The Stress-Autoimmune Connection

Last Updated: Nov 09, 2021

Written by

In this post, Palmer Kippola, a #1 Amazon best-selling author, speaker and Functional Medicine Certified Health Coach, talks about the connection between stress and autoimmunity. By finding and removing her inflammatory root causes and healing her gut, Palmer reversed her MS.

After she healed, she set out to discover how it was possible she could completely recover from an autoimmune condition six neurologists had called incurable, telling her, “There’s nothing you can do except take medication.”

Palmer Kippola

Palmer found the empowering science of epigenetics, which reveals that genes are only responsible for a tiny fraction of health outcomes, while environmental factors are responsible for 90 percent.

To simplify the path back to health for others to follow, Palmer created a framework for healing and preventing autoimmune conditions called F.I.G.H.T.S.™, representing the root cause categories in our control: Food, Infections, Gut health, Hormone balance, Toxins and Stress. 

While all categories may need to be addressed, the most challenging for people tends to be stress.

You can do everything else right—eat a keto-Paleo diet, exercise, take useful supplements, get good sleep, clear infections, balance your hormones, and minimize exposure to toxins—but if you fail to address stress, whether the ongoing, daily-grind type, or the kind that accompanies a major traumatic event, or emotional pain from childhood, it may be near impossible to fully heal.

Stress Precedes Autoimmunity

Stress Precedes Autoimmunity

When people recall what was happening in their lives before they first noticed the physical symptoms of autoimmune issues, they almost always have a story of a major life stressor.

Take these true stories for example: For Donna, when she was a teenager a mentor betrayed her trust, and for Donna, that inconceivable shock sent her reeling; she was diagnosed with MS later that year.

Jacob came down with the “drop dead flu,” when a family melt-down in the midst of medical school completely wore him down. Soon after, he succumbed to debilitating symptoms of chronic fatigue and fibromyalgia.

In my case, a tumultuous relationship with my Dad, a former fighter pilot whose way was invariably the “right way,” created ongoing conflict at home throughout my childhood and hormonally-charged teen years. I was diagnosed with MS at 19.

No one escapes stressful events. We share common human burdens of illness and loss. Thankfully, our bodies are built to weather those events, and most of the time, we emerge whole and stronger for the experience.

But many of us cope with traumatic childhood events, known as “ACEs” (short for “Adverse Childhood Experiences”), well into adulthood; and ongoing challenges like unemployment, abusive relationships, insomnia or financial concerns can create a state of constant anxiety.

This kind of stress, related to trauma or characterized as unrelenting or chronic, is a setup for disease. Chronic stress causes inflammation, creates a leaky gut, suppresses our immune system, and makes us vulnerable to even more environmental threats—stressors that can alter body chemistry, and contribute to immune malfunction.

When it comes to inflammation, the body doesn’t distinguish between emotional stress and other toxic triggers like gluten, mold or mercury toxicity. It doesn’t matter how impeccable your eating habits or how well you avoid environmental toxins; if you’re stressed all the time, inflammation and autoimmunity will likely persist.

Chronic Stress and the Body

Chronic Stress and the Body

Physiologically, our bodies react to a stressor with the “fight, flight or freeze” response, a series of chemical reactions involving a cascade of hormonal changes.

The adrenal gland releases stress hormones cortisol, epinephrine—also known as adrenaline—and norepinephrine into your bloodstream, preparing your body to fight or run. Your sympathetic nervous system activates, causing your heart rate and blood pressure to go up, your muscles to tighten and digestion to stop—all in an attempt to increase your chances of survival.

If the event is short-lived and you outran the bear or learned that the strange noise in your house was your cat and not a burglar, your stress response subsides. Ideally, you return to the “relaxation response,” your body’s “rest and digest” mode under the control of the parasympathetic nervous system. 

But what happens if you don’t go back to a relaxation response? What if your stress reaction gets stuck in the “always on” position? 

Studies have shown that chronic stress can have negative impacts on just about every system and organ in the body. With prolonged stress, the body’s tissues—including immune cells—can become less sensitive to the regulatory effects of cortisol, reducing cortisol’s ability to manage the inflammatory response.

This can lead to uncontrolled inflammation, which is associated with the onset and progression of autoimmune disorders.

The Science Linking Stress and Autoimmune Conditions

Here’s a snapshot of the science linking stress and autoimmune conditions:

  • 80% of people report “uncommon emotional stress” before the onset of autoimmune disease
  • A massive study called the CDC-Kaiser Permanente Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) Study demonstrates strong linkages between physical, emotional and mental trauma experienced in childhood and later development of autoimmune disorders.
  • Chronic psychological stress impacts the body’s ability to regulate the inflammatory response, which can promote development and progression of disease.
  • Stressful events that continue over time increase the risk of developing an autoimmune condition.
  • Worry and fear cause the release of harmful stress hormones* like cortisol, histamine, and norepinephrine which can weaken the immune system.
  • Not only does stress lead to disease, but living with disease can also create significant stress, causing a vicious cycle.
  • People with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) frequently note the occurrence of stressful or traumatic life events prior to the onset of initial symptoms or disease flares.
  • Stress or trauma can cause intestinal hyper-permeability or a “leaky gut,” which is the gateway to autoimmune conditions.
  • Daily stress—small but frequent amounts of stress—exacerbates symptoms of people suffering from lupus.
  • Stress in the forms of conflict and disruptions in routine like family or job-related issues were strongly correlated with the development of new brain lesions people with MS eight weeks later.
  • A study of 2,490 Vietnam veterans found that those with chronic PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) had a 174% increased risk for autoimmune diseases, including rheumatoid arthritis (RA), psoriasis, type 1 diabetes, and autoimmune thyroid disease (Hashimoto’s or Graves), compared to controls.

