Research points to a strong connection between the mind and body. There appears to be a link between emotional and mental states and disease risk, suggesting that specific mental health problems may contribute to disease development. But while certain mental states may be correlated with an increased risk of some diseases, research has not yet established a cause and effect relationship.
And while the exact cause of autoimmune disorders isn’t currently known, it is thought lifestyle habits, such as stress management, play a role. Autoimmune disorders can occur at any age and affect both men and women. While cures for autoimmune diseases do not exist, treatment plans can be employed to reduce symptoms, slow disease progression, and manage quality of life. (Source)
In this article, we’re exploring the research on the connection between the emotional causes of autoimmune diseases and how to be resilient against stress as it arises.
What Is Stress?
Stress is defined as a nonspecific response of the body to any demand made upon it. The body’s stress response is often referred to as its “fight or flight” response, where the body releases hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol. This hormonal cascade increases your heart rate and quickens your breathing, readying your body to fight off the source of stress.
And while the stress response is vital to keeping us alive in times of physical stress — say, being chased by a bear — prolonged psychological stress can start to harm the body. (Source)
Chronic stress can manifest in the body physiologically. Over time, emotional stress can impact the immune system, energy metabolism, and other important functions in the body. Prolonged stress is associated with an increased risk of heart disease, depression, obesity, and even cognitive disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease. (Source, Source)
How Does Stress Affect the Immune System?
The increased disease risk that accompanies stress is largely due to psychological stress's impact on the immune system.
Stress has been shown to activate the innate immune system — the immune system you were born with. The innate immune system is responsible for protecting the body from harmful substances or pathogens. However, during times of prolonged stress, the immune system's ability to fight off foreign invaders is decreased, leaving the body more susceptible to infection and illness. (Source)
Does Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Affect the Immune System?
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a psychiatric disorder that individuals may experience following particularly triggering or traumatic events. Symptoms of PTSD are often psychological, including depression and anxiety. But PTSD can also impact the immune system. Studies link PTSD with elevated levels of general markers of inflammation. (Source)
Increased inflammation from PTSD has been linked to chronic diseases including autoimmune disorders such as inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), rheumatoid arthritis (RA), and multiple sclerosis (MS). (Source)
What Autoimmune Diseases Are Related to Stress?
Your immune system protects you from invasive pathogens such as bacteria and viruses by sending out white blood cells (immune-fighting cells) to rid them from your body. However, in the case of autoimmune diseases, the immune system misreads your body’s healthy cells as foreign invaders and attacks them. And chronic stress and stress-related disorders coincide with the presence of autoimmune conditions. (Source, Source)
Leaky Gut Syndrome
Stress has a direct impact on gut permeability. Stress causes the release of cortisol, the stress hormone, which can damage the gut lining and lead to systemic inflammation. Systemic inflammation is common among many autoimmune disorders and is associated with flares and symptoms of autoimmune diseases. (Source, Source)
Prolonged stress can disrupt the gut microbiota and impair the mucosal membrane. There is also evidence that prolonged mental stress weakens the immune system. Over time, this may result in decreased removal of toxins in the gut, which in turn damages the gut lining. (Source)
Irritable Bowel Disease (IBD)
Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) is a term comprising two disorders that cause chronic digestive tract inflammation: ulcerative colitis and Crohn's disease. It was previously believed that IBD was caused by diet and stress. However, research shows that while stress can exacerbate the symptoms of IBD, it doesn't cause the condition. (Source)
Depression, a common stress-related disorder, affects the body in ways that are similar to IBD. People with each disorder tend to have higher general markers of inflammation. A bidirectional relationship exists — IBD appears to increase emotional stress levels, and emotional stress levels influence IBD occurrence. Impaired immune system function and the gut microbiome appear to play a role in this relationship. Studies also show that the symptoms of Crohn's disease, a type of IBD, can be triggered by chronic stress. (Source)
Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is an inflammatory autoimmune disease in which the immune system attacks healthy cells around the joints. When left untreated, RA can lead to the deterioration of healthy tissues necessary for proper joint movement.
Stress is recognized as a risk factor in the development of RA. Stress sets off the immune system’s inflammatory response, and inflammation is what fuels joint damage in rheumatoid arthritis. Prolonged stress can breed more inflammation. (Source)
Systemic Lupus Erythematosus (SLE)
Systemic Lupus Erythematosus (SLE) is a condition that can occur when the immune system attacks healthy cells resulting in inflammation that impacts joints and organs throughout the body. Stress is likely a contributing factor in SLE development, and as with other autoimmune diseases, stress can worsen SLE symptoms. (Source, Source)
Type 1 Diabetes
Type 1 diabetes occurs when the body can’t produce enough of the hormone insulin. This happens when the body attacks the cells in your pancreas responsible for insulin production. An association between stressful events and the incidence of type 1 diabetes was first noted as far back as the 17th century. When stressful events occur during the first two years of life, the risk for developing type 1 diabetes increases. (Source, Source)
Can Emotions Cause Autoimmune Diseases?
