Have you ever noticed that your autoimmune symptoms worsen during times of stress?
This has happened to me countless time throughout my autoimmune journey! Periods of stress even preceded the onset of my disease over a decade ago.
Throughout the years, I’ve often found myself asking, could stress and autoimmunity be linked?
Research is beginning to help answer this question. It has been found that up to half of all autoimmune disorders can be attributed to “unknown trigger factors”, aka STRESS! Stress, it turns out, whether physical or psychological, can impact the functioning of the immune system.
Stress and Hormones
Stress, as a physiological process, impacts a variety of hormones. Cortisol is the most well-known hormone attributed to stress. This hormone is secreted by the adrenal glands that sit atop of the kidneys. In small doses, cortisol can be anti-inflammatory. Constant production of cortisol from chronic stress, however, can lead to exhaustion of the adrenal glands. This is often referred to as ‘adrenal fatigue’ and can impair normal immune function.
Cortisol provides us with the resources to ‘fight or flight’ even though modern-day stressors rarely involve fighting dangerous predators. Our bodies cannot distinguish between needing to fight a tiger or having to give a presentation at work. Both situations result in the production of cortisol. Stressors can come from the internal or external environment and include emotional, physical, hormonal, thermal, or chemical stress.
Cholesterol is required for the body to actually produce cortisol and a variety of other hormones, including sex hormones. If stress becomes chronic, then more cholesterol is diverted towards producing cortisol and away from producing sex hormones and aldosterone, a hormone that regulates blood pressure. This can lead to a variety of symptoms, including mood changes, blood-sugar imbalance, sleep disturbance, and fatigue, among others.
When the body is focused on dealing with stress, it means that there are less resources devoted to ‘rest and digest‘. Chronic stress can therefore lead to various digestive health issues. If you’ve ever found yourself preparing for a stressful event, chances are you didn’t feel like eating beforehand!
Symptoms of Chronic Stress
Studies show 80% of patients interviewed with autoimmune disease note the presence of an important emotional stressor before their disease began. This is something I can personally relate to! Periods of stress are also known to increase after an autoimmune diagnosis. Pain, depression, anxiety, and social isolation are common realities and stressors for the increasing number of us who find ourselves with an autoimmune diagnosis.
Stress can lead to:
- Difficulty relaxing
- Sleep disturbance
- Compromised immune function
- Frequent colds/flus
- Decreased ability to handle stress
- Decreased libido
- Hormone imbalance
- Brain fog
- Blood sugar imbalance
- Light-headedness upon standing
The above symptoms also mimic side effects from various medications for autoimmune diseases.
Knowing that stress plays an important role in onset and progression of autoimmunity, what can we do to both prevent and reduce stress from impacting our immune systems?
How to Decrease Stress
There are several ways we can decrease the impacts of chronic stress on the body. The goal with stress-reduction is to promote the parasympathetic nervous system, the part of the nervous system that allows us to ‘rest and digest’.
- NUTRIENTS Nutrients support the immune system and help us recover from periods of stress. It’s important to eat a variety of quality whole foods during and after stressful periods. B vitamins in particular can reduce the impact of stress on our bodies. Foods such as avocados, sweet potato, mushrooms, high-quality animal protein, leafy greens, and fruit are high in B vitamins and can help to reduce fatigue and other symptoms of chronic stress.
- MEDITATE Meditation has been used for centuries to reduce stress. After reviewing scientific trials including thousands of participants, researchers have found that meditation-based programs can lead to a decrease in anxiety, depression, and pain. This is especially important before we eat! Taking a few minutes to focus on your breath before eating can improve digestion and prepare the body for a state of ‘rest and digest’.
- MOVE Movement can release stress from the body and can be used to help cope with increased periods of stress. Choose exercise that works for you and that you enjoy. Exercise can release endorphins and other chemicals that reduce feelings of stress.
- REMOVE STIMULANTS Caffeine and other stimulants, such as sugar, can impact the regulation of cortisol. This can potentially lead to symptoms of stress.
- SELF-CARE There is nothing selfish about taking time for yourself. Spending time doing what makes you happy and relaxed can lead to reduced levels of stress and increased quality of life.
- HYDRATE Hydration is key to reducing stress on the body because dehydration is a physical form of stress. Try tracking your water intake to ensure you consume 2 litres of water and/or herbal-based teas each day.
- JOURNAL Identifying triggers to stress can be difficult if we’re not actively looking for them. Journaling can be a way to identify triggers and, as a self-care activity, can reduce stress overall.
Living with an autoimmune disease is stressful! Adding the daily stressors of life on top of it, can makes symptoms even more pronounced. Try adding in some of the above suggestions and find stress-relieving habits that work well for you.