Stress is a thought, a perception of a threat, even if it isn’t real. That’s it. No more, no less. If that’s true, then we have complete control over stress, because it’s not something that happens to us but something that happens in us.

— Mark Hyman, MD

While your genes may be responsible for a tiny fraction of your likelihood of developing an autoimmune condition, environmental factors are responsible for the lion’s share, about 90-95% of your health outcomes.1 To stay healthy or prevent illness, you need to know which environmental factors, or autoimmune triggers, are impacting your health so you can minimize or eliminate them.

The list of environmental factors can seem endless. It helps to know the major categories so you can more easily identify and isolate your specific trigger(s).1Environmental Triggers and Autoimmunity, Aristo Vojdani, K. Michael Pollard, and Andrew W. Campbell; Autoimmune Diseases; Volume 2014 (2014), Article ID 798029, 2 pages; http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2886850/
The six major autoimmune root cause categories are F.I.G.H.T.S. for:

  1. Food (e.g. gluten, dairy, sugar, nutrient deficiencies, etc.) 
  2. Toxins
  3. Infections
  4. Leaky Gut & Dysbiosis (imbalance of gut bacteria)
  5. Hormonal imbalance
  6. Stress

There is ample science that shows that each of these categories contributes to autoimmune disorders. We’ll break it down for you in a series of blog posts, starting with the first autoimmune trigger: Stress. For an overview of solutions to heal and prevent autoimmune disorders, check out our Healing Manifesto.

Autoimmune Trigger #1: Stress

When people recall what was happening in their lives before they first noticed the physical symptoms of autoimmune issues, they almost always have a story of a major life stressor. For Betsy, her parents split up when she was 11. She developed vitiligo that same year. For Sue, when she was 11, a relative began abusing her. That led to sleepless nights, followed by the removal of her thyroid at age 12. Not long after, she developed lupus. In my case, I had a tumultuous relationship with my Dad, a former fighter pilot whose way was invariably the “right way.” The ongoing stress of conflict at home was more than my body could handle. I was diagnosed with MS at 19.

No one escapes stressful events. We share common human burdens of illness or losing a loved one. Thankfully, our bodies are built to weather those events, and most of the time we emerge whole. But many of us face traumatic events in childhood, known as “ACEs” (short for “Adverse Childhood Experiences”); or we face adult stressors like unemployment, abusive relationships, insomnia or financial worries. Traumatic events or unrelenting stressors are a setup for chronic disease. They cause inflammation, suppress our immune systems and make us vulnerable to even more environmental threats—stressors that can alter body chemistry, and contribute to immune malfunction.2Health and Behavior: The Interplay of Biological, Behavioral, and Societal Influences; Institute of Medicine (US) Committee on Health and Behavior: Research, Practice, and Policy, Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 2001; http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK43737 When it comes to inflammation, the body doesn’t distinguish between stress and other triggers, like gluten or mercury toxicity. So, even if you completely avoid gluten and have your silver fillings removed but you’re constantly stressed, inflammation and illness will likely persist.

Whatever form stress takes — physical, mental, emotional, chemical, or traumatic — we are designed to withstand it and even grow or thrive with it in small doses. It’s the traumatic, chronic and repeated types of stress that have been scientifically linked to the onset and progression of autoimmune disorders.

Here’s a snapshot of the science linking stress and autoimmune conditions:

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    Major Stress Precedes Autoimmune Symptoms

    Most initial autoimmune episodes are triggered by a major stressor. In fact, 80% of people report uncommon emotional stress before disease onset.3Stress as a trigger of autoimmune disease. Stojanovich L, et al., Autoimmun Rev. 2008 Jan;7(3):209-13. doi: 10.1016/ j.autrev.2007.11.007. Epub 2007 Nov 29; http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18190880)

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    Early Emotional Trauma Is a Setup for Autoimmune

    A massive study called ACEs (short for “Adverse Childhood Experiences”) demonstrates links between physical, emotional and mental trauma experienced in childhood and later development of autoimmune disorders.4Cumulative childhood stress and autoimmune diseases in adults. Dube SR, et al., Psychosom Med. 2009 Feb;71(2):243-50. doi: 10.1097/PSY.0b013e3181907888. Epub 2009; http://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/acestudy/

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    Chronic Stress is Inflammatory

