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.
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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.
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.