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Stress-related autoimmune diseases

     When you experience a dangerous situation that scares you, your body releases a cocktail of hormones that speed up your heart rate and cause many other somatic (physical) symptoms.

While these natural responses can be helpful in a truly dangerous real-life situation, when dangers are imaginary, the feelings of fear you experience - such as stress and anxiety - can negatively impact your well-being and health. When stress and anxiety become very intense or chronic, they may have a negative impact on health and well-being, particularly on inflammatory and autoimmune systems.

Based on various studies about the relationship between emotions and the physiopathology of the immune system, lasting or intense stress and anxiety have been shown to influence several human inflammatory and autoimmune diseases, including rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis, fibromyalgia, inflammatory bowel disease, multiple sclerosis, thyroiditis, asthma, dermatitis, and many others.

However, it is good to know that stress and anxiety are not normative concepts, nor are they diseases in themselves. Although your stress and anxiety are not imaginary, there is no laboratory test available to confirm or measure them. Yet you feel them, and therefore you are best positioned to assess whether or not you feel stressed or anxious.

As the nervous system modulates the physiological functions, including the autoimmune system, and the brain takes into account the emotional state in all that it does, strong emotions always end up having an impact, not only on the mood and behaviour, but also on the proper functioning of the immune system, and the etiopathogenesis of all kinds of immune diseases.

Emotions are not just mental states and emotional feelings. Today's view of emotions is that emotions are experienced at four different, but closely interrelated levels: the mental or psychological level (the brain), the physiological level (the chemistry of your body), the somatic level (bodily emotional feelings), and the behavioral level. These complementary aspects are present in all human emotions, even in the most basic ones like stress, fear, and anxiety.

The scientific study of emotion and of the bodily changes that accompany the diverse emotional experiences known as psychosomatic medicine, marks a relatively new era in medicine. The central concept of psychosomatic medicine is the scientific fact that the mind and body are integral aspects of all human function. The term “psychosomatic disorder” is used for a physical disease that is thought to be triggered, made worse, or caused by emotional factors. To an extent, most diseases are considered psychosomatic, as there is an emotional aspect to every physical disease.

Chronic stress and anxiety can result in dysfunctional patterns of secretion of the stress-induced hormone cortisol. Deficiencies of cortisol and corticotropin-releasing hormones can compromise the integrity of the gastrointestinal mucosa, leading to a pathologic intestinal permeability known as “leaky gut syndrome,” which is a prerequisite for the development of autoimmune disease. In addition, the neuropeptides, endogenous opioids, and pituitary hormones are released during exposure to stressors and affect cell-mediated and antibody-mediated immune responses.

Stress-triggered neuroendocrine hormones lead to immune deregulation, which ultimately results in autoimmune disease, by altering or amplifying cytokine production, which is a cellular messenger implicated in the pathophysiology of autoimmune disease, by increasing antibody cell production and tagging self-tissue for destruction. And so, since autoimmune diseases cause significant psychological distress due to pain, fatigue, and even mobility limitations, a vicious cycle ensues.

As you already know, rather than passively observing what happens to you, your subconscious mind is actually in charge of the proper functioning of your conscious mind and your body through the regulatory mechanisms of your autonomous nervous system. When you feel relaxed and safe, the parasympathetic branch of the autonomous nervous system kicks in and your body is nourished, and healed and energy is restored. Whenever you are facing a threat, the sympathetic branch of the autonomous nervous system kicks in and the stress response will mobilize all your resources for your survival-inbuilt fight or flight response.

While you are in the middle of a stress response, the stress response will mobilize all your resources for your survival, and your body's nourishing, restorative, maintenance and self-repair functions come to a screeching halt. Unfortunately, when the threat is imaginary, the subconscious mind doesn't realize that there is no real threat. Over time, when this stress response is repetitively triggered by imaginary threats, nature's biological response ends up doing more harm than good.

Long term, if your body is not properly nourished, restored, maintained, and repaired, the effects of chronic wear and tear on your body take its toll and you will end up mentally and physically sick. Therefore, by releasing stress and anxiety, your body creates a loop of positive feedback through the autonomic nervous system, feedback that can rebalance your sympathetic and parasympathetic branches and lead so to improvements in symptoms of your stress and anxiety-related autoimmune conditions. The degree of improvement you can reasonably expect by relieving your persistent stress and anxiety depends on how much you feel that your emotional state affects your health issues.

