The Mechanism of Stress and It’s Impact on Our Bodies When We Live With Autoimmune Disease
Living with chronic illness means living with constant pain and exhaustion. All. The. Time. This is what people who don’t have chronic illness don’t understand. Basic daily activities can be difficult, like climbing stairs, going to the grocery store, and playing with your kids or grandkids. We aren’t exaggerating our pain and exhaustion, it’s our real life experience. And exercise? It seems impossible. Even if you used to do tons of exercise in your past. Today, exercise can seem daunting, just too much.
And so- we sit. We rest. And we talk to ourselves in a negative, self-defeating way. We wonder what’s wrong with us, why other people can move around the world without this kind of pain. We wonder if something is wrong with us, and then we start to think, maybe we are just lazy??? Maybe those doctors who tell me my pain is all in my head- maybe they are right?
Is this you? A few years ago, before I learned about the relationship between stress, autoimmune disease, and exercise intolerance, it was definitely me. 100%. But here’s the thing. We aren’t lazy. And it's NOT just in our head. And there IS something wrong with us. We live with autoimmune disease, fibromyalgia, lyme disease, or some other type of chronic illness. Our bodies are not like other people’s bodies- so how should we be expected to do what their bodies do?!
In order to figure out how to help our bodies feel better, the first step is for us to understand why we are different in the first place. And that means understanding how stress impacts the body when we live with chronic illness.
STRESS AS A POTENTIAL TRIGGER OF AUTOIMMUNE DISEASE
There have been many medical studies that suggest the possibility of stress as being a trigger of the onset of autoimmune disease (1,2, 3,4). While there is not a definitive link, many studies have indicated that stress may play a part in the development of autoimmunity. Here is a quote from one such study:
Physical and psychological stresses have been suggested in the development of autoimmune disease, since numerous animal and human studies demonstrated the effect of stressors on immune function. Moreover, many retrospective studies had found that a high proportion (up to 80%) of patients reported uncommon emotional stress before disease onset. This, however, is not surprising as the disease itself causes significant stress in the patient. 1
This means that, while the researchers cannot yet prove that stress is one possible trigger to the onset of autoimmune disease, the indication of a large percentage of retrospective interviews describing uncommon emotional events before disease onset is a compelling one. And in my own personal experience, in talking to so many people every day living with autoimmune disease, the links between personal trauma and autoimmunity are certainly observed.
For example, one event I hear about often as a possible trigger to autoimmune disease is the experience of labor and delivery of a child. Personally, this is part of my story- my autoimmune disorders came on soon after I had given birth. And while my son’s birth was a glorious moment and I love my son with all my heart- the stress and trauma it inflicted on my body perhaps was too much to handle.
So, while there is no definitive proof about the relationship to stress and the onset of autoimmune disease, it is very likely that stress plays a role here. So- as we continue to unpack the role that stress plays within our bodies while living with autoimmune disease, I think it’s an important piece of information to keep in the back of our minds as we continue to dig in deeper to the mechanism of stress and how it impacts our daily experience of managing our chronic illness. **
THE MECHANISM OF AUTOIMMUNE DISEASE & CHRONIC ILLNESS AS A STRESSOR ON THE BODY
So, now that we have discussed the possibility that stress could have contributed to the onset of diease within our bodies, let’s look at what type of impact chronic illness has on the body after it has been triggered.
Autoimmune disease is defined as “an illness that causes the immune system to produce antibodies that attack normal body tissues. Autoimmune is when your body attacks itself. It sees a part of your body or a process as a disease and tries to combat it.” 5
As we read above, the autoimmune disease basically causes our own immune system to attack our internal body systems as if they were an outside intruder, like the flu. Our immune system is built to protect our bodies from illnesses, virus’s and bacteria. However, in layperson’s terms, when we live with autoimmune disease, our immune system goes haywire, gets confused, and begins a constant stream of attack within our own system. It’s a constant stream of attack, because unlike the flu, which can be destroyed, your internal organs, your thyroid for example (in the case of Hashimoto’s disease, Graves Disease, and other autoimmune disorders)- weill, your thyroid can’t be easily killed off. So if the body considers the thyroid to be the outside intruder, it’s going to spend an intense amount of time trying to protect your body from it’s own thyroid.
This constant barrage of attack, as well as the constant inflammation caused by the immune system activity, creates a very large stress load for our body to handle and process. This internal stress activates the sympathetic nervous system, otherwise known as the “fight or flight” mechanism of the central nervous system. 6 And then, this fight or flight mode remains active indefinitely, which has a major effect- depleting the body of its energy. This is a significant contributing factor to the exhaustion and pain that we feel when we live with autoimmune disease. 7, 8
THE CYCLE OF ADDITIONAL STRESS AS AN AUTOIMMUNE SYMPTOM TRIGGER
Now that we understand how our body is under constant physical stress and duress from our autoimmune disease, it perhaps becomes more clear why our bodies, living with this chronic illness, as less able to handle additional outside sources of stress. As our nervous system is already overloaded from this constant barrage of internal abnormal activity, any additional outside stress will cause our already maxed out systems to go into overdrive.
So then let’s think of the many additional types of stress that we encounter every day. These everyday stressors can have a big impact on our ability to manage (or not manage) our disease.
External Stressors: These are stressors on our systems that we don’t often think about. When we eat chemically processed foods, like fast food or colas or sugary sweets, our body has difficulty processing it. For those of us with an already overloaded system, this type of stressor can aggravate our symptoms further and make us feel worse rather than better. Other types of external stressors are things like the ding of a cell phone (which stimulates the sympathetic nervous system), lack of sleep, or dehydration, when we don’t drink enough water. All of these things make our systems overloaded without us even knowing it.
Physical Stressors: These are the stressors that cause us physical difficulties and aggravate our physical pain. Things like poor posture, under-active and tight muscles, cause pain for all people- but when you are someone who lives with the additional stressor of autoimmune disease, this pain (like lower back pain, neck pain, and joint pain) is excruciating. Other more extreme types of physical stress are things like broken bones, surgery, and other types of physical trauma.
Emotional Stressors: We all have emotional stress on a day to day basis. Emotional stress can be triggered by things like traffic, or our interactions with other people. Relationship stress, family stress, work stress, all of this takes a toll on our bodies, triggering an even more overactive fight or flight response. Emotional stress can also be from trauma that occurred long ago.
It’s extremely important that we examine these stressors in our lives and that we make sure find ways to limit and balance out the intensity of these stressors in our everyday life. This is essential for disease management. The more we can control our own personal stressors, the more likely it will be that you can keep your autoimmune disease from flaring-up.
There are a multitude of options for stress management. Therapy, meditation, nature, art, play, love, hugs and snuggles- these are just a few. What works best is different for everyone- but as long as you find joy in your life, the joy will outweigh the stress, and you will benefit.
EXERCISE AND THE BENEFITS OF POSITIVE STRESS
And of course, since this IS Autoimmune Strong, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention exercise as a method for managing and reducing stress.
You see, while we most often think of stress as a negative, there is such a thing as positive stress. This is called eustress.
Eustress is the type of stress that actually improves our life in a positive way, and actually has the ability to help us manage and reduce our symptoms of autoimmune disease. 8 And exercise is a perfect example of eustress.
Exercise is defined as a stress on the body. That’s how exercise creates change within the body- by putting a certain kind of stress on the body- the body responses with adaptation. So- if exercise is done properly, it becomes a positive stress- because it creates positive improvement on the body. Exercise can elevate mood, reduce anxiety and depression, improve blood flow, heart and lung health. Exercise can fix postural problems, can make daily physical activities easier, more fun and less prone to injury. Exercise can tone muscle and develop strength and improve balance, which has long term benefits as we age. AND- exercise can actually have an effect of reducing the symptoms of autoimmune disease 9
The key here is that phrase “if done properly”. When exercise is too aggressive or intense, it can flip from eustress to distress. And then it becomes a problem for people living with autoimmune disease, because it can cause symptom aggravation, rather than symptom management.
This is why Autoimmune Strong is so important- it’s the only exercise program out there designed to help you find this sweet spot of eustress and exercise. Every person’s body is different and reacts differently to exercise. And every person’s body is dealing with a different amount of stress overload in their system. So- with a self-paced program, designed to go gently and slowly and progress over time- this will allow the body to access that place of positive, healing stress that will help repair and nourish the body, rather than deplete it.
Stress, Autoimmune Disease and Exercise- How This Creates Exercise Intolerance
Keep reading my next article here on exercise intolerance- to learn about how stress and autoimmune disease work together to make to make exercise difficult for you and your body. This article will tell you all about exercise intolerance- what it is, how to know if you have it, and what to do to overcome it. Click here to read.
**Please note here that I do not believe, nor am I implicating that researchers believe that stress is the only factor that causes autoimmune disease. There are many factors at play with autoimmune disease, stress is simply one possibility in this complicated matrix of disease.
Stress and autoimmunity.
Stress as a trigger of autoimmune disease.
The role of stress in the mosaic of autoimmunity: An overlooked association.
Association between stressful life events and autoimmune diseases: A systematic review and meta-analysis of retrospective case-control studies.
Current Directions in Stress and Human Immune Function
Restoring the Balance of the Autonomic Nervous System as an Innovative Approach to the Treatment of Rheumatoid Arthritis
The role of stress in rheumatic diseases
Physical activity and autoimmune diseases: Get moving and manage the disease.