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!

Happy New Year’s! What are your 2019 Resolutions?

Happy New Year’s Day!

Firstly, happy New Year’s Day and thank you to those of you who already follow the Autoimmune Warrior blog! I am so looking forward to 2019 and all of the adventures and experiences that are to come.

New Year’s Resolutions

What are your resolutions for 2019? One of my main resolutions is to focus more on my health and well being. For example, I’d like to go to the gym more, work out with my husband, and attend more fitness classes. I also want to cook more meals at home, and learn new healthy recipes.

Finally, I want to spend more time taking care of my autoimmune conditions- especially Sjögren’s Syndrome, which is the main condition that affects me. This involves attending doctor’s appointments, taking all of my required medications, and listening more to my body- even if it sometimes means saying ‘no’ to things that I want to do, but would over-exert myself.

Here’s to 2019!

So here’s to the year ahead – wishing all of you readers success in your endeavors this year.

What are your goals and aspirations for 2019? I would love to hear them. Comment below!

 

 

Top News in Autoimmunity – Week of Dec. 12, 2018

Man left paralyzed from the nose down by rare autoimmune disorder

David Braham, a 40-year old man from the United Kingdom, came down with a bad case of food poisoning, which he believes was triggered by eating chicken curry. A few days later, he was in the hospital being put into an induced coma.

It turns out, the food poisoning had caused him to develop a rare autoimmune condition called Guillain-Barre Syndrome. This disorder causes the body’s immune system to attack its own nerves, leaving the patient paralyzed.

Braham is re-learning how to do basic tasks, such as walking, washing himself and brushing his teeth, and is happy that he has been able to return home to his family. Read more about his harrowing story here.

Purdue University developing new treatment options for autoimmune diseases

Purdue University researchers have developed a series of molecules to help provide symptom relief to those with autoimmune conditions.

Mark Cushman, a distinguished professor of medicinal chemistry at the university, was the lead researcher in the study. His research team found that the molecules are more effective than pharmaceuticals currently on the market at affecting cell signaling and inhibiting autoimmune reactions. They have also shown to produce less side effects than conventional treatments.

Read more about this exciting discovery here.

MSU student shares her story with Alopecia

Payton Bland, a freshman student at Minot State University (MSU) in North Dakota, shares her story of acceptance and confidence while living with Alopecia.

Alopecia is an autoimmune condition that causes the body to attack its own hair follicles. The result can be extensive hair loss. In the case of Alopecia Universalis, the patient loses 100% of the hair on their body.

Oftentimes, those affected by this disorder suffer from anxiety. Payton, however, is undeterred by her Alopecia. Her bald head might cause her to stand out on campus, but she also stands out because of her upbeat personality and positive attitude.

Payton has spoken with young girls living with the condition, to inspire and empower them that it’s nothing to be ashamed about. She credits her family and faith in helping her stay confident in who she is. Watch her heartening interview here.

Top News in Autoimmunity – Week of Dec. 5, 2018

Sjogren’s non-profit seeks applicants for research grants

The Sjogren’s Syndrome Foundation (SSF) is now accepting applications for research grants. Two distinct awards are being offered: the SSF Pilot Research Award for $25,000 and the SSF High Impact Research Award for $75,000. To view more details and apply, see the SSF website.

Trump administration proposes access barriers to drugs critical to autoimmune patients health

The American Autoimmune Related Diseases Association (AARDA) reports that the Trump administration has proposed a Medicare rule that allows for step therapy and prior authorization restrictions. The AARDA states that such a rule would interfere with the patient-physician relationship, and can result in delayed treatment, increased disease activity, loss of function, and potentially irreversible disease progression for Medicare beneficiaries. Read more here.

Sharing the Journey series provides tips on explaining lupus

The Lupus Foundation of America has published a blog series Sharing the Journey to highlight the perspectives and personal experiences of those who struggle with lupus each day. In the series’ latest installment, contributors describe how they explain lupus to family, friends, co-workers, and others. Read their compelling stories here.

MS Society of Canada launches Vitamin D recommendations for MS

The Multiple Sclerosis (MS) Society of Canada has released a report detailing Vitamin D recommendations for those living with MS for at-risk populations.