When dealing with a fractured bone, the standard medical approach is to align and join the broken parts of the bone and let it heal, as this ancestral approach works for everyone and every time. However, when dealing with stress and anxiety, there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all approach. Therefore psychiatry, psychotherapy, hypnotherapy, neuro-linguistic-programming, E.F.T. (emotional freedom tapping), pet therapy, art therapy, mindfulness, yoga, craniosacral therapy, gravity blanket, mini-horses therapy, and many other approaches based on very contradictory and yet scientific concepts, are all available to solve emotional issues.

Chronic, intense, or repetitive stress and anxiety can lead to various emotional troubles and even psychiatric or physical medical conditions. According to the American Psychosomatic Society “… there is no such thing as psychosomatic disease. All disease can be looked at from this point of view.”

Here are a few of the many   autoimune conditions   that are aggravated, triggered, or even caused by stress, trauma, and anxiety, and for which you can reasonably expect improvements when you improve your emotional health.

Stress as a Trigger of Autoimmune Disease : "Recent reviews discuss the possible role of psychological stress, and of the major stress-related hormones, in the pathogenesis of autoimmune disease. It is presumed that the stress-triggered neuroendocrine hormones lead to immune dysregulation, which ultimately results in autoimmune disease, by altering or amplifying cytokine production. The treatment of autoimmune disease should thus include stress management and behavioral intervention to prevent stress-related immune imbalance."

Severe stress may send immune system into overdrive :  “Trauma or intense stress may up your odds of developing an autoimmune disease, a new study suggests. Comparing more than 106,000 people who had stress disorders with more than 1 million people without them, researchers found that stress was tied to a 36 percent greater risk of developing 41 autoimmune diseases, including rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis, Crohn's disease and celiac disease.”

Stress leads to higher risk of autoimmune diseases.  “A new study from Sweden’s Karolinska Institute and the University of Iceland found that PTSD and other stress-related disorders can lead to a higher chance of contracting an autoimmune disease. People with a stress disorder were 46 percent more likely to get an autoimmune disease. Furthermore, the chance of developing three or more autoimmune diseases was more than twice as high for individuals with PTSD (Post traumatic stress disorder).”

Stress Can Weaken Your Immune System; “If it seems like you're more likely to be sick when you're stressed, you may not be imagining it. Studies have shed light on the link between stress and sickness, finding that those living with chronic stress (such as unemployment or caregiving to a dementia patient) had a suppressed immune system that left them more vulnerable to the flu and a host of other illnesses.”

Immune System Deficiency "Stress wreaks havoc on the mind and body. Until now, it has not been clear exactly how stress influences disease and health. Now researchers have found that chronic psychological stress is associated with the body losing its ability to regulate the inflammatory response. The research shows for the first time that the effects of psychological stress on the body's ability to regulate inflammation can promote the development and progression of disease."

Effect of Stress on the Thymus; “The thymus is a primary lymphoid organ located above the heart that plays a crucial role in the ability of the immune system to fight against pathogens, tumors, antigens, and other mediators of tissue damage. The thymus-independent components of the immune system are otherwise commonly referred to as the innate immune system. The innate immune system is the body’s first line of defense against pathogenic invasion, which is achieved through macrophages, neutrophils, dendritic cells (DCs), and granulocytes. Both acute and chronic stress in many different forms can lead to a condition known as acute thymic atrophy, which can severely impact the health of the immune system.“ 

Relieve your stress, relieve your allergies; "Increased allergic reactions may be tied to the corticotropin-releasing stress hormone (CRH), suggests a study published this month in the International Journal of Molecular Sciences. These findings may help clarify the mechanism by which CRH induces proliferation of mast cells (MC) - agents involved in the development of allergies in the human nasal cavity. "In my daily practice, I meet many patients with allergies who say their symptoms worsened due to psychological stress," states lead researcher Mika Yamanaka-Takaichi, a graduate student of the Department of Dermatology, Osaka City University.This is what led me to do this research." 

Stress and anxiety can make allergy attacks even more miserable and last longer: "A new study shows that even slight stress and anxiety can substantially worsen a person's allergic reaction to some routine allergens. Moreover, the added impact of stress and anxiety seem to linger, causing the second day of a stressed person's allergy attack to be much worse."  

