Can stress trigger autoimmune disease?

By naturopath Margaret Jasinska

We know that several factors are responsible for triggering the development of an autoimmune disease: genetic, environmental, hormonal, and immune factors. Most of us know intuitively, and now research confirms that stress can trigger an autoimmune disease. It can also make the disease more severe and trigger a flare up of a pre-existing condition.

What’s worse, the strain of living day to day with autoimmune disease, and the fatigue and pain it may cause, is another significant source of stress. This can create a vicious cycle and significantly impair healing.

Experiments conducted on humans and animals have shown that stress hormones negatively affect the function of the immune system. Specifically stress can ramp up cytokine production, which increases inflammation in the body. High levels of inflammation are associated with every autoimmune disease, and symptoms such as mental fog, poor motivation, pain, anxiety, depression and poor sleep quality. High levels of inflammation also impair the action of thyroid hormones, so you could have the symptoms of an under active thyroid while having normal TSH levels.

Retrospective studies found that up to 80 percent of patients reported uncommon emotional stress before their autoimmune disease began. The main stress hormones in your body are adrenalin and cortisol. We will focus on cortisol because it has greater effects on the immune system than adrenalin. Cortisol is made from cholesterol in your adrenal glands. Interestingly it shares a metabolic pathway with progesterone production, therefore chronic stress in women can cause cortisol excess and progesterone deficiency. Progesterone deficiency can cause menstrual problems and raises the risk of conditions such as endometriosis, heavy, painful menstrual bleeding and uterine fibroids.

Chronically elevated cortisol can have a negative effect on your blood sugar level; it may raise your blood sugar and promote abdominal weight gain. Cortisol’s effects on your blood sugar tend to encourage sugar and carbohydrate cravings. Therefore if you’ve been feeling stressed out, you’re more likely to crave sugar and high carb foods. Even when you eat well and exercise regularly, you may not be able to lose abdominal fat because your cortisol is chronically elevated. Chronically high cortisol also weakens the immune system and makes you more prone to coming down with infections.

Cortisol has negative effects on the digestive tract. It opens up the tight junctions between intestinal cells and promotes leaky gut syndrome. This has a major negative burden on the immune system.

No matter which autoimmune disease a patient has, it is important to work on healing and sealing their gut, to reduce the amount of intestinal waste products, microorganisms and their waste products getting through into the bloodstream and stimulating the immune system. Glutamine is the most well known nutrient for repairing the gut. Other beneficial substances include slippery elm, pectin, aloe vera and the good yeast probiotic Saccharomyces boulardii. These nutrients are all combined in Dr Cabot’s Ultimate Gut Health powder.

In my experience, a large percentage of people with autoimmune disease suffer with Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth (SIBO). Regular probiotics can aggravate gut health in people with SIBO. They can worsen brain fog, fatigue and abdominal bloating. Saccharomyces boulardii in Ultimate Gut Health powder is a yeast, therefore should not aggravate these patients.

Trying to manage stress as best as you can is important. I have found that magnesium improves sleep quality and has a calming, relaxing effect on the nervous system. Gentle exercise, massage, counselling and spending time with pets and loved ones is also highly therapeutic. Unfortunately stress isn’t the only trigger of autoimmune disease. Leaky gut, nutrient deficiencies, toxicity, chronic infections and liver dysfunction are also responsible. I have outlined how to overcome these conditions in my book Healing Autoimmune Disease: A plan to help your immune system and reduce inflammation.


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