Stress as a Trigger of Autoimmunity


Stress as a Trigger of Autoimmunity


Autoimmune disorders are on the rise just because our lives have become fast paced and stressful compared to our ancestors. The ethology of autoimmune diseases is multifactorial including genetic, environmental, hormonal, and immunological factors.

Next to improved hygiene and a gross reduction of infections, changes in dietary habits are one of the most evident Western lifestyle factors potentially associated with the increase in autoimmune diseases. Growing evidence suggests that particularly a typical ‘Western diet’, rich in saturated fat and salt and related pathologies can have a profound impact on local and systemic immune responses under physiologic and autoimmune conditions such as in multiple sclerosis (MS).


“Can stress be the cause of autoimmune disease?” is an often launched question in our days.


Physical and psychological stress has been implicated in the development of autoimmune disease, since numerous studies demonstrated the effect of sundry stressors on immune function. Moreover, many retrospective studies found that a high proportion (up to 80%) of patients reported uncommon emotional stress before disease onset. Unfortunately, not only does stress cause disease, but the disease itself also causes significant stress in the patients, creating a vicious cycle.


How stress affects your body

Stress is primarily a physical response that helps you rise to the occasion. At other times, it’s simply overwhelming. Whatever the case, if it’s chronic, it can take a toll on your immune system.

When you are stressed, the body thinks it is under attack and switches to ‘fight or flight’ mode, releasing a complex mix of hormones and chemicals such as adrenaline, cortisol and norepinephrine to prepare the body for physical action. This causes a number of reactions, from blood being diverted to muscles to shutting down unnecessary bodily functions such as digestion.

Through the release of hormones such as adrenaline, cortisol and norepinephrine, the caveman gained a rush of energy, which prepared him to either fight the tiger or run away. That heart pounding, fast breathing sensation is the adrenaline; as well as a boost of energy, it enables us to focus our attention so we can quickly respond to the situation.

In the modern world, the ‘fight or flight’ mode can still help us survive dangerous situations, such as reacting swiftly to a person running in front of our car by slamming on the brakes.

The challenge is when our body goes into a state of stress in inappropriate situations. When blood flow is going only to the most important muscles needed to fight or flee, brain function is minimised. This can lead to an inability to ‘think straight’; a state that is a great hindrance in both our work and home lives. If we are kept in a state of stress for long periods, it can be detrimental to our health and could be a trigger of autoimmune disorder.


Long-term stress can harm your health

Health problems can occur if the stress response goes on for too long or becomes chronic, such as when the source of stress is constant, or if the response continues after the danger has subsided. With chronic stress, those same life-saving responses in your body can suppress immune, digestive, sleep, and reproductive systems, which may cause them to stop working normally. Moreover, studies are linking stress to a direct connection to autoimmune diseases, or conditions that cause the immune system to attack healthy tissues.

Different people may feel stress in different ways. For example, some people experience mainly digestive symptoms, while others may have headaches, sleeplessness, sadness, anger or irritability. People under chronic stress are prone to more frequent and severe viral infections, such as the flu or common cold.

Routine stress may be the hardest type of stress to notice at first. Because the source of stress tends to be more constant than in cases of acute or traumatic stress, the body gets no clear signal to return to normal functioning. Over time, if you don’t control high stress levels, chronic inflammation can accompany it and contribute to the development and progression of many diseases of the immune system such as:

  • Arthritis
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Lupus
  • Psoriasis
  • Inflammatory bowel disease

Under sustained, long term stress, you also can develop cardiovascular problems, including a fast heart rate and heart disease, as well as gastric ulcers. You will also be at greater risk for type 2 diabetes, various cancer and mental decline.


How can you manage your stress levels

Stress reduction interventions can have a positive therapeutic effect in autoimmune disease patients. Physicians and patients must recognise the potential for stress to impact autoimmune diseases and how stress management should be considered in a multidimensional treatment approach.

In the overall research, and while doing my own as a patient, nutrition and exercise still seem to be the best ways to prevent and reserve autoimmune diseases. It makes sense, doesn’t it? If we throw our bodies out of whack, the natural way to get back into a normal rhythm is through healthy eating, movement, meditation and sleep that we already require to be healthy.



To learn more about how to manage your stress levels through dietary intervention and lifestyle recommendations please contact me and we could discus how my nutritional protocol could help you.


  • Cleveland Clinic (2018). What Happens When Your immune System Gets Stressed Out. [Online].Accessed November, 2018
  • Crist, C. (2017). Stress Test: When Strain Becomes a Chronic Disease. [Online]. Accessed November, 2018
  • Jorg, S., Grohme, D.A. (2016). Environmental factors in autoimmune diseases and their role in multiple sclerosis. [Online]. Accessed November, 2018
  • MCCray, SJ., Agarwal, SK., (2011). Stress and autoimmunity. [Online]. Accessed November, 2018
  • Stojanovich, L., Marisavljevich D. (2007). Stress as a trigger of autoimmune disease. [Online].Accessed November, 2018
  • National institute of Mental Health (2018). 5 things You Should Know About Stress. [Online].Accessed November, 2018
  • Stress Management Society (2018). What is Stress? [Online]. Accessed November, 2018

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