Research in the last few years has confirmed what many of us with auto-immune diseases had long-suspected – there is a link between auto-immune disease and stress. There hasn’t been a clear finding in the research about why this is the case, but because I’m a naturopath and look at the body holistically, I have my theories.
You probably know I’m very passionate about supporting Mums to reverse the impacts of stress on their body. What you might not know is the reason I’m so passionate about this is because my health suffered terribly at the hands of chronic stress. I’m going to share my theories on auto-immune disease and stress as I tell my story of how I developed Coeliacs (an auto-immune disease) and multiple allergies at the ripe old age of 39.
What is Auto-immune Disease?
Let’s start at the beginning (a very good place to start!)
Auto-immune diseases are chronic inflammatory conditions. The Immune System gets confused, misfires, and loses its tolerance (or acceptance) of some of our own cells. When this happens, antibodies to our own cells develop. These antibodies signal to the Immune System to attack these cells, tissues and organs, instead of the invading organisms as it should.
Some common auto-immune diseases are Rheumatoid Arthritis, Type 1 Diabetes, Coeliacs, Hashimoto’s, Grave’s, psoriasis and Multiple Sclerosis. As the immune cells are triggered to attack the body’s tissues, functions are lost (eg insulin production in Type 1 Diabetes; or thyroid hormone production in Hashimoto’s or Grave’s) as the tissues are destroyed. Most auto-immune diseases impact women more than men. Women’s hormones seem to play a part in auto-immune disease development, though the reason why isn’t clear.
My story of Auto-immune disease and stress
My journey with auto-immune disease started in my childhood when I had asthma, eczema, allergic reactions to some foods and supplements. It wasn’t until my teens that my immune system escalated and I developed psoriasis. There’s a very clear link between auto-immune disease and stress for me. I developed psoriasis during the stress of year 12.
But things really escalated when I was pregnant with our third child in 2010 and our home burnt down. You can imagine the intensity of the stress that followed that day when we were left with what we stood in and what was in the cars and shed. I was planning my first homebirth and suddenly had no home to birth in! We had 8 weeks until baby was due, which was spent dealing with insurance to get our claim finalised (it took 6 months for this!), finding a home to rent while we re-built our home, and then planning the re-building of our home.
WHAT IS STRESS?
Stress is any physical or emotional experience that causes tension and sets of the ‘fight, flight or freeze’ response in our bodies. Adrenalin, cortisol and other messenger molecules are released within the body to prep us to respond to the alarming situation. This worked really well when our stressors were things like sabre-tooth tigers. But in modern life, we have lots of little, persistent stressors that add up to a large amount of constant, chronic stress. What is stressful and how we respond to it is unique to us all. It has a lot to do with our constitution, environment, genes, and general health and vitality.
The stress after the fire was EPIC and continued for many years after the birth of our third child. (About 8!) I was running on adrenaline for a long time. Not eating much because my appetite was suppressed and I was so busy managing 3 kids, breastfeeding and supporting my husband who was working full-time and re-building our home on weekends. Honestly, I don’t know how we made it through that time.
At the time I hadn’t finished my naturopathy studies, I was still in the early phase of it. I didn’t realise what stress could do to the body. And I wasn’t ready to be able to support myself and build my resilience to stress. In 2011 I had to add study back in to my daily juggle/struggle or lose my course credits. After 12-18 months of this juggle I was in a bad way. The demand on my body was so great.
100% clapped out
Breastfeeding a toddler day and night meant I was falling asleep in classes at 2pm. Going to sleep exhausted, waking more exhausted. Perversely, I had trouble going to sleep, I was wired but tired. My hair was coming out more than it should have. My skin was dry. Psoriasis was coming up again and I was starting to get hives all over my body without any apparent reason why. (The real reason is I had developed allergies to my latex mattress and outdoor moulds that were abundant in the damp leaf litter around our rental home.)
When we moved into a caravan on our property I had a reprieve because the latex mattress went in to storage, and there was less leaf litter around the developing house and caravan. Stress levels remained the same though! Trying to study while you live with 4 other people in a caravan will do that. Eventually we moved in to the bottom part of our home and the latex mattress came out again. So did my fatigue, rashes and psoriasis, along with a new symptom of joint pain and waking with a headache. Seriously I wondered how I could feel so bad when I was only 39.
When I thought I couldn’t feel any worse, I became pregnant with our fourth child. Well, that was a whole new level of feeling depleted and crappy. It was hell. Fast forward to her birth and the recovery. I couldn’t understand why I felt so bad on bed rest. I felt better getting up and sitting outside or on the couch. (Latex mattress!) The hives started up again, and I was frightened by the rash that was covering my baby from head to toe.
