In a recent edition of JAMA, the results of a 30-year study examining the possible connection between stress and autoimmune disease were revealed. The findings don’t simply demonstrate a link; instead, they reveal that stress-related disorders are significantly associated with risks of developing the subsequent autoimmune disease. In the study of over 100,000 subjects, the correlation showed that individuals with a diagnosed stress-related disorder were 30-40% more likely to later be diagnosed with one of many possible autoimmune diseases.
What is a Stress-Related Disorder?
The type of stress study subjects encountered is not to be confused with the stressors we encounter during everyday life. Sitting in traffic or worrying about being late for a meeting, for example, are examples of acute stress. These forms of short-term stress generally come and go but fail to create the sort of long-term damage produced by chronic stress, or stress-related disorders.
Stress-related disorders are mental health conditions resulting from short- and long-term anxiety from mental, physical, or emotional stress. Examples of these include post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), obsessive-compulsive disorder, acute stress reaction, and adjustment disorder.
Which Types of Autoimmune Disorders Are Linked to Stress?
According to the study’s findings, individuals with stress-related disorders were more inclined to be diagnosed with one of 41 autoimmune disorders. Among the many autoimmune diseases observed by the research were psoriasis, Crohn’s disease, rheumatoid arthritis, and celiac disease.
Interestingly, additional variables seemed to further increase – or decrease – one’s risks of developing an autoimmune disease. Being diagnosed with PTSD at a young age, for instance, increased risks, while receiving antidepressant treatment shortly after being diagnosed with PTSD lowered rates of subsequent autoimmune disease diagnosis. Thus, it could be inferred that receiving treatment for a stress-related disorder may help to treat not only the stress itself but also minimize the lasting implications caused by it, including increased risks of disease.
What Causes the Connection?
Further research must