    Chronic psychological stress impacts the body’s ability to regulate the inflammatory response, which can promote development and progression of disease.5Chronic stress, glucocorticoid receptor resistance, inflammation, and disease risk; Cohen, S. et. al; April 2, 2012, dpi  10.1073/pnas.1118355109 PNAS April 17, 2012 vol. 109 no. 16 5995-5999; http://www.pnas.org/content/109/16/5995

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    Repeated Stress Increases Risk

    Stressful events that continue over time increase the risk of developing an autoimmune condition.6Robert Sapolsky, Ph.D., Stanford University, Professor & Author, Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, https://twitter.com/Robot_Sapolsky/status/442684481829236738

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    Negative Thoughts And Emotions Weaken Immune System

    Worry and fear cause the release of harmful stress hormones like cortisol, histamine, and norepinephrine. These can weaken the immune system.7Bruce Lipton, Ph.D., cell biologist, professor & author of the book The Biology of Belief

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    Stress Triggers and Perpetuates Autoimmune

    Not only does stress lead to disease, but living with disease can also cause significant stress in people, creating a vicious cycle.8Stress as a trigger of autoimmune disease. Stojanovich L, et al., Autoimmun Rev. 2008 Jan;7(3):209-13. doi: 10.1016/ j.autrev.2007.11.007. Epub 2007 Nov 29. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18190880

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    Stress Precedes and Exacerbates RA

    People with Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA) frequently note the occurrence of stressful or traumatic life events prior to the onset of their illness and/or a relationship between stress and disease flares.9The role of stress in rheumatic diseases; Afton L Hassett & Daniel J Clauw; Arthritis Res Ther. 2010; 12(3): 123. Published online 2010 Jun 7. doi: 10.1186/ar3024; http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2911881/

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    Stress Leads to Leaky Gut and Dysbiosis

    Stress or trauma can cause intestinal hyper-permeability or “leaky gut,” which is the gateway to autoimmune conditions.10PC Konturek, et al. Stress and the gut: pathophysiology, clinical consequences, diagnostic approach and treatment options. J Physiol Pharmacol. 2011 Dec;62(6):591-9. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22314561

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    Daily Stress Exacerbates Lupus

    Daily stress–frequent but small amounts of stress appear to exacerbate the symptoms of patients suffering from lupus.11Nuria Navarrete Navarrete. Department of Medicine of the University of Granada, “Controlling Stress Helps Fight Chronic Diseases Such As Lupus” http://canal.ugr.es/index.php/health-science-and-technology/item/6237-controlling-stress-helps-fight-chronic-diseases-such-as-lupus?tmpl=component&print=1

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    Stress Worsens MS

    Stress in the forms of conflict and disruptions in routine (for example, family and job-related problems) were strongly correlated with the development of new brain lesions in MS patients 8 weeks later.12Moderating Effects of Coping on the Relationship Between Stress and the Development of New Brain Lesions in Multiple Sclerosis; Mohr, D.C.; Psychosom Med. 2002; 64(5): 803–809. doi: 10.1097/01.PSY.0000024238.11538.EC; http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1893006/

Now that you know that stress can initiate and perpetuate autoimmune disorders, you may wonder what actions you can take to avoid or minimize the effects of stress.

Here’s What You Can Do: Relax

The state of mind most conducive to healing is the relaxation response (the opposite of the fight-or-flight stress response). As you practice relaxation techniques each day, you build resiliency muscles; and it’s resilience and relaxation that promote health and wellbeing.13Positive Health: Resilience, Recovery, Primary Prevention, and Health Promotion; National Research Council (US) Committee on Future Directions for Behavioral and Social Sciences Research at the National Institutes of Health; Singer BH, Ryff CD, editors. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 2001; http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK43790/

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    Breathe Deeply and Slowly

    You can quickly and easily activate the relaxation response by breathing consciously, deeply and slowly. When you hold your in-breath for a comfortable period and then exhale slowly and deeply, you stimulate the vagus nerve, which helps you move out of the stress response and into the relaxation response.14Cleveland Clinc Wellness; “What Happens in Vagus” http://www.clevelandclinicwellness.com/programs/NewSFN/pages/default.aspx?Lesson=1&Topic=5&UserId=00000000-0000-0000-0000-000000000705 Pick strategic times during the day to breathe consciously; and consider a deep breathing app to remind you to breathe throughout the day.

