Whether we are dealing with autoimmune disease or the flu, every illness carries with it a hefty dose of one symptom: stress. In fact, up to 80% of those with autoimmune issues report that diagnosis came after a period of significant stress in their life, whether emotional or physical.¹ And the journey of navigating one’s health after diagnosis can be so long, winding, and often confusing—with massive dietary shifts to accommodate and lifestyle choices to re-evaluate—that significant stress becomes an accepted part of many autoimmune sufferers’ lives. To make matters worse, simply having an autoimmune disease (or other taxing bodily ailment) causes physical stress on the body. I know, not good news, but don’t lose hope yet!
Let’s take a deeper look at the relationship between stress and autoimmune disease. It all starts with the autonomic nervous system (the part of our nervous system that controls our body’s involuntary functions like respiration, circulation, and digestion) which can be divided into two main parts: sympathetic and parasympathetic. We need them both, but they serve very different purposes.
The Sympathetic Nervous System
When we have a sympathetic reaction, our body is primed for action—the “fight or flight”response. Hormones like adrenaline, cortisol, and norepinephrine are pumped through the body and we experience an increase in heart rate, blood pressure and respiratory rate as well as a surge of glucose for quick energy. We can do amazing things in this state, like lift cars off people, or run from wild animals!
Our bodies respond to all stress with a similar cascade of hormones, regardless of the source. Even day-to-day chronic stress and anxiety can trigger a sympathetic state—think work deadlines, juggling kids’ schedules, conflict with a partner or friend, a never-ending to-do list—you get the idea. Physical stressors are no different. Surgery, poor diet, over-exercising, under-eating, drinking too much coffee, severe illness, violence, lack of sleep, and even the shows you watch in the evening to “relax” can trigger your stress response. We are endlessly exposed to low-grade, chronic stress, and are bodies are not meant for this.
Parasympathetic Nervous System
The parasympathetic portion of our autonomic nervous system, on the other hand, is at work when we are not under threat—the “rest and digest” phase. This is when our bodies have time to recover, heal, and work to get benefits from the foods we eat, and circulate blood, nutrients, and oxygen throughout our bodies. This state should not just exist as a thirty-minute half-time in our day, but it should be the dominant state in which we live.
Culturally, which state do you think we place more emphasis and value on?
Because of the value we place on always doing something, we tend to turn to diet and exercise to solve our health problems. We wear our busy-ness as a badge of honor. As a result, many folks end up spending very little time in a given day in a parasympathetic state and don’t think to focus on their stress as a way to heal.
The Stress-Autoimmune Connection
Known as the master stress hormone, cortisol is a key contributor in the fight or flight response and regulates metabolism, inflammation and even our circadian rhythms. Cortisol secretion is regulated by the integral connection of the hypothalamus, pituitary, and adrenal glands. When we perceive a threat, the hypothalamus releases neurohormones. These neurohormones trigger the pituitary gland to release hormones and endorphins that circulate in the blood and reach the adrenal glands. This then triggers the adrenal glands to secrete cortisol, adrenaline, and norepinephrine. (For an illustrated explanation of this complex relationship, check out this two-minute video!)
Cortisol’s primary action is to get glucose to the organs that need it the most: the brain and muscles. It does this by producing glucose from fatty acids and amino acids from the liver. Typically, when blood glucose levels rise, the pancreas releases insulin to draw glucose from the blood into the body for energy. However, cortisol counteracts insulin so hyperglycemia (high blood sugar) ensues. Routine high blood sugars lead to chronic inflammation, among other serious health problems. Cortisol also shuts down non-essential processes, including those found in the digestive system, reproductive system, the immune system, and countless others.
The connection between chronic stress and inflammation² is particularly problematic for autoimmunity sufferers, because inflammation can increase severity of symptoms across the board. Cortisol is required for healing wounds and fighting infections, and acute stress triggers enhanced immune functioning. However, more of a good thing isn’t necessarily better. Chronic release of cortisol can wreak all kinds of havoc on our health, leading to a depressed immune system, microbial imbalances, hormone imbalances, digestion problems, poor sleep quality, and inflammation in the joints and in the mucosal lining of our digestive tract (think leaky gut).
