These days, just about everyone is under some level of stress. It’s become a real problem for more and more people, and it’s harder than ever to escape the effects of stress! Stress can manifest itself in everything, from a poor night’s sleep to an irritable, cranky mood. For most people, their stress level fluctuates, and so do the effects. For others, however, the effects of stress are far more crippling.
Stress is linked to most autoimmune disorders in some capacity. Intense stress can trigger autoimmune conditions, while everyday, low-grade stress might trigger the effects of an already prevalent autoimmune condition. Some of the most common autoimmune conditions linked to stress include:
- Rheumatoid arthritis
- Multiple sclerosis
- Type 1 diabetes
For people suffering from these conditions and others, stress management is an integral part of any treatment plan. Unfortunately, that’s easier said than done!
The relationship between stress and immunity
People with autoimmune disorders suffer mightily from stress because of its impact on immunity. Autoimmune conditions—be it arthritis or psoriasis—share the common trait of being triggered by an overzealous immune system. White blood cells (the body’s natural defenders) attack natural, healthy cells, causing an inflammatory response. It’s why these conditions are so hard to treat—because your body isn’t reacting to a foreign invader. It’s fighting itself!
Even in otherwise healthy people, stress is linked to a weakened immune system. It’s why college kids often get sick around finals time and so many people tend to get sick around the holidays. Stress causes our body to produce excess cortisol—nicknamed “the stress hormone.” Excess cortisol and stress cause our bodies to overwork themselves, leaving our immune system weakened and susceptible to illness.
Combine stress and excess cortisol with an overactive immune system, and you’ve got a recipe for a major autoimmune response!
Stress and autoimmune conditions don’t mix
There’s a significant amount of science out there showing just how detrimental stress is for immune health. According to a study of 100,000 people diagnosed with stress-related disorders conducted at Harvard Medical School, stressed individuals were:
- More likely to be diagnosed with an autoimmune disease
- More likely to develop multiple autoimmune diseases
- Susceptible to a higher rate of autoimmune disease if younger
Essentially, the more stress a person is encumbered with, the more likely they are to develop an autoimmune disease. The study shows a direct correlation between stress and an abnormal immune response.
Another study of autoimmune triggers lists stress as the most prominent factor in flare-ups. The study found that a significant proportion of autoimmune sufferers (as high as 80 percent) reported emotional stress before an episode. Even worse, the study states that, “not only does stress cause disease, but the disease itself also causes significant stress in the patients, creating a vicious cycle.” In other words, you might be stressed about having a stress-induced disease that gets worse when you’re stressed!
How to get your stress and immunity under control
Stress management is good practice for anyone, and self-care goes a long way—but for autoimmune sufferers, these things are extremely important. If you have a compromised or overactive immune system, getting your stress in check is the first and best way to keep yourself in good health. Here are a few everyday tips worth considering, courtesy of the American Autoimmune Related Diseases Association (AARDA):
- Make sure you’re taking time for yourself, even if it’s just a mindful minute
- Identify your stress triggers and warning signs, then actively avoid them
- Establish good boundaries in everyday life to alleviate stress
- Build a close support system of people who understand your condition
- Give yourself credit and be okay with your condition and its effects
- Incorporate gentle, stress-relieving exercises into your everyday routine
In addition, pay close attention to your diet, exercise and sleep habits, and make sure you’re doing your best to lead a balanced life. Many autoimmune sufferers also benefit from taking certain vitamins and supplements to help support their imbalanced immune system, so consider these as well.
At the end of the day, stress is one of those things that’s ever-present and hard to escape. The key is learning how to control it and keep it from affecting your quality of life. Learn to say no. Make healthy choices. Put yourself and your wellness first.
These things seem like common-sense pieces of advice, but they’re worth remembering. For autoimmune sufferers, your health is already compromised. Don’t let stress get the better of you and put you further at risk!