We know the debilitating effects that stress can have on the mind and body in terms of anxiety and fatigue and even heart attack. But now we’ve learned that stress can also cause a very specific, serious and lifelong health condition—an autoimmune disease.
The connection is understandable when you think about it. Stress throws your body out of balance and sends your immune system into high gear—too high. To learn just how deeply stress can affect the immune system, researchers in Sweden and Iceland followed more than 100,000 patients diagnosed with a stress-related disorder, such as PTSD or acute stress reaction (which results from witnessing a traumatic event), for an average of 10 years to see how many developed autoimmune diseases, compared with other people who didn’t have stress disorders.
What they found was alarming. People with stress disorders had, on average, a 36% higher risk of developing an autoimmune disease—a huge added risk. For people with PTSD, the risk was 46%, and they were more likely to develop multiple autoimmune diseases than people with other stress disorders.
The autoimmune diseases people developed included rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis, diabetes, lupus, ulcerative colitis and multiple sclerosis and more than 30 others, all diseases that can be caused by an immune system on constant high alert.
To help our readers understand the implications of these findings—and how they can protect themselves—Bottom Line turned to Angelos Halaris, MD, PhD, a psychiatrist and professor at the Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine, whose groundbreaking work in the new field of psychoneuroimmunology explores the association between autoimmune diseases and stress-related disorders.
Dr. Halaris describes stress as the psychological equivalent to an invasion of the body by bacteria, a virus or parasite. He explains that stress activates substances in the body called cytokines—think of them as the firefighters for the immune system. Under extreme stress, cytokines invade the blood, spinal fluid and brain tissues, and while trying to restore balance, they can create collateral damage…such as an autoimmune disease. And once that happens, you can never be rid of the disease, because it permanently affects your body—you can manage it but never actually cure it.
RECOGNIZING AND REDUCING YOUR STRESS LEVEL
Chronic stress is, simply put, toxic, said Dr. Halaris. And like many toxins, it causes both physical and psychological warning signs. Important: Even if you haven’t been diagnosed with a stress-related disorder, to reduce your risk for an autoimmune disease, Halaris says to look out for signs that your body and mind are suffering from high stress, then take action to reduce it. These are all indicators that your stress level is too high…
- Physical signs such as a pounding heart, headache, sweating or flushing
- Changes in sleep, especially insomnia and waking too early in the morning
- Overeating and food cravings
- Mood swings
- Sudden outbursts of anger
- Dependence on caffeine, alcohol or drugs
Dr. Halaris said the following stress-reduction tips have been the most helpful for his patients…
- To improve sleep, avoid stimulating your brain in the evening. Don’t eat late at night or work late into the night.
- Allow yourself at least 30 minutes of down time every day, and whenever possible, use it to take a walk, a great stress reducer.
- Practice more formal stress-reduction techniques and get the wellness benefits of social interaction by joining a stress-reduction group or taking a yoga class.
- Don’t use food, alcohol, drugs or smoking to reduce stress—that’s just substituting one negative lifestyle habit for another.
What about medication to help deal with stress? The stress and autoimmune disease study found that antidepressants greatly reduced the risk for autoimmune disease in people with PTSD, though not in people with other stress disorders. Dr. Halaris said that the antidepressant Zoloft can be very effective for PTSD, but before taking any drug, be sure to be evaluated by a mental health professional—not only by your primary care doctor—to help determine the best course of action for you.