What to know about stress-induced asthma “Stress is a common trigger of asthma symptoms. Stress and anxiety can also cause asthma attacks. When a person feels stressed, they may notice that their asthma symptoms flare up. Periods of stress can increase the severity, frequency, and duration of asthma symptoms. Stress can make inflammation worse, and it can trigger shortness of breath or breathing difficulties, all of which can exacerbate asthma symptoms. A person who is stressed may experience certain emotions, such as anger and irritation, more strongly. Strong emotions can trigger asthma symptoms. A person who experiences stress for prolonged periods may feel more anxious. Anxiety can trigger panic attacks that can, in turn, cause an asthma attack.”

Stress as a risk factor in the pathogenesis of rheumatoid arthritis: "Stress is now recognized as an important risk factor in the pathogenesis of autoimmune rheumatic diseases (i.e. rheumatoid arthritis) by considering that the activation of the stress response system influences the close relationships existing between the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, the sympathetic nervous system and the immune system."

Rheumatoid arthritis: "Patients often report that episodes of stress or trauma preceded the onset of their rheumatoid arthritis. While stress is nearly impossible to measure, some researchers have suggested that stressful life events, such as divorce, job loss, death of a loved one or accidents, are more common in people with rheumatoid arthritis during the six-month period before disease onset compared with the general population."

Asthma  "While feeling stressed out isn't good for your overall health, it can also trigger asthma attacks just as much as smoke, pets, polluted air, and anything else that causes your asthma to flare. The only difference — stress can be much more difficult to avoid. There's a clear connection between stress and asthma, says Jonathan Bernstein, MD, an immunologist and professor at the University of Cincinnati in Ohio, who notes that a number of published studies have shown a strong relationship, and more research is underway."

Fibromyalgia "Emotional stress appears to be a trigger for the development of fibromyalgia in a person who is already biologically at risk. In addition, many people diagnosed with fibromyalgia have psychiatric mood disorders (e.g., depression, bipolar disorder), anxiety disorders (e.g., generalized anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, panic disorder, posttraumatic stress disorder, social phobia) or eating disorders (e.g. anorexia nervosa). Depression and anxiety have been linked to abnormalities in some of the same neurotransmitters that are thought to be involved in pain perception (e.g., serotonin, norepinephrine, dopamine)."

The link between anxiety and fibromyalgia: "A number of studies have shown a link between anxiety and fibromyalgia, however, the nature of the link is not yet understood. Some experts, according to a report, "Fibromyalgia," in The New York Times, "believe that fibromyalgia is not a disease, but is rather a chronic pain condition brought on by several abnormal body responses to stress."

Stressful life events are associated with the risk of multiple sclerosis MS ; “Compelling evidence was found for a link between major life events and risk of multiple sclerosis (MS)– most events significantly increased disease risk by 17%–30%. It was further observed that women were affected to a greater extent than men under certain stressful scenarios, and that most events that happened recently had significant effects on multiple sclerosis, indicating a critical window in disease development.”

Influence of stress on the development of psoriasis: "Psoriasis is a common chronic inflammatory skin disease, which is shaped by genetics and environmental factors, including stress. Numerous studies and case reports have suggested that stress is a major contributor to the development and exacerbation of psoriasis. In recent decades, much progress has been made expanding our knowledge on the pathophysiological processes linking stress to psoriasis."

Controlling stress helps fight chronic diseases such as Lupus: “A study conducted in the Department of Medicine at the University of Granada determined that daily stress (which occurs in circumstances of little importance but of high frequency) could exacerbate the symptoms of patients suffering from lupus. In other words, controlling the stress level of those suffering from this disease allows the determination of its negative effects, such as inexplicable loss of weight, feeling of fatigue, continuous fever or pain and inflammation in joints. In other words, the treatment of daily stress, together with the usual pharmacological treatment, is a useful weapon when treating patients suffering from lupus.”

Psoriasis; overview: "Weather, stress, injury, infection, and medications, while not direct causes, are often important in triggering the disease process that initiates and worsens psoriasis. Stress and strong emotions, unexpressed anger, and emotional disorders, including depression and anxiety, are strongly associated with psoriasis flare-ups. Research has suggested that stress can trigger specific immune factors associated with psoriasis flares"

Shingles (Herpes Zoster, Zona ) "However, emotional stress does wear away at the immune system, attacking its ability to defend the body against all kinds of illnesses. There are any number of types of stressful situations that can damage the immune system. For example, the death of a loved one, especially if it’s unexpected, can feel like a shock. Chronic stress at work or at home, can take their toll on health"

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Disclaimer: The above article may contain statements that reflect the opinion of the author. It is intended for general informational purposes and does not constitute psychological or medical professional advice. I don't diagnose medical conditions, nor do I interfere with any treatments given by your medical professional.

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