The Psycho-emotional Roots of AutoImmune Disease

The Psycho-emotional Roots of AutoImmune Disease

I feel for anyone living with chronic pain, as it is a journey that I have lived with and navigated myself. So I love sharing what I have learned to help people speed up their healing process. Today, I want to talk about the connection between stress and autoimmunity and the psycho-emotional roots of autoimmune disease. 

For me, I’ve noticed that when I feel happier in life, with lower stress levels and a great workout routine, my endometriosis pain is lessened. I believe this is due to my nervous system being more balanced and less stressed. Chronic pain is a very unpredictable thing to live with as it sometimes flares out of nowhere. Something I’ve learned about in recent years is how the people around you can heal or hurt you and impact your nervous system (read more here). 

Autoimmune disorders are one of the most chronic illnesses experienced today. When stress occurs, your body becomes flooded with hormones like cortisol, which is highly inflammatory. It’s reported that 5% of the population develops an autoimmune disesase and experience dysregulated inflammatory responses to self-antigens in the body. 

In today’s society, we are no longer dealing with isolated experiences of stress. Many people are chronically stressed, which means that we are constantly pumping out hormones that interfere with our physiology, which results in being chronically inflamed. For some people, the foundation of autoimmunity could have started long before adulthood, even back to in-utero.

There are fascinating studies on the foundation of a stressed-out nervous system that could have been during in pregnancy due to your mother’s stress levels. It could have even begun in childhood as a result of early stressful experiences (known as ACEs). These can change your stress system and epigenetics. Other studies on the psychological impact of stress in childhood have shown that psychological stress in childhood not only has an effect on the immune system but also causes immune suppression. It can also contribute to an autoimmune reaction that can induce an immune response against diabetes-related autoantigens and initiate a progression to T1D.

Studies have found that up to 80% of people with an autoimmune condition experienced high stress before developing their disease. And those with autoimmune challenges have sympathetic nervous system dominance, meaning they spend more time in their sympathetic nervous system than they should. This can drive inflammatory cycles further by keeping the body in a constant state of stress. A recent Swedish study that followed 1 million people over a 30-year period also found that people with stress-related disorders such as PTSD were 30 to 40% more likely to develop an autoimmune condition. Our immune system experiences suppression, which opens up space for the viral reactivation of latent viruses and overgrowth of Candida and SIBO. 

Meanwhile, studies have also shown how stress impacts our gut microbiome. The report showed that persistent stress can change the microbiota and microorganisms in the gut in ways that can trigger certain immune responses. This means that the body can perceive it as being a more significant threat, driving the autoimmunity cycle further. 

The big question here, is how do we de-stress? Studies have shown that various psychological interventions including therapy, mindfulness, and relaxation, have been found effective in reducing stress. And a 2019 meta-analytic review also found that psychological interventions may improve immune function. Research also shows that mind-body-based complementary therapies like yoga, tai chi, qigong, guided imagery, and meditation can influence the immune profile of patients in a positive way. 

Understanding the power of the vagus nerve to help calm the autonomic nervous system and inflammation can also prove to be valuable in reducing autoimmune disorders. Here are some ways you can stimulate it. I love adaptogens because they stabilize your stress hormones. For example, Tulsi (also known as holy basil), which is in our holi (youth), reduces stress by relaxing and calming the mind and body. 

Other science-backed tips include prioritizing high-quality sleep. Go to bed before 10 pm in total darkness (blackout blinds) without your phone and with your wifi router turned off. Moving, too, is critical and consistent. Moderate exercise, around 30 minutes a day, has anti-inflammatory, immune system-enhancing benefits. Getting out in nature is incredibly calming for the nervous system and research shows that spending time in nature lowers cortisol, reduces inflammation, improves the immune function, and postively impacts feelings of depression and anxiety and even memory! Finally, loneliness is a key driver of chronic stress. So work gently and compassionately to nurture strong social connections around what is really important. 

It’s also important to understand the potential damage that holding anger, resentment, and negative feelings towards others could have on the body. Therapy and body-based techniques can help you reduce the psycho-emotional impact of these experiences, which can impact you at a cellular level. And be aware of your potentially unhealthy coping mechanisms. Things like under-eating, overeating, and over-exercising can drive stress responses in the body.

Remember to nourish and nurture the body to manage our stress response. This, in turn, will manage our immune strength and reduce our likelihood of experiencing autoimmunity.