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:
- Food (e.g. gluten, dairy, sugar, nutrient deficiencies, etc.)
- Gut health
- Hormone imbalance
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.
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:
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/
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. For an overview of solutions to heal and prevent autoimmune disorders, check out the Beat Autoimmune Healing Manifesto.
Image Credit: Radu Florin