Hormone Health

Could Stress Be Causing Your Autoimmune Disease To Get Worse?

stress autoimmune disease
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We don’t know the exact cause of Autoimmune Disease, and it’s likely different for everyone. But could stress be making your Autoimmune Disease worse? Keep reading to find out.

It’s true that we don’t know for certain what causes certain people to develop autoimmune disease. There is evidence to support several different potential triggers that, along with genetic susceptibility, that can influence the development of autoimmune disease.

One of those main triggers? Stress!

In this article, you’ll learn the effects that stress can have on your health and wellbeing and how it could be a contributing factor to your Autoimmune Disease.

stress autoimmune disease

How Does Stress Affect Your Body?

Stress is typically defined as “a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or very demanding circumstances.”

However, scientists have a hard time defining what can be considered stress, because it is a highly subjective experience.

When we think of stress we are typically thinking of distress, rather than simply the body’s response to a demand for change.

Some people actually perform better or experience improved health when exposed to appropriate stress. For example, exercising is a “good” stressor that builds strength and endurance. Or we’re typically motivated to perform better when we’re under some level of pressure at work. (If you’re anything like me, you know that looming deadlines can be the only reason something gets finished!)

For the purposes of this article, I’ll be speaking about stress in the way that we all think about it: as a chronic negative mental, physical, or emotional experience that causes negative health effects in those who are experiencing it.

The primary way the stress of our modern lifestyles causes harm to our physical bodies is through dysregulation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis.

The HPA axis controls our bodies’ response to external stressors, also known as the “fight or flight” response.

However, in chronic stress, the HPA axis can be over or under-stimulated, and the body is unable to respond with appropriate physiological adaptation.

When this happens, we can experience negative health outcomes and symptoms related to a body that’s in an overstressed state.

stress autoimmune disease


Chronic stress has been blamed for everything from heart disease, to cancer, to infertility, and even obesity. The more we learn about stress, the more we understand how important it is to manage well so that we reduce our risk of chronic disease in the future.

Autoimmune disease is another class of disease that has been studied for its relationship to chronic stress.

Impaired HPA axis responsiveness has been shown to influence a number of human inflammatory and autoimmune diseases, including:

Many retrospective studies have found that up to 80% of patients report uncommon emotional stress before the disease presents. And the stress of having the disease is known to cause disease exacerbation; it’s a vicious cycle.

One theory for this increased risk of inflammatory disease is that chronic stress results in glucocorticoid receptor resistance (GCR), resulting in failure to down-regulate the inflammatory response.

In other words, chronically elevated cortisol causes “cortisol resistance” and impairs the body’s ability to control inflammation, so inflammatory diseases develop.

This is why levels of cortisol tend to be low in patients with autoimmune disease, despite the higher levels of systemic inflammation.

stress autoimmune disease


Stress and HPA axis dysregulation has been frequently studied as a trigger for rheumatoid arthritis, an autoimmune disease that affects over 1.5 million US adults and is more common in women than men.

Both daily minor stressors and major traumatic life events have been found to affect disease risk and progression. Yet mild daily stressors are considered to be a greater risk factor as they are more able to lead to cortisol resistance and uncontrolled inflammation.

Studies have also shown significant HPA axis involvement in multiple sclerosis, with both hyper- and hypo-activity of the HPA axis being seen in patients with severe symptoms.

According to research, the HPA axis is generally activated in MS, but patients with a hypoactive HPA axis have particularly severe MS and more active lesions. This impaired activity can also increase an MS patient’s risk of depression.

Adrenal stress and HPA axis dysregulation impacts not only the development of autoimmune thyroid diseases like Hashimoto’s and Graves’ but can also imitate hypothyroidism.

This is thanks to its effects on the conversion of T4 to T3, reduction in TSH, and suppression of thyroid receptor site sensitivity, among other effects. (Check out Chris Kresser’s excellent overview of how adrenal stress affects your thyroid health.)

Chronic HPA axis activation can also cause a shift in the balance between Th1 and Th2 cytokines, which can cause a multitude of inflammatory and autoimmune conditions depending on an individual’s particular dominance of either type of cytokine.

This effect of stress has been demonstrated in mice, and while certain compounds can help resolve the imbalance between the two cytokines, it’s clear that without prioritizing attention to stress management, the problem will likely not resolve.

stress autoimmune disease


I hope you now understand why managing stress is so important in preventing and managing autoimmune disease. And please don’t let all this information and how stress can potentially affect your health add more stress to your life.

The goal is to do the best you can with the information that you have. Eliminating all sources of stress isn’t possible, neither is avoiding autoimmune disease if you have a genetic susceptibility. So do what you can and don’t worry about the rest.