How to Reduce the Effects of Stress

Now that you know stress can initiate and perpetuate autoimmune disorders, you may wonder what actions you can take to avoid or minimize the effects of stress. In short, it all comes down to reducing your stress reaction and increasing your relaxation response.

You may not have control over all of the stress-causing factors in your life, but you do have control over how you react to them. If you can minimize or eliminate your exposure to the people and situations that cause you to react negatively, go for it.

But if, for whatever reason, reducing exposure is impossible, take heart that being conscious of your stress triggers will help you to respond—rather than react—when confronted with the specific situation or person. 

The more you keep calm regardless of the environment around you, the more you’ll avoid the fight-or-flight stress reaction. Not surprisingly, the state of mind most conducive to healing is the opposite of fight-flight, the relaxation response, also known as “rest and digest” or “tend and befriend.” 

The stress-reducing techniques below will help you cultivate a general feeling of calm and ease into the relaxation response. As you practice relaxation techniques each day, you’ll build resiliency muscles; and it is resilience and relaxation where repair and healing take place.

1. Breathe Deeply and Slowly

Breathe Deeply and Slowly

You can quickly and easily activate the relaxation response by breathing consciously, deeply and slowly. When you hold your in-breath for a comfortable period and then exhale slowly and deeply, you stimulate the vagus nerve, which helps you move out of the stress response and into the relaxation response.

Find cues during the day to try conscious breathing; and consider a deep breathing app to remind you to breathe throughout the day.

2. Choose Better Thoughts

The antidote to negative or unproductive thinking is awareness. Start monitoring your thoughts and keep a journal of your habitual negative thoughts. Choose to replace them with more realistic and positive ones.

Get the workbook Mind Over Mood: Change How You Feel by Changing the Way You Think by Greenberger & Padesky, and each time you feel particularly stressed, create a“thought record” to challenge unproductive and automatic thoughts.

3. Move More

Move More

Even if you start with micro movements in small doses, you’ll feel better in a surprisingly short time. At one time when she was suffering from eleven chronic illnesses, healing diet expert, Mary Ruddick could only muster the energy for 30 seconds on a stationary bike. She kept at it, adding seconds until they became minutes.

Eventually she completely healed. Studies show that people with conditions like MS, RA, and lupus benefit from exercise that gradually increases in intensity, duration and frequency. Aerobic exercise can significantly reduce fatigue—the number one symptom of people who suffer from autoimmune conditions.

4. Get Outside

Get Outside

No matter the weather, I prioritize getting out for a hike or a long walk. Research confirms that spending time in nature has a long list of health benefits including decreased feelings of depression and anxiety, and increased feelings of self-esteem and compassion.

To amplify oxytocin, the beneficial bonding hormone, ask a good friend to join you. 

5. Laugh Your Way Well

Laugh Your Way Well

When I was struck with MS at 19 and numb from the neck down for six weeks, a family friend gave me Norman Cousin’s book Anatomy of an Illness*, in which he recounts healing from a mysterious autoimmune illness with high doses of vitamin C and laughter.

My parents and I adopted the laughter strategy and spent evenings watching sitcoms, I Love Lucy and Cheers, all in an effort to reduce fear and uncertainty. It helped! Laughing causes a release of feel-good endorphins, which also relieve pain and may improve immune function, new research indicates.

6. Tap it Out

Tapping, or Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT), is one of the best and fastest stress-relief tools. Harvard Medical School psychiatrist Rick Leskowitz, calls EFT, “the most impressive intervention I’ve encountered in 25 years of work.”

Tapping is believed to work by addressing anxiety and stress at the source, changing your brain chemistry and altering neural pathways. 

Check out this link to watch four war veterans overcome PTSD with tapping; and watch EFT videos with Brad Yates or Julie Schiffman to learn how to tap out stress, grief, or anxiety in less than 10 minutes.

7. Meditate Daily—Even One Minute Helps

Meditate Daily—Even One Minute Helps

We’ve all heard how beneficial meditation is, and yet, we don’t manage to get around to it, mostly because we think we don’t have time. But did you know you can start with just one minute?

That’s right, just a single minute of sitting quietly can be enough to activate the relaxation response. You can add a few more minutes each week. It feels good and contributes directly to healing.

That’s because practices like meditation, hypnosis, guided imagery, yoga, deep breathing and prayer all produce immediate changes in the expression of genes involved in immune function.

8. Embrace More Hugs

Embrace More Hugs

Science confirms that hugging boosts the immune system, decreases stress, and even improves heart health. Aim for 20-second hugs (animals count!) for a megadose of calming oxytocin.

9. Forgive Everyone

Studies show that forgiveness can lead to huge health rewards, like lowering the risk of heart attack; improving cholesterol levels and sleep; and reducing pain along with levels of anxiety, depression and stress.

My favorite forgiveness practice is a short but powerful ancient Hawaiian prayer called Ho’oponopono: I’m sorry. Please forgive me. Thank you. I love you. 

Saying the four lines—in any order—when thinking about people I love, and maybe even more importantly, thinking about those I have trouble with, opens my heart and soothes my soul. If you try it, make sure to include a prayer for yourself.

Have you experienced links between stress and your health? What do you do to proactively reduce stress in your life? Let me know by leaving a comment below!

3 thoughts on “The Stress-Autoimmune Connection”

    • I’m sorry you’re having a hard time, Char. Please take good care of yourself by practicing some of these simple strategies. You might try tapping or going for walks in nature with a friend. My best, Palmer


Leave a Comment