Vitamin D, dubbed the ‘sunshine vitamin’, is produced by our skin through sun exposure, but can also come from other sources such as food (eggs, fortified dairy products, and fish) and supplements. The Society has long funded research on the relationship between Vitamin D levels and MS. The recommendations have been summarized into two reports; one for researchers and healthcare professionals, and another for laypersons. Read more under the Society’s research news.

5 Celebrities with Autoimmune Diseases

Did you know that the following celebrities have autoimmune diseases? Unfortunately, being an A-lister does not exempt you from having health problems. Read on to learn about their powerful stories of hope and living with chronic illness.

1. Selena Gomez

Selena Gomez.jpg

In 2015, it was revealed that Selena Gomez suffered from Lupus, an autoimmune condition that causes the body to attack its own vital organs, skin, joints and other tissues. Selena also disclosed that she was undergoing chemotherapy as part of her treatment.

Her life took a dramatic turn in 2017, when her doctors advised that she would need a new kidney. Thankfully, her best friend, Francia Raisa, generously donated her own kidney to Selena, undergoing an intensive, 6-hour organ transplant surgery. Although the surgery seems to have had a positive impact on Selena’s physical well-being, she admits that Lupus has also taken a toll on her mental health, causing her to experience depression, panic attacks and anxiety. She has become an advocate for Lupus awareness, and was co-chair at the 2017 Lupus Research Alliance Gala.

2. Venus Williams

Venus Williams.jpg

Tennis all-star Venus Williams shocked the world in 2011 when she revealed that she had been diagnosed with an autoimmune condition called Sjogren’s Syndrome. Sjogren’s primarily affects the body’s moisture-producing glands, resulting in symptoms such as dry eyes and mouth, severe fatigue, and joint pain.

Venus attributes the disease to taking longer to recover from injury, and was forced to withdraw from the U.S. Open in 2011 due to her symptoms. However, she believes in a “never give up” mentality, and has adopted a vegan diet to improve her overall health. Venus also became an Honorary Chairperson for the Carroll Petrie Foundation Sjogren’s Awareness Ambassador Program to raise awareness about the disease.

3. Jack Osbourne

Jack Osbourne

Jack Osbourne, son of heavy-metal singer Ozzy Osbourne and reality TV personality Sharon Osbourne, was devastated to learn that he had been diagnosed with Relapsing-Remitting Multiple Sclerosis in 2012.

Multiple Sclerosis (MS) is an autoimmune disease of the nervous system, and can result in a diverse range of symptoms, from mobility and speech issues, to pain and even blindness. Jack revealed in an interview that he was diagnosed with MS after noticing a black dot in his vision, that turned out to be optic neuritis, an inflammation of the eye nerves that resulted in 90% blindness in his right eye. Despite the diagnosis, Jack is determined to live a fulfilling life, and has partnered with a neuroscience organization to create the international campaign “You Don’t Know Jack About MS” to raise awareness about the disease.

4. Wendy Williams

Wendy Williams

Wendy Williams shocked viewers when she fainted on live TV during an airing of her daytime talk show, Wendy. When she returned after a three-week, doctor-ordered hiatus, Wendy revealed that she had been diagnosed 19 years prior with Grave’s Disease, which may have contributed to her fall.

Grave’s Disease is an autoimmune condition that affects the thyroid gland. Symptoms are varied, but may include hyperthyroidism (overactive thyroid), bulging of the eyes, heart palpitations, weight loss, and fatigue. During a segment with Dr. Oz, she discussed her struggle with the condition, and has used her platform to raise awareness for the disease.

5. Winnie Harlow

Winnie Harlow

24-year old model Winnie Harlow rose to fame at a young age as a contestant on Tyra Banks’ reality TV show, America’s Next Top Model. The Canadian model revealed that growing up, she had been a victim of vicious bullying due to having a chronic autoimmune skin condition called Vitiligo, which causes the destruction of melanocytes, resulting in a depigmentation of the skin.

Winnie did not allow her autoimmune condition to stop her modelling career, however, and has modeled for international brands such as Desigual and Swarovski. She has become an outspoken advocate for self-love, presenting a TedxTalk on the topic and participating in Dove’s Real Beauty campaign.