Research shows that emotional stress is associated with autoimmune disease development. Stress is shown to impact the immune system, gut health, and other processes in the body, all of which may influence autoimmune disease development. A long-term study published in 2018 that included over 1 million participants found that those with stress-related disorders were at higher risk of developing autoimmune disease than those without such disorders. (Source)
The bottom line is that correlation does not prove causation. And while the research points to a linkage between stress-related disorders and autoimmune disease risk, current research does not suggest that autoimmune diseases have emotional causes.
What Causes Autoimmune Diseases?
The exact causes of autoimmune diseases haven’t been fully uncovered. But research suggests that multiple factors, including environmental, hormonal, immunological, and genetic factors may all contribute to autoimmune disease development. (Source)
Can Stress-Reduction Prevent Autoimmune Diseases Naturally?
While stress-reduction may not prevent autoimmune diseases, reducing stress is cited as one of the top ways to manage the symptoms of autoimmune diseases. Certain autoimmune diseases such as leaky gut syndrome, IBD, RA, SLE, and type 1 diabetes appear to be connected to emotional stress. And interestingly, studies also show that reducing stress helps manage autoimmune diseases, for example, leaky gut syndrome, where stress levels specifically increase the severity of symptoms. Here are 6 science-backed ways to reduce stress and help manage autoimmune conditions. (Source)
Spend Time Outside
Spending time outside or in nature is associated with improvements in stress levels. A study investigating the impact of green spaces found that time spent in natural settings was associated with improvements in psychological stress levels compared to those who spent time indoors. Another review found that spending time in nature had therapeutic potential to combat workplace stress. Carving out even 20 minutes of the day to spend outside can help reduce emotional stress levels. Try finding a green space or even exploring a new neighborhood. (Source, Source)
Low-Intensity Activities Such as Yoga and Stretching
Science supports gentle activities such as yoga and stretching for stress reduction and reduced cortisol levels. Yoga aims to bring synchrony and harmony to mind and body, building both muscular and mental strength and resilience. One study found that practicing vinyasa yoga for 60 minutes once per week for six weeks was associated with stress reduction in college students. Vinyasa yoga is thought to be particularly beneficial for stress reduction because of the nature of the practice, which involves flowing from one yoga pose to another with the sequence varying by practitioner.
Another study found that practicing yoga on at least 50 days over a 3-month period significantly reduced blood cortisol levels in participants diagnosed with depression. This shows practicing flow-based yoga is a scientifically-backed way to improve stress levels, with results seen when practicing yoga for as little as 60 minutes per week. (Source, Source)
Practice Mindfulness Meditation
Practicing mindfulness meditation is a science-backed method of reducing stress levels. Meditation is associated with reduced cortisol levels. A meta-analysis of 47 trials with a combined 3,515 participants found that practicing meditation was associated with improved stress levels and mental-health-related quality of life and improvements in depression and anxiety. Another study showed that practicing mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) improved anxiety in those with generalized anxiety disorder and improved stress coping mechanisms. Practicing mindfulness meditation for 20 minutes per day for 8 weeks was associated with these beneficial stress effects. (Source, Source)
Meditation doesn’t need to involve any fancy tools; it can be practiced on your own. To start, sit comfortably and focus your attention on your breath. Then, as distractions or thoughts arise, return your attention to your controlled breath. Bringing your awareness back to your breath can help quiet your mind and allow you to experience a state of deep relaxation.
Get Ample Quality Sleep
Sleep is a well-studied way to promote health and vitality, but getting ample quality sleep is often easier said than done. Research even reveals a bidirectional relationship between stress and sleep — a lack of quality sleep can contribute to increased stress levels, and increased stress levels can make it harder to fall and stay asleep. (Source)
Set yourself up for success with two examples of science-backed ways to improve your sleep:
- Strive for a consistent bedtime. Setting a consistent bedtime schedule so you go to bed and wake up at approximately the same time each day can enhance sleep quality. A consistent bedtime is heading to bed within 45 minutes of the same time. For example, heading to bed between 10:00 p.m. and 10:45 p.m. each night, including weekends. (Source)
- Limit screen time before bed. Aim to limit exposure to blue-light-emitting devices such as phones, laptops, and TV screens. As a part of your natural sleep-wake cycle, the hormone melatonin rises in response to darkness and can make you feel sleepy. Blue light suppresses the rise in melatonin and can make falling asleep more challenging. Aim to reduce screen time 1 to 2 hours before bed. (Source)
Try Gratitude Journaling
Gratitude has been defined as “the perception of and accepting benefits from other people, objects, or nature as a gift and reacting to it with appreciation and joy.” Gratitude journaling is the act of writing down the reasons that one is grateful. A study conducted in Korea investigated the impact of gratitude journaling 5 times per week for 8 weeks in fourth-year nurses. Gratitude journaling was associated with improvements in aspects of stress management. (Source)
The Bottom Line on Emotional Causes of Autoimmune Disease
Research shows that the mind and body influence each other, and studies show there is a connection between emotional and mental states and the risk of autoimmune conditions. While emotions appear to be correlated with autoimmune disease development, further research is needed to establish a causal relationship between stress, stress disorders, and autoimmune disease development. Prioritizing stress-reducing techniques such as spending time outdoors, practicing yoga, and mindfulness meditation can help reduce subjective and objective measures of stress.