If you do have an autoimmune disease, reducing stress in your life may help ameliorate some of your symptoms, or prevent the progression of the disease.

If you have family members with autoimmune disease, you can start focusing on stress management now to help reduce your risk of potentially triggering autoimmune disease in the future.

To help get you started on healing your HPA axis and adrenal function, here are five ways to reduce stress in your life:

stress autoimmune disease


Recommending a diet for autoimmune disease would take a whole book. But the best basic advice I can give you is to eat a real food diet, preferably gluten-free, and consider diving into the autoimmune elimination protocol.

And remember, simply eliminating foods is not enough to heal you from HPA axis dysregulation and autoimmune disease.

You’ll also need to eat nutrient-dense meals with adequate amounts of calories, fat, protein, and carbohydrates to provide your body the nutrition it needs to heal and keep stress low.

Undereating is a stressor in itself and can stall your progress in healing.

stress autoimmune disease


Regular stress management is something that all of us could do a little bit more of. 

In our modern world, we’re under stressors that even our parents and grandparents may not have experienced. 24-hour news programs, laptops and smartphones in the bedroom, and pressure to live a Pinterest-perfect lifestyle are all new stressors that have been added on to the standard bill paying and social interactions of the past.

And they’re why engaging in mind-body practices is even more important these days.

 Try out some new practices include things like meditation, yoga, breathing exercises, and tai chi, or qigong.

Research has shown that regular meditation is able to help people feel calmer and produces positive changes in various areas of the brain, particularly in the areas associated with memory, empathy, sense of self, and stress regulation.

The good news is it only took 8 weeks for participants in this study to see these results. So consider committing to a program of regular mind-body practices for a few months. You might be surprised to see how much your mental, emotional, and physical health improves.

stress autoimmune disease


Exercise can be a double-edged sword when dealing with HPA axis issues.

Regular moderate exercise can help reduce stress, lift depression, and even improve your HPA axis’s response speed.ver-exercise (also called overtraining) can actually impair your HPA axis function, causing systemic inflammation, immune dysfunction, and increased risk of depression or anxiety and other mental health issues.

I can’t tell you what an appropriate amount of exercise for you is, because every person has different levels of tolerance when it comes to physical activity.

And for someone with “adrenal fatigue” or autoimmune disease, overexercise could be even more dangerous than not exercising enough.

Err on the side of caution, and avoid any heavy-duty training regimens like long-distance running, or CrossFit and other Bootcamp-style workouts. Stick to exercises that energize you and be sure to get adequate rest.

stress autoimmune disease

4. Prioritize Sleep

Sleep has a profound impact on your HPA axis.

Sleep restriction has been shown to activate the HPA axis and alters the production of ACTH and cortisol. Considering that 30% of Americans get less than 6 hours of sleep per night, this is obviously a huge problem.

In addition, there is a strong connection between your body’s circadian rhythms and the HPA axis at multiple levels. 

Our circadian rhythms, driven by light and dark exposure, control the HPA axis. This is the basis for the cyclical release of cortisol, which reaches its highest concentration early in the morning and its lowest concentration late at night.

If your circadian rhythms are disrupted, your cortisol rhythm will be as well, so getting adequate sleep at appropriate hours is crucial for HPA axis health.

Sleep in a cool, pitch-dark room, and limit exposure to light-emitting devices when the sun goes down. Try to get some light exposure during the day, particularly when you first wake up and at mid-day. Aim for 7-9 hours of sleep per night, every night.

stress autoimmune disease


Having a healthy social life is more important to adrenal health and autoimmunity than you might realize.

Research shows that a good social support network has many physical and mental health benefits.

Having strong social connections can keep you from feeling lonely, isolated, or inadequate, allowing you to deal with stress better.

Make sure you have at least a few deep relationships in your life. If you don’t, consider ways to cultivate new friendships like finding a community of like-minded people to get involved with.

If you have your own family, focus on strengthening those relationships, and try to address any negative interactions that are happening regularly.

I’ve personally done this by joining a small group of church friends that I connect with on a weekly basis, and you can pick any type of common interest group to look into.

Now I’d like to hear from you. How does stress play a role in your health? Has managing your stress helped reduce your symptoms of autoimmune disease? Share your story in the comments below!

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I'm a women's health expert and a registered dietitian (RD) with a passion for helping goal-oriented people fuel their purpose.

I help nutrition entrepreneurs grow their income and their impact by packaging their brilliance into transformative coaching and consulting programs, and get crystal clear on their marketing strategy.

I'm on a mission to help nutrition business owners drop the hustle and come into alignment with their ideal business goals, so they can work from a sense of ease and abundance, and build the online business of their dreams. 

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