Well, NOW I’m stressed! What can I do?
If you suffer from autoimmune disease or if you are trying to prevent the onset of autoimmune disease, I can’t emphasize enough the importance of shifting your autonomic system to a dominant parasympathetic state. If we can’t engage our parasympathetic nervous system, then our body doesn’t get the chance to heal. Juggling the various challenges of autoimmune disease in addition to the other demands on your day can quickly turn into a 24/7 cortisol-fest!
Remember: the parasympathetic state is where our body gets a chance to “rest and digest.” We actually need to be in this state for healing to take place. If we are busting our butt making dietary changes and clearing heavy metals out of our body, and working to heal the gut, but we are anxious, stressed, and never in a place of rest, our bodies struggle to heal. Consider the “digest” function of this state too. If we are making dietary changes and trying to optimize food absorption and function, much of our effort is wasted if we are not digesting well.
While stress has real physiological symptoms, there is much we can do to reduce it. It all starts with our thoughts and attitudes.
1. Practice soul-centered self-care.
One of the first things I do with my health coaching clients is talk about prioritizing soul-centered self-care, which most often promotes a parasympathetic state. Many of my clients are surprised to learn that doing the things they like most—like reading, going for a walk, spending a few hours or a whole day with no agenda—are actively contributing to good health! Too often we feel guilty or indulgent when we do what we like because it doesn’t feel productive enough. I have one client who has been struggling with Hashimotos Thyroiditis and she had been very focused on her diet but still wasn’t experiencing noticeable results. We shifted her focus onto stress management and setting healthy boundaries at work, and she’s seen almost immediate results: she is sleeping better, has more energy, and she’s noticed that she feels increased emotional stability.
Self-care doesn’t have to be prescriptive. I’m not going to tell you to go on a yoga retreat or that you have to start a gratitude journal. Ditch the “shoulds” and do what really fills you up! Keep an eye out for behaviors that stray into numbing territory, though—the idea is to be present, engaged, and relaxed while doing things you like, not to totally check out like you might with a wine (or TV) binge.
2. Think like a Navy SEAL.
A second strategy is to develop awareness of when our body may be having a stress response and to actively work to bring things back into alignment. How does it feel when you get stressed out? Do you get clammy hands, a tightening in your chest, an upset stomach? Make a mental note of these feelings and train yourself to pause when you feel them. Navy SEALs train themselves to respond to this kind of stress arousal and to combat it with tactical breathing. It’s a quick, simple way to engage the parasympathetic nervous system. Mindfulness practices help us develop greater body awareness. Headspace is a great app for new and seasoned meditators that I recommend to help build the skill of body and thought awareness.
3. Ask yourself: Is this worth disease?
These days, when I notice myself getting stressed out, I ask myself if the stress is worth suffering disease for. In the big picture of my life, my day-to-day problems, stressors, and anxieties are most often not worth a negative impact on my health. I usually end up shifting my agenda or my expectations, and my stress has no habitat in which to live. Poof! It’s gone. And sometimes we just have stress that we continue to struggle with because life can be hard and not make sense. 4-7-8 breathing helps me shift my breath in a way that I can immediately get out of the depths of my sympathetic whirlwind and slow down to a more rational and responsive state.
I’ve dealt with chronic adverse health effects, and it’s not fun! I find that the more I invest in reducing stress, the better my health, and the more joy and freedom I have in daily life. Like any good habit, it builds its own momentum.
What are your best tips for stress reduction in daily life? Have you noticed a connection between stress and autoimmune disease? Share in the comments!
- Stress as a trigger of autoimmune disease.
- Ballantyne, Sarah. The Paleo Approach: Reverse Autoimmune Disease and Heal Your Body. Las Vegas: Simon & Schuster, 2013. Print.
- Chronic stress, glucocorticoid receptor resistance, inflammation, and disease risk.