Sick of feeling sick
One day when she was about 14 months old (2015), I got hives AGAIN. I’d had enough. Was sick of feeling sick and tired, sick of rashes, itching and flaking everywhere. I needed to know what was going on so I could work out what to do with myself. We didn’t really have money for spending on testing, but too bad. I needed to know what I was up against. By this time I was far enough along in my studies to feel confident to work out a treatment plan and prescription for myself.
I went to the GP and asked for help – she said ” I can’t help you”, my heart sunk. But she finished her sentence, “so I’m referring you to an allergist”. Phew. The allergist diagnosed me with multiple allergies, food intolerances and Non-Coeliac Gluten Sensitivity. I still didn’t feel 100% right, and about 6 months later was re-tested and diagnosed as a Coeliac.
So what contributed to my state of health? Let’s break it down.
it’s written in your genes
I mentioned before that how we respond to stress is unique to all of us. What makes us who we are is our unique blend of genetic code that we inherit from our parents. Genes are instructions inside our cells that tell our bodies what molecules to make, and what they need to do. There are genes that code our immune system, including particular molecules that help our Immune System recognise itself from invading molecules. Your genetic code doesn’t really change over your lifetime.
Certain gene types are more susceptible to auto-immune diseases and stress than others. Guess which group I fall in to?! This is also why auto-immune diseases run in families. Currently there are 68 known genetic variations associated with auto-immune diseases. Once you have one auto-immune disease, you’re more susceptible to developing others. (This is me also! Psoriasis as a teen contributed to developing Coeliacs as an adult.) I didn’t know this – had never been told it when I developed psoriasis. Perhaps I might’ve paid more attention to my Immune System…
Did someone say epigenetics?
Now it’s time to get even more complicated. There’s this thing called epigenetics, which are changes to the functions of the genes, without changing the structure of the gene. These epigenetic changes alter the expression of the gene and the cell function. Whoa.
Epigenetic traits are also inheritable, so they pass from generation to generation. But they may not be switched on until the environmental factors are just right. What are the environmental factors? Well they can vary from person-to-person, but stress is one, so are toxins, chemical exposure, the quality and types of food you eat. So in my case, there was the perfect storm of genetic pre-disposition, epigenetic traits, immune dysfunction and environmental triggers.
Unfortunately my daughter inherited my genetic and epigenetic traits. I feel she was born at a time when I was very inflamed, and so her immune system was likely a bit dysfunctional from birth. She was diagnosed with an auto-immune disease – Juvenile Arthritis – around 4 years of age, but the onset is insidious, and I think had been coming for a year at least.
Can you already understand the link between auto-immune disease and stress a bit better? Now let’s get into the biochemistry of auto-immune disease and stress.
chronic high Cortisol + Immune System = Chaos
Let’s talk about immune dysfunction and how we get to that. First up, what does cortisol do to your immune system? The answer is: Cortisol is anti-inflammatory and suppresses the immune system and its soldiers, the white blood cells.
You’ve seen how this works, when you’ve gone on holidays and next minute…you’re sick! Stress levels melt away, cortisol levels drop, and your immune system is awake and ready to go. You’re thinking “Oh hi 👋friend, thanks for looking out for me, now can you go away?!” 🤪
If switched on for a long period, cortisol loses this suppressing, anti-inflammatory effect and your immune system goes a bit berserk. It comes back with a vengeance! Kind of like a kid choosing a lolly from the jar. ” What’s this, oooo what’s that, can I taste this one? Or maybe this? I don’t know, I’ll just touch them all…”
This is immune dysfunction at its finest. Your immune system starts overreacting and ‘touching’ everything, even stuff it shouldn’t. The inflammatory response keeps getting triggered over and over. It’s so busy multi-tasking and responding to all the requests for its attention that it loses focus and mucks things up. This is often when people will develop allergies, auto-immune diseases or get stuck in a cycle of chronic colds and illness. Well, look at that…I’m a perfect example of this!
Your Guts, Immune System and Stress
I’ve written a few different blogs that explain the importance of our ‘gut’ health and how stress impacts it. Check out ‘Stress and gut health’, ‘4 tips to support digestion during stress’ and ‘Gut health for beginners’ for all the details. What you need to know today, while we talk auto-immune disease and stress, is this:
- High cortisol decreases the mucous barrier of our intestines, alters the microbiome and gut function, and increases inflammation in the intestines.
- To be healthy and strong, your body needs you to have robust, functioning barriers.
- Your barriers are the skin and mucous membranes like the ones lining your nose, sinuses, lungs and intestines. IE the gut.
- We need strong barriers to keep unwanted things (bacteria, viruses, undigested proteins, allergens, toxins, chemicals) out of our bloodstream.
If this doesn’t happen, then the immune system gets triggered and the inflammatory response is activated. Constant exposure to these things means that our immune system is constantly being triggered. When it’s busy constantly responding to lots of things, there’s more chance of getting it wrong and making a mistake. To make the risk even higher, there are some proteins in foods that look a lot like the proteins that make up our organs and tissues. Gluten is one that is a lot like thyroid proteins.
Stress is not the only player in developing auto-immune diseases. Things like infections and exposure to toxins in hair dyes, cigarettes, solvents and silica dust have been associated with auto-immune disease risk. There’s a commonality here though with stress. Infections and high exposure to toxins trigger the immune system too, activating the inflammatory response and contributing to immune dysfunction.
like collecting trading cards
My husband likes to tease me that I collect allergies and auto-immune diseases like they’re trading cards. Hmmm. Well, I guess there was a time of my life when it did look and feel like that. I didn’t really get colds or other illnesses, I was just always in a state of exhaustion and irritation. Irritated in mood, but also my body was irritated. Rashy, itchy, inflamed.
The Road to Recovery from auto-immune disease and stress
I’m pleased to say that I haven’t had any new diagnoses since 2015. It’s taken lots of work, determination, herbal medicine, whole foods, and lots of boundaries. But I’ve reduced my reactivity to the things I’m allergic to, and I haven’t had an outbreak of psoriasis in 5 years. My guts are the best they’ve been in a long time, and my overall health is very good. I can cope with life’s stresses, and keep up with my kids. I don’t feel like an old woman each and every morning. I’m strong, happy and healthy.
The work I did included calming down my immune system, improving gut health, identifying and removing food intolerances/triggers, reducing stressors, and building my body’s stress resilience.
My daughter is in remission from Juvenile Arthritis. This is my finest achievement. To see her run, jump and be able to keep up with her friends makes my heart sing. She went through a similar process to me – herbal medicine, gut work, identifying and removing food intolerances/triggers (all of which she enjoys in her varied diet again!), and calming down her immune system.
understand your risk FACTORS
There are many individual factors that increase a person’s risk of auto-immune disease. Genetics, epigenetics, environment and your immune system health are the major players.
How do you know if you have ‘at risk’ genes? Well, there are blood tests that you can have done – but most times these aren’t done without a good reason. So in lieu of that, have a look at your family’s history. Are there auto-immune diseases in your blood relative’s histories?
Think about where you live and work. Are you exposing yourself to chemicals and toxins when you don’t need to? Switching to low tox cleaners for your home and body will go a long way to boosting your health. I have a blog about endocrine-disrupting chemicals, it will help you pick out low tox personal care and cleaning products.
What are you eating? How is your body responding to what you eat? My recommendations for what makes up a healthy diet are in this blog. Eating a diet rich in colourful vegetables and omega-3 essential fatty acids helps balance your immune system because it is rich in anti-inflammatory and antioxidant compounds.
rate your immune system’s health
How’s your immune system functioning? If you answer yes to some or all of these questions, then your immune system needs some focus and attention:
- Do you catch colds or flu easily?
- Do you get sick more than 3 times per year?
- Do you never get sick?
- Are you suffering from a chronic infection?
- Do you get frequent cold sores or fungal nail infections or have genital herpes?
- Are your lymph glands sore and swollen at times?
- Do you get hayfever, asthma, eczema or allergies? (Or have had them as a child?)
A diagnosis isn’t the end, it’s the beginning
Lastly, it’s important to know that an auto-immune disease diagnosis isn’t the end. It doesn’t mean the disease has to progress through a range of symptoms as the textbooks describe. A diagnosis is the beginning. It gives you information that can help you find the knowledge you need to understand your body and what it needs to return to health. I’m not claiming to cure auto-immune disease, that would be irresponsible. However, my personal and professional experience is that it doesn’t have to go how they say.
You can have an auto-immune disease and feel good. You can deal with life’s stresses and not end up unwell.
What we eat, what we do, and what we put on our body and breathe in, make a big difference to our health and the function of our body. I love helping Mums gain knowledge and understanding of their bodies to help support and nurture them back to health. So they can feel less exhausted, wrung out, overwhelmed and depleted and more like they used to – full of energy and enthusiasm. I do this with practical and easy-to-understand information and advice about the body, its biochemistry, food, movement and herbal medicine.
If you’d like to feel more like you used to, the first step is to book a free 15-minute discovery call. There you can ask me any questions you have about naturopathy and how I can help you achieve your health goals. Make your time here.
Yours in health,