The Connection Between Stress and Autoimmune Disease
Your immune system helps protect you from invaders, such as viruses and bacteria. But like so many things in life, with immunity, it’s possible to have too much of a good thing. When the immune system kicks into overdrive, it can mistake its own cells for foreign ones, leading to an autoimmune disease. In a way, autoimmunity is like emotional stress in our lives. It’s too much, it’s overload. And as a result, the body starts to break down. 
So, it should come as no surprise that in some people, stress and autoimmune disease are linked. Simply put, stress can increase your chances of developing an autoimmune disease or make an existing autoimmune condition worse.
Autoimmune Diseases 101
Normally, when the immune system sees a foreign invader like a bacteria or virus, it launches an attack. In people with autoimmune disease, the immune system doesn’t work properly, and it lashes out at the body’s own healthy cells, organs, and tissues.
Autoimmune diseases can affect nearly every part of the body, from the digestive system to the nerves to the connective tissues. In fact, there are more than 80 different types of autoimmune diseases. Some of the most common include multiple sclerosis, celiac disease, type 1 diabetes, psoriasis, Hashimoto’s disease, lupus, and rheumatoid arthritis. In the United States, 24 million people suffer from autoimmune diseases. Another 8 million have auto-antibodies in their blood, which indicates they may develop autoimmune disease down the road.
Symptoms of autoimmune diseases are specific to the area of the body they affect, but in general, they include fatigue; joint pain or swelling; recurring fever; digestive issues; abdominal pain; swollen glands; and skin problems. 
Autoimmune diseases can be hard to diagnose and treat, but the great news is that it’s possible to improve the symptoms and reclaim your life.
What Triggers Autoimmune Disease?
Scientists think the risk of developing autoimmune disease comes from a combination of genetics and environment. They are still learning about risk factors for autoimmune diseases. Some environmental exposures appear to play a role. Ultraviolet rays via too much sunlight, second-hand cigarette smoke, and pesticides all seem to put people at increased risk of developing an autoimmune disease. 
There’s also something called drug-induced lupus, which can come on as a side effect of certain antibiotics and medications used to treat high blood pressure. 
In addition, there appears to be a connection between emotional stress and autoimmune disease. A recent Swedish study, which was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, looked at 106,424 people diagnosed with stress disorders, including post-traumatic stress disorder, adjustment disorder, and other responses to stress. They also looked at 126,652 siblings of these patients and more than a million other people without stress disorders. They then assessed the stress-exposed people’s risk of developing 41 autoimmune diseases.
The researchers found those diagnosed with a stress-related disorder were 36 percent more likely to develop autoimmune diseases. The stress sufferers were also at increased risk for not just one autoimmune disease, but multiple, and they had an even higher likelihood of autoimmunity if they were younger. In people with PTSD who were taking an SSRI antidepressant, rates of autoimmune diseases were lower, which suggests treating the stress can help.
It’s important to note that observational studies such as this one cannot prove cause and effect, but the link between stress and autoimmunity that the study found sparks further discussion on the connection between stress and autoimmune disease. 
Stress and Autoimmune Disease
So, with the study’s implied link between stress and autoimmunity in mind, the question becomes, why? Be they cumulative life stressors or a single traumatic event, what is it about stress that causes the immune system to overreact? Why is it that approximately 80 percent of people diagnosed with autoimmune disease reported emotional distress before the onset of their disease? 
First, stress activates your sympathetic nervous system, which is the “fight or flight” part that kicks into gear when your body thinks it’s in danger. Danger used to come in the form of a bear; today, it comes with work deadlines, teenage drama, and financial woes. No matter what the perceived threat, your immune system doesn’t work as well to catch invaders when your body is in this fight or flight mode.
Secondly, there’s a link between the stress hormone cortisol and autoimmune disease. When your body is under stress, your adrenal glands produce higher levels of cortisol. By limiting inflammation, cortisol boosts your immune system. Higher immunity is good in the short-term, but not so great if it goes on for weeks, months or years. Over time, your body can get used to the high cortisol and stop responding to it, and inflammation levels can rise. 
What to Do About Stress and Autoimmune Disease
If there is a connection between stress and autoimmune disease, what can we do in terms of natural remedies to deal with it? I have seen these connections in my patients who have both stress and autoimmunity. Multiple patients have tested positive for antinuclear antibodies (ANA), a marker for autoimmunity, then after we treat the adrenal gland and balance their nutrition, that ANA level goes to negative. They still have the underlying tendency for autoimmunity, but it no longer shows up in their blood—it’s in remission.
With that in mind, here are my suggestions:
1. Lower stress.
Be it major trauma or daily life stressors, the better we deal with the stress in our lives, the better our health. This is true when it comes to stress and autoimmune disease and stress and other diseases it’s been linked to, including heart disease and obesity. To deal better with the stress in you life, I suggest deep breathing, regular physical activity, mindfulness exercises like yoga, laughter, and engaging in fun activities you enjoy.
2. Calm inflammation.
The base treatment for autoimmune disorders is a plant-based anti-inflammatory diet, or a modified Mediterranean diet. Given the relationship between stress and digestion, changing your diet can help you better handle emotional stress as well. Try eliminating dairy. Avoid gluten, especially if you have Hashimoto’s or celiac disease. Any food that could activate your immune system must go.
3. Realize treatment isn’t a one-size-fits-all.
All autoimmune diseases have the maladaptive immune system in common, but beyond that, their symptoms—and thus, treatments—are specific to each person. Someone with rheumatoid arthritis may respond to muscle-based anti-inflammatories, such as curcumin and boswellia, while someone with celiac disease will do better with remedies that support gut health, such as slippery elm or marshmallow root. This is where your integrative or naturopathic doctor can help find the best remedy for you.
Regardless of whether you have an autoimmune disease, it’s important to get the stress in your life under control. Life’s too short for constant fight or flight. We all need to slow down from time to time, for a healthy body and soul.
- An autoimmune disease results from the body’s immune system attacking its own cells, tissues, and organs.
- There’s scientific evidence that emotional stress can bring on autoimmune diseases or make existing autoimmunity worse.
- The connection between stress and autoimmune disease appears to be related to inflammation in the body.
- There are actions you can take both to lower stress and help decrease symptoms of autoimmunity.
- Both dietary and lifestyle interventions can help with stress and autoimmune diseases.