Is Stress Making Your Autoimmune Disease Worse?
If you’ve ever searched the internet for what causes an autoimmune disease, you’ve likely seen a lot of “we don’t really know” type answers. And that's also probably what your doctor told you when they diagnosed you with an autoimmune disease. It is true that we don't know exactly what causes autoimmune disease, but there is some evidence that tells us about some potential triggers. The actual cause of autoimmune disease is most likely a mix of genetics and environmental factors.
Stress is defined as "a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or very demanding circumstances." If you've read this blog for any amount of time, you've probably heard me talk about stress. Because it's a big deal. The problem is that science can’t exactly define what causes stress because the experience of stress varies so much from person to person. And to complicate matters, some people perform better and actually have better health when they are exposed to appropriate stress. This is one of the principles behind training cycles for athletes, or at work when a deadline is approaching and suddenly you have the motivation to do all the things!
The stress caused by our modern lifestyles typically causes harm to your body through dysregulation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. This system is responsible for your "fight or flight" response. When you are under chronic (prolonged stress, even if it's low-grade) stress, your body's response to the hormones that create the fight or flight response decreases, which has a negative impact on your health.
Chronic stress and autoimmune disease
We understand that managing stress is important to our overall health and wellness. Chronic stress has been linked to many diseases including heart disease, cancer, infertility, and obesity just to name a few. Stress also has an impact on the likelihood of you developing an autoimmune disease. The dysregulated response of your HPA axis has an effect on many autoimmune and inflammatory diseases including rheumatoid arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease (such as Crohn's disease and colitis), multiple sclerosis, Hashimoto's thyroiditis, asthma, and more.
Several studies show that over 80% of people who developed an autoimmune disease report being under increased emotional stress just before they started to experience symptoms of their disease. The stress of having a disease is also known to cause flares of even the most well-controlled autoimmune diseases, making this a vicious cycle that can be challenging to stop.
Both stress and HPA axis dysregulation are triggers for rheumatoid arthritis (RA). RA affects over 1.5 million adults. Both minor stress as well as major traumatic events increase your risk of developing RA as well as speeding up its progression. Surprisingly, mild daily stressors are actually a greater risk factor than major stressors because they lead to cortisol dystregulation and uncontrolled inflammation more quickly.
Adrenal stress and HPA axis dysregulation can also imitate hypothyroidism as well as put you at an increased risk of developing an autoimmune thyroid condition such as Hashimoto's.
How to decrease The stress in your life
Again, if you've read this blog for any length of time, you've probably heard me talk about stress management and ways to decrease stress in your life, but I hope you understand why it's so important. If you have an autoimmune disease, decreasing stress can help decrease your symptoms and possibly even prevent disease from progressing or slow it's progression.
Here are a few ways that you can decrease stress and start healing your HPA axis:
1. Eat an anti-inflammatory diet
Specific dietary recommendations for autoimmune diseases would take up far more time and space than I have here. However, eating a diet made up of nutrient-dense, real foods and avoiding gluten are the absolute basics. If you want help figuring out exactly what to eat, try my Find Your Perfect Diet e-course, where I walk you through exactly how to find the diet that is right for you.
Remember that eliminating foods isn't enough to heal you. You need to make sure that you replace the foods you've gotten rid of with plenty of nutrient-dense foods and make sure that you are eating enough! Adequate amounts of protein, carbs, and fat are required to give your body what it needs to function and not feel stressed.
2. Free your mind (and the rest will follow)
We could all stand to practice more stress management techniques. We live in a world that is full of major stressors and minor annoyances and to ask someone to get rid of stress completely is unreasonable. This is why practices such as meditation or yoga are so important and beneficial. Research shows that regular meditation helps people to feel calmer and creates positive changes in the brain, especially in the areas that are associated with empathy, memory, and stress regulation. Participants in these studies saw benefits in as little as 8 weeks of daily yoga and/or meditation practice.
3. Exercise, but not too much
Exercise can be harmful if you do too much at too high of an intensity, especially if your body is already in a compromised state. But it can also be beneficial when you do the right types in the right amount. Regular moderate exercise can decrease stress and improve symptoms of depression, but overtraining can actually make your HPA axis function even worse.
It's difficult to give and exact recommendation because everyone is different in how much exercise is appropriate for them. But if you suffer from HPA axis dysregulation or autoimmune disease, you should be aware that long periods of heavy training can set you back on your healing journey. Do exercise that energizes you and make sure that you are getting plenty of rest!
To learn more about what types of movement and exercise can help restore your HPA axis function and help you to feel energized instead of exhausted, check out the Movement chapter in my ebook, The 30 Day Energy Reset.
Another thing you probably already know about me if you've read this blog before is that I think sleep is incredibly important. It's no different when it comes sleep, stress, and autoimmune diseases. Sleep restriction activates the HPA axis (because your body sees sleep deprivation as a stressor) and alters its production of cortisol.
There is a connection between your internal clock and your HPA axis. Your internal clock, also known as your circadian rhythm, is regulated by exposure to light and dark cycles and it, in turn, controls the HPA axis. If your circadian rhythms are out of whack, your cortisol patterns (highest in the morning and lowest at night) will also be off.
Sleeping in a cool, dark room and limiting exposure to screens after the sun has gone down can help naturally regulate your circadian rhythms. You should aim for 7-9 hours of sleep each night. For more tips on how to improve your sleep, be sure to check out the sleep chapter in The 30 Day Energy Reset ebook.
Having solid social connections is also important to adrenal health and decreases your risk of developing an autoimmune disease. While this may seem silly, research shows that a strong social support network has both physical and mental health benefits. Having at least a few deep relationships in your life can allow you to deal with stress more effectively (this is known as increasing your resilience).
If you have a family, focus on making those relationships stronger and addressing any negativity within them. Getting out of your house and immediate family circle and finding like-minded people to build relationships with is also a good option.
Now I’d like to hear from you. How does stress play a role in your health? Has managing your stress helped reduce your symptoms of autoimmune disease? Share your story in the comments below!
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