Chronic stress can wreak havoc on mind and body and has been implicated in many health problems including autoimmune disorders. New research helps shed light on how stress may increase the risk of an autoimmune disease similar to multiple sclerosis which causes damage to the nervous system.
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.
Using mice, the scientists 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.
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.
We can all achieve health benefits by reducing the amount of stress in our lives. You can find tips and ideas to tame stress with Strategies for a Stressed Out Society.
Ben-Gurion University of Negev