Top 6 Triggers You Control to Beat Autoimmune: Stress

“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 The six major autoimmune root cause categories are F.I.G.H.T.S.™:

There is ample evidence that shows that each of these categories contributes to autoimmune disorders and each needs to be addressed. This is the fifth in the series Top 6 Triggers You Control to Beat Autoimmune: Stress.

Top Autoimmune Trigger: 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 Adverse Childhood Experiences or just “ACEs” for short; 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.3 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:

  • 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.4
  • 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.5
  • 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.6
  • Repeated Stress Increases Risk
    Stressful events that continue over time increase the risk of developing an autoimmune condition.7
  • 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.8
  • 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.9
  • 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.10
  • 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.11
  • Daily Stress Exacerbates Lupus
    Daily stress–frequent but small amounts of stress appear to exacerbate the symptoms of patients suffering from lupus.12
  • 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.13

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 parasympathetic rest and digest mode; the opposite of the always-on, sympathetic 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.14

  • 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.15 Pick strategic times during the day to breathe consciously; and set a gentle chime tone to remind you to breathe throughout the day.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.16

  • Meditate Daily — Even One Minute Helps

    I get it, we’ve all been told meditation is beneficial, and many 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.17

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

Take good care!

Image Credit: Radu Florin

P.S: Want my personal help?

If you live the U.S. and are ready, willing, and able to invest in your best health, I offer Functional Medicine Total Health Transformation Programs over Zoom. I collaborate with skilled naturopathic doctors (NDs) who are expert in resolving root causes like hormonal imbalances, gut disorders, chronic infections and toxic burdens which are almost always part of the autoimmune puzzle. Together we provide comprehensive, customized treatment plans, and collaborative, caring support. If you are ready to beat autoimmune and reclaim your best life please book a 30–minute consultation with me to gain clarity, confidence, and explore the possibility of working together. You can do it. We can help.
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).
2 Environmental Triggers and Autoimmunity, Aristo Vojdani, K. Michael Pollard, and Andrew W. Campbell; Autoimmune Diseases; Volume 2014 (2014), Article ID 798029 2 pages; Reference
3 Health 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; Reference
4 Stress 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; Reference
5 Cumulative 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; Reference
6 Chronic 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; Reference
7 Robert Sapolsky, Ph.D., Stanford University, Professor & Author, Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, Reference
8 Bruce Lipton, Ph.D., cell biologist, professor & author of the book The Biology of Belief
9 Stress 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. Reference
10 The 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; Reference
11 PC Konturek, et al. Stress and the gut: pathophysiology, clinical consequences, diagnostic approach and treatment options. J Physiol Pharmacol. 2011 Dec;62(6):591-9. Reference
12 Nuria Navarrete Navarrete. Department of Medicine of the University of Granada, “Controlling Stress Helps Fight Chronic Diseases Such As Lupus” Reference
13 Moderating 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; Reference
14 Positive 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; Reference
15 Cleveland Clinc Wellness; “What Happens in Vagus” Reference
16 Low impact aerobic exercise reduces fatigue in auto-immune conditions says multi-study review, Dr Jane Neill, Flinders University in Adelaide; Reference
17 Relaxation Response Induces Temporal Transcriptome Changes in Energy Metabolism, Insulin Secretion and Inflammatory Pathways; Manoj K. Bhasin, et al.; Reference




Recent Posts



Beat Autoimmune
#1 Amazon Bestseller

This comprehensive book is the first to explore all six of the critical lifestyle factors that are the root causes of autoimmune conditions – and the sources of regaining health. Foreword by Mark Hyman, MD

Download the Eat to Beat Autoimmune Optimal Food Guide and Stay Connected

Author picture

Palmer is a certified Functional Medicine Health Coach who has helped thousands of people reverse autoimmune conditions based on her own two-decade battle to successfully beat multiple sclerosis (MS). She’s the author of the Amazon #1 bestselling book, Beat Autoimmune, which has a powerful foreword by Functional Medicine pioneer, Mark Hyman, MD.

About Palmer