Can Stress And Anxiety Cause Autoimmune Disease?

What Is Autoimmune Disease?

In a healthy individual, the immune system protects the body against infections. An autoimmune disease is when the immune system attacks the body’s own healthy tissue instead, causing health problems. Common autoimmune disease symptoms are fever and fatigue, while specific symptoms depend on the tissues targeted. Autoimmune disease is far more common in women, accounting about 80% of the cases. The link between the female gender and autoimmune disease is unclear but it could be due to the increased level of hormones especially during pregnancy. There are more than 100 autoimmune diseases. The common ones are type 1 diabetes mellitus, Graves’ disease, inflammatory bowel disease, multiple sclerosis, psoriasis, rheumatoid arthritis and systemic lupus erythematosus.

What Is The Cause Of Autoimmune Disease?

The exact cause of the autoimmune disease remains unknown, but few factors have been identified to trigger it, which are infection, genetics, stress and others.

Certain infectious agents have protein molecules similar to our cells that confuse the immune system, known as molecular mimicry. Besides, an infection provides the inflammatory context that favours the immune response. Thus it is possible for the infection to trigger autoimmune disease. For example, some individuals who recovered from strep throat were later diagnosed with psoriasis, an autoimmune disease that causes thick and scaly patches of skin. Rheumatoid arthritis, another autoimmune disease that affects the joints is triggered by periodontitis and alterations of bacteria in the gut. Other types of autoimmune disease may come from the body trying to fight against cancer, such as scleroderma, a disease that causes hardening of the skin.

There is a clear association between genetic and autoimmune disease but still not fully understood. For instance, systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) and multiple sclerosis are found to run in the family. If a mother has SLE, her daughter has a 1:40 risk to develop the disease, and her son 1:250 risk. However, genetics alone is not enough to cause autoimmune disease. There are family members that were tested positive for lupus-specific DNA and still not get the disease (SLE). It is possible that the cause of the autoimmune disease is based on the ability of the immune system to handle stress. How much stress can the body take before the immune system is off balance? This begs the question, “can stress and anxiety really cause autoimmune disease?”

It seems that stress and anxiety could be a cause of autoimmune disease. A study has found an association between autoimmune diseases and stress-related diseases such as anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). There are also multiple studies conducted that showed a link between rheumatoid arthritis and PTSD. In fact, women with PTSD are more likely to develop rheumatoid arthritis compared to women without PTSD. Moreover, retrospective studies found that up to 80% of individuals with autoimmune disease reported uncommon emotional stress before the disease onset. It is clear that individuals with stress-related disorders have a significantly increased risk of developing a subsequent autoimmune disease. Although the exact underlying mechanism is not yet known, it is presumed that stress triggers the neuroendocrine hormones, leading to immune dysregulation. This causes an altered or amplified signalling protein (cytokines) which could ultimately result in autoimmune disease. It is unfortunate that not only does stress cause the disease, but the disease itself also causes significant distress to the individuals, creating a vicious cycle. Thus the treatment of autoimmune disease should include stress management to prevent further worsening of immune imbalance.

Other risk factors worth mentioning are cigarette smoking, dietary factors and obesity. Smoking is toxic to the body and is linked to rheumatoid arthritis, SLE, multiple sclerosis and Graves’ disease. High salt intake is believed to alter the gut bacteria, increasing the risk of getting type 1 diabetes mellitus and multiple sclerosis. Obesity places you at risk for rheumatoid arthritis and psoriatic arthritis.