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).