Autoimmune Diseases Likely Triggered By Stress

The list of autoimmune conditions is very broad, as nearly any system in the body can be affected. From the pancreas (type 1 diabetes) to the thyroid (Hashimotos) to the joints (rheumatoid arthritis), and every part in between, nothing is seemingly safe from this abnormal immune response by the body where it attacks its own tissues and cells as if they were foreign invaders, like a virus. Regardless of gender, age or ethnicity, there is always the potential to develop autoimmunity.

So, what causes these conditions to develop in the first place? There are definite genetic links, as sometimes one particular type runs rampant in a family tree or maybe there are several variations among several family members. And unfortunately, once someone develops one autoimmune condition, they have a higher risk of developing more if another trigger sparks that abnormal response again. There is still much unknown about the development of autoimmunity, but the prevailing etiology currently is that it is due to an overload of stress that essentially sends the body into a hyperactive immune response state that targets an area of the body.

That stress could come from one or multiple sources, and may include mental, physical or biochemical stress, or a combination of all three. For some it could be a traumatic injury, a pregnancy or a major illness. Others may develop it after prolonged work, relationship or financial stresses, or from abnormal changes in lifestyle habits like diet or sleep patterns. Regardless of the source, our bodies and minds have a threshold of how much we can deal with, and once that line is crossed, that could open the door for developing an autoimmune condition.

A report that was published June 19 in the Journal of the American Medical Association looked at that concept in terms of the mental aspect as it evaluated the relationship between autoimmunity and mental stress disorders. When they compared more than 106,000 patients in Sweden who were diagnosed with stress disorders such as PTSD, acute stress reaction, and adjustment disorder to siblings and people in the general population not suffering from a stress disorder, there was a substantial difference. The researchers found that these patients were at a 36% greater risk of developing any of 41 autoimmune diseases, including Crohn’s disease, celiac disease, rheumatoid arthritis and psoriasis, among others.

Some of those conditions, such as PTSD, may also have been brought on by physical trauma like abuse or injury as well. And if that same person had type 2 diabetes, then all 3 major areas of stress could have been possible causative factors. Chronic sources of stress just wear away at the coping mechanisms of our bodies, sometimes to the point where the body can no longer cope correctly, despite its amazing adaptive capabilities.

One of the recommendations, therefore, was that people should seek treatment as soon as possible for these major stresses to decrease the likelihood that they become chronic and contribute to further the health decline. CBT, or cognitive behavioral therapy, is an approach that has gained popularity and has shown great improvements in many who are dealing with mental stress disorders.

When we work with patients on the functional medicine approach, it is also aimed at reducing stress, primarily from the biochemical side. Reducing inflammation, improving hormone balance, controlling blood sugars and restoring proper digestive function are all tools that will help decrease the taxing load that many people put their bodies through each day. If we can do that successfully, then a patient can better control the symptoms of their autoimmune condition and be able to live a healthier, happier quality of life. And quite possibly, if we can begin this process earlier than later, it may be that we could help prevent autoimmunity from ever entering the picture in the first place!