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    Proactively Eliminate Stressors

    Make a list of all situations, people, events, etc. that cause you to react negatively. Decide whether to minimize your exposure, eliminate your exposure or modify your reaction to each one. Being aware of your stress triggers in advance can help you better respond — rather than react — when the situation arises or the person is present.

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    Choose Better Thoughts

    The antidote to negative or unproductive thinking is awareness. Start monitoring your thoughts. Keep a journal of your habitual negative thoughts. Choose to replace them with more realistic and positive ones. Get the workbook, Mind Over Mood: Change How You Feel by Changing the Way You Think by Greenberger & Padesky and do “thought records” each time you feel particularly stressed to challenge “hot” or frequent, unproductive and automatic thoughts.

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    Exercise is Highly Beneficial

    You can start small with exercise, and you’ll feel better in a surprisingly short time. Studies show that people with conditions like multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis and systemic lupus erythematosus benefit from exercise that gradually increases in intensity, duration and frequency. Aerobic exercise can significantly reduce fatigue–the number one symptom of many autoimmune conditions.15Low impact aerobic exercise reduces fatigue in auto-immune conditions says multi-study review, Dr Jane Neill, Flinders University in Adelaide; http://www.eufic.org/page/en/show/latest-science-news/fftid/low-impact-aerobic-auto-immune/

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    Meditate Daily -- Even One Minute Helps

    We know, we know — we’ve all been told meditation is beneficial, and yet we don’t manage to get around to it, mostly because we think we don’t have time. But did you know you can start with just one minute? That’s right, just a single minute of sitting quietly can be enough to activate the relaxation response. You can add a few more minutes each week. It feels good and contributes directly to healing. That’s because practices like meditation, hypnosis, guided imagery, yoga, deep breathing and prayer all produce immediate changes in the expression of genes involved in immune function.16Relaxation Response Induces Temporal Transcriptome Changes in Energy Metabolism, Insulin Secretion and Inflammatory Pathways; Manoj K. Bhasin, et al.; http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0062817

Have you experienced links between stress and your autoimmune experience? What do you do to proactively reduce stress in your life?

Take good care!

p.s. Before you go, please accept our FREE gift: Your Optimal Food Guide ebook, which can help you figure out which foods can help you reverse autoimmune conditions or just optimize your health.

p.s.s. And, if you are proactively seeking to heal from any autoimmune condition and want community, support and valuable information, please join our free, private Facebook group: Transcend Autoimmune.

Dig Into the Other Autoimmune Root Causes

Check out the other roots that must be addressed here:

Start With Food

Heal and Seal Your Leaky Gut

Address Infections

Minimize Toxins

Take good care!

p.s. Before you go, please accept our FREE gift: Your Optimal Food Guide ebook, which can help you figure out which foods can help you reverse autoimmune conditions or just optimize your health.

p.s.s. And, if you are proactively seeking to heal from any autoimmune condition and want community, support and valuable information, please join our free, private Facebook group: Transcend Autoimmune.

Image Credt: Africa Studio/Shutterstock

5 COMMENTS

  1. Palmer, I read your blog everyday and I wanted to thank you for what you are doing! You will help to change the lives of many people for years to come.

  2. Do you have coaches or someone that can call me I have ms and now they are looking at lupus and RA. I can’t work anymore and my life is a mess. I don’t really comprehend what I read because the ms has taken a lot of my cognitive thinking away. I have re taught myself to write and use technology from my phone. I have a 17 year old son and am married. My pastor sent me this link. If you have a mentoring program that would help so much cause I really feel defeated and won’t go back to the doctor for fear they will find lupus or RA. I have had a stressful life abuse etc. I was bedridden for awhile and lost my speech. I have regained that but I am always in pain and gave up narcotic pain pills. It was destructive and just a bandaid I am 45 and can’t work and on SS disability. I so want to work again. I can’t afford to fix my teeth the steroid and IVIG treatments I was on for 5 years have broken all the back ones off and they are infected. I am lost here. I found your article to be helpful and I would not have come this far without the Lord prayer and the will to fight because my son has had to grow up watching all this. Where can I get a job to afford to live. My husband works but we fell behind on our rent. I am not asking for money it just seems like an impossible situation. My son is a senior this year he will go without senior pictures or a yearbook or a class ring. My husband only makes $14 an hour and my Ss is not much. This is not the life I hoped for. I can’t focus on paperwork cause I don’t understand it all. So if you had a mentoring program that would be so great. Thank you for all this info.

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