Stress wreaks havoc on the mind and body. For example, psychological stress is associated with greater risk for depression, heart disease and infectious diseases. But, until now, it has not been clear exactly how stress influences disease and health.
Normally, stress sets off a chain reaction in your body that includes the release of the hormone cortisol that helps you handle stressful situations (fight or flight). Cortisol also helps regulate your immune response. In small doses, your body’s reaction to stress is protective; higher or unrelenting amounts of stress have the opposite effect.
See our article “Meditation Stress Relief”
Studies have showed how chronic stress may damage the body’s ability to regulate immune function. They found that autoimmunity results when chronic stress alters the effectiveness of cortisol to regulate the inflammatory response because it decreases tissue sensitivity to the hormone. Specifically, immune cells become insensitive to cortisol’s regulatory effect. In turn, runaway inflammation promotes the development of autoimmunity. Link to study
Moreover, the researchers found that exposure to high levels of corticosterone (the equivalent of cortisol in rodents) simulating chronic stress reduced the number of immune cells. This increased the number of cells that encouraged damaging inflammation compared to those that inhibit it.
This mechanism appeared more pronounced in females than in males and may explain, in part, the higher rates of autoimmune disease in women than in men.
This study also supports previous research that found that a high proportion (up to 80%) of patients with autoimmune disorders 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 To Reduce Stress In Your Life
I hope you all understand why managing stress is so important in preventing and managing autoimmune disease. If you have an autoimmune disease, reducing stress in your life may help ameliorate some of your symptoms, or prevent progression of the disease.
If you have family members with autoimmune disease, start focusing on stress management now so that you’ll reduce your risk of triggering autoimmune disease in the future.
To help get you started on healing your HPA axis and adrenal function, here are five ways to reduce stress in your life:
1. Eat a Healing Diet
Recommending a diet for autoimmune disease would take a whole book. But the best basic advice I can give you is to eat a real foods diet, preferably gluten-free, and consider diving into the autoimmune elimination protocol.
And remember, simply eliminating foods is not enough to heal you from HPA axis dysregulation and autoimmune disease. You need to make sure you’re eating nutrient dense meals with adequate amounts of calories, fat, protein, and carbohydrates to provide your body the nutrition it needs to heal and keep stress low. Under-eating is a stressor in itself, and can stall your progress in healing.
2. Engage in Mind-Body Activities
Regular stress management is something that all of us could do a little bit more of. In our modern world, we’re under stressors that even our parents and grandparents may not have experienced. 24 hour news programs, laptops and smartphones in the bedroom, and pressure to live a Pinterest-perfect lifestyle are all new pressures that have been added on to the standard bill paying and social interactions of the past.
That’s why engaging in mind-body practices is even more important these days. These practices include things like meditation, yoga, breathing exercises, and tai chi or qigong. Research has shown that regular meditation is able to help people feel calmer and produces positive changes in various areas of the brain, particularly in the areas associated with memory, empathy, sense of self, and stress regulation.
The good news is it only took 8 weeks for participants in this study to see these results, so consider committing to a program of regular mind-body practices for that time. You might be surprised to see how much your mental, emotional, and physical health improves.
3. Exercise Appropriately
Exercise can be a double edged sword when dealing with HPA axis issues. While regular moderate exercise can help reduce stress, lift depression, and even improve your HPA axis’s response speed, over-exercise (also called overtraining) can actually impair your HPA axis function, causing systemic inflammation, immune dysfunction, and increased risk of depression or anxiety and other mental health issues.
I can’t tell you what an appropriate amount of exercise for you is, because every person has different levels of tolerance when it comes to physical activity. And for someone with adrenal fatigue or autoimmune disease, overexercise could be even more dangerous than not exercising enough.
Err on the side of caution, and avoid any heavy duty training regimens like long distance running, or Crossfit and other bootcamp-style workouts. Stick to exercises that energize you and be sure to get adequate rest. Listen to your body above all!
4. Sleep Well
Sleep has a profound impact on your HPA axis. Sleep restriction has been shown to activate the HPA axis and alters the production of ACTH and cortisol. Considering that 30% of Americans get less than 6 hours of sleep per night, it’s obviously a huge problem.
In addition, there is a strong connection between your body’s clock system and the HPA axis at multiple levels. The clock system, driven by light and dark exposure, controls the HPA axis; this is the basis for the circadian release of cortisol, which reach their highest concentrations early in the morning and their lowest concentrations late at night. If your circadian rhythms are disrupted, your cortisol rhythm will be as well, so getting adequate sleep at appropriate hours is crucial for HPA axis health.
Sleep in a cool, pitch-dark room, and limit exposure to light emitting devices when the sun goes down. Try to get some light exposure during the day, particularly when you first wake up and at mid-day. Aim for 7-9 hours of sleep per night, every night.
The researchers say the results of this study suggest that while a high level of cortisol may generally protect against the worsening of autoimmune diseases, in those exposed to chronic stress, steroids could lead to a worsening of their symptoms.
Therefore, even though steroids is one of the treatments for chronic inflammation, use of such a treatment – particularly in patients suffering from chronic stress – should be carefully weighed and considered.