderma living in Erin, NY.

Scleroderma is an autoimmune condition that causes the body’s soft tissue to harden. Manwaring, who is now on oxygen, is in need of a stem cell transplant. However, her health insurance won’t pay for it.

The benefit event will raise funds to go towards Manwaring’s transplant procedure. According to the event’s Facebook page, over 200 attendees have already RSVP’d for the event.

Young Woman Shares Journey with Autoimmune Encephalitis

Tori Calaunan, a young woman from Las Vegas, shares her journey with anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis with the Autoimmune Encephalitis Alliance.

While in nursing school, Calaunan felt some weakness in her right leg, but brushed it off as nothing serious. As the weakness continued to worsen, she also experienced confusion and dizziness. She passed a neuro test and MRI, however, and doctors told her that everything was fine.

She eventually checked into the ER, and stayed there for a month before transferring to a hospital in California, where she finally received her diagnosis of Autoimmune Encephalitis.

Family of Young Man with Rare Autoimmune Disease Outraged Over Drug Price Hike

Will Schuller, from Overland Park, Kansas, was 18 when he began experiencing extreme weakness. An avid runner, he was pulled out of high school when he struggled to walk down the hall, and stopped being able to go up the stairs.

He was eventually diagnosed with Lambert-Eaton Myasthenic Syndrome (LEMS), a chronic autoimmune disorder than affects muscle strength. LEMS is reported among 3,000 people in the US, and can dramatically impact one’s quality of life.

Schuller was prescribed a drug called 3,4-DAP, which made him feel better instantly. The drug was free as a result of an FDA program called ‘compassionate use’. The drug’s manufacturing rights, however, were sold to a company called Catalyst, which renamed the drug Firdapse, and raised the price to $375,000/year for the medication.

Schuller’s family decried the extreme price hike, stating that if it hadn’t been for this medication, their son would certainly be in a wheelchair. Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont called the price increase a ‘fleecing of American taxpayers’.

Schuller is now a senior studying mechanical engineering at the University of Tulsa. Read more about his story here.

Interested in reading more? See last week’s top news in autoimmunity here.

Top News in Autoimmunity – Week of Feb. 6, 2019

Early Onset Primary Sjögren’s Syndrome May Carry a Worse Prognosis

French researchers have discovered that patients diagnosed with early onset Primary Sjögren’s Syndrome may carry a worse prognosis over the course of the disease. Early onset is defined as a diagnosis before age 35.

The study, reported in Rheumatology, states that early onset of this autoimmune disease was found to be associated with a higher frequency of:

  • Salivary gland enlargement
  • Lymph node enlargement
  • Bleeding underneath the skin
  • Liver involvement
  • ANA (antinuclear antibodies, especially anti-SSA and anti-SSB antibodies)
  • Positive Rheumatoid Factor levels
  • Low C3 and C4 complement protein levels
  • Increased levels of immunoglobulin antibodies in the bloodstream

Furthermore, researchers also acknowledged that those with an early onset of the disease showed a worsening progression in their symptoms, whereas those with a later onset showed significant improvement.

Read more about this ground-breaking study here.

’90 Day Fiancé’ Star Ashley Marston to Undergo Additional Surgery Following Kidney Failure

Ashley Marston, star on TLC’s hit reality TV series ’90 Day Fiancé’, recently revealed that she is undergoing additional surgery following a health scare.

Although she did not reveal the nature of her impending surgical procedure, Marston did reveal that she has an autoimmune condition called lupus. Lupus is a disease in which the body’s own immune system attacks its vital organs. In Marston’s case, she suffers from lupus nephritis, which causes inflammation in the kidneys.

After being found unresponsive in her home last month, she was rushed to the hospital and treated for kidney failure. Her upcoming surgery is speculated to be related to this recent hospitalization.

Fans are wishing Marston the best with her surgery and recovery. Read more about her shocking story here.

Interested in more #autoimmunewarrior news? Visit my last news post, here!