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.