The impact of daily stress on autoimmune conditions

How does stress affect immune health?

by Dr. Vedrana Högqvist Tabor

For most people, stress is an everyday experience, caused by all the small hassles you encounter in your daily life. But stress is also one of the key triggers of Hashimoto’s flare-ups, which contributes to faster aging (1). 

Read on to learn more about the impact of stress on your thyroid and immune system.

What happens to the immune system under stress?

The immune system is one of the first protective mechanisms to be activated when you are exposed to stress. At that point, a major part of the brain and many hormone-producing glands are activated, while certain types of molecules, such as adrenaline and cortisol, are released into the blood (2, 3). Adrenaline and cortisol activate immune cells through small extensions on the immune cell surface, called receptors. When this happens, immune cells prepare to charge against the “enemy” (4), one of the hallmarks of a long-term stress exposure (5). Long-term stress leads to chronic inflammation, and increases the risk of developing autoimmune conditions (6).

Even stress from one’s past or childhood can cause the immune system to behave differently than it normally should (7, 8). Stress impacts hormones, and hormones impact the immune system, making immune cells produce more of the stress molecules cytokines, which cause changes in sleep pattern, depression, and changes in appetite (9).

How stress ages the immune system

Chronic stress ages both the immune system and the whole body faster than they normally would (10). It diminishes heart health, and makes people more likely to become overweight and even obese (11,12). As people age, their bodies becomes less capable to respond well to stress, as certain regions of the brain are no longer able to react to stress signals in a timely way (13), and thus the stress hormone cortisol takes a longer time to be suppressed. Long term exposure to cortisol will enhance inflammation (10).

Other factors

Prolonged stress makes someone significantly more likely to develop allergies and autoimmune diseases (14–16).

Alcohol consumption, smoking, malnutrition, and sleep disturbances all amplify the impact of negative stress on the body (17, 18). By reducing these, you can improve your immune and overall health.

Sex hormones, especially DHEA (dehydroepiandrosterone), a building block for both estrogen and testosterone, can tamper with the immune system (19).

Even unexplained health issues, like longer times to heal wounds, can be caused by the impact of high stress on the immune system (20).

Stress and sleep

Getting good sleep is important for maintaining low stress levels and keeping the immune system in check, and even one night of bad sleep will mess up the immune system (21, 22).

Stress continuously and chronically activates the immune system. In irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), high cortisol increases gastrointestinal (GI) symptoms (23), and can lead to autoimmune diseases (24). In people with autoimmune conditions, it takes much longer to stabilize the immune system and reduce flare-ups after being exposed to stress (25).

Emotional stress and start of the disease

About 8 in 10 people who have autoimmune diseases have experienced emotional stress before the onset of the disease (26).

Reducing stress

Health interventions aimed at reducing stress have a positive effect on reducing autoimmune diseases (27), and as such should be considered part of a comprehensive treatment approach. It has also been shown that people who lead a healthy lifestyle are more protected from inflammation and autoimmune flare-ups (28).

Mindfulness techniques, such as meditation, have shown to work well for a large majority of people (29).

You can track your stress levels in BOOST Thyroid app and analyze the impact of your lifestyle on your stress levels.
References
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  22. Ruiz FS, et al. Immune alterations after selective rapid eye movement or total sleep deprivation in healthy male volunteers, 2012
  23. Kennedy PJ, et al. A sustained hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis response to acute psychosocial stress in irritable bowel syndrome, 2014
  24. Dhabhar FS. Effects of stress on immune function: the good, the bad, and the beautiful, 2014
  25. de Brouwer SJ, et al. Immune responses to stress after stress management training in patients with rheumatoid arthritis, 2013
  26. Stojanovich L. Stress and autoimmunity
  27. McCray CJ, et al. Stress and autoimmunity, 2011
  28. Puterman E, et al. Determinants of telomere attrition over 1 year in healthy older women: stress and health behaviours matter, 2014
  29. Sharma M, et al.Mindfulness-based stress reduction as a stress management intervention for healthy individuals: a systematic review, 2012
Vedrana Högqvist Tabor