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  • Writer's pictureisaacmathu

Can You Stress Yourself Into an Autoimmune Disorder?

We already know that being chronically stressed is pretty bad for our health. It’s linked to hypertension, poor sleep, memory loss and a myriad of other health problems. New research suggests that it could also be a significant factor behind the development of autoimmune disorders. 

Researchers still don't know exactly why the immune system suddenly begins attacking healthy cells, resulting in an autoimmune disorder. Several factors including genetics, environmental factors, lifestyle and, now, stress are thought to contribute towards autoimmune diseases. 

A Quick Background on Autoimmune Disorders

An autoimmune disorder happens when the body attacks healthy cells and tissue. Normally, the immune system targets viruses and other pathogens. It also helps heal wounds and injuries. 

But sometimes, the immune system goes into overdrive and turns on healthy tissue, causing autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease, psoriasis and lupus. 

Many autoimmune diseases develop after you’ve been sick or have had an injury. The immune system starts out fine fighting the invading pathogens or using inflammation to heal an injury. But then healthy cells become caught up in the immune response. 

Some autoimmune disorders like scleroderma, stiff-person syndrome and opsoclonus occur when the immune system responds to cancerous tumors and mistakenly attacks healthy tissue. These are known as autoimmune paraneoplastic syndromes.  

What makes autoimmune diseases particularly nefarious is that they are generally incurable. The best doctors can do in many cases is reduce the inflammation that comes along with these diseases and manage symptoms like pain and fatigue. 

Stress and Autoimmune Disorders: What’s The Link?

It is difficult to definitely prove that stress is one of the causes of autoimmune disorders. That’s because stress is itself one of the symptoms of autoimmune diseases. It’s a chicken and egg problem. Which causes which?

Does stress cause autoimmune malfunction, is it just a symptom or is it both. Current theories suggest that it is both. Any disease will cause higher psychological stress and autoimmune diseases are no different.  

But researchers also think stress might have something to do with the onset of some autoimmune disorders. There are several proposed pathways that link stress to autoimmune diseases. The two main ones are hormones and inflammation. 


One of the theories suggests that stress causes immune dysregulation via hormonal action. Chronic stress results in elevated levels of stress hormones like epinephrine (adrenaline) and cortisol. 

Ordinarily, these hormones are important for the body. In fact, cortisol is anti-inflammatory and helps control the immune system so it doesn't go into an overdrive. 

However, consistently high levels of cortisol can make the immune system resistant to it, much like how high levels of insulin causes insulin resistance in cells. With increased resistance to cortisol, the immune system is more likely to go into overdrive and harm healthy tissue. 

Chronic Inflammation

One of the effects of consistently high levels of stress hormones is an increase in pro-inflammatory cytokines in the body. Chronic stress causes chronic inflammation, which in turn is linked to numerous health problems including diabetes, heart disease and neurological disorders.

Research has shown that runaway inflammation is a major factor behind the development and progression of many autoimmune diseases. 

Final Thoughts

There is a lot we don't know about the link between stress and autoimmune disorders and, therefore, we cannot conclusively say that you can stress yourself into an autoimmune disease. 

There are also confounding factors. For instance, as this Harvard Health article notes, stressed people are more likely to engage in negative habits like smoking, excessive alcohol intake, less exercise and consumption of processed foods. These lifestyle habits increase the risk of autoimmune disorders. 

So it’s hard to pinpoint stress as a root cause of autoimmune diseases. 

Nonetheless, stress and particularly chronic stress, is bad for your health. Not only is it a risk factor in getting autoimmune disorders, it is also linked to many other health problems. 

While we encounter plenty of stressors everyday, chronic stress is mostly linked to our situations and environments — your home life, your work, or your financial situation. These can be hard to solve but it’s worth considering what changes you can make to your life to reduce chronic stress. 

Maybe a better work-life balance, more time hanging out with friends, hobbies, better sleep hygiene, exercise and so on. Even seemingly small changes like going to bed earlier and calling a friend everyday can have a profound effect on your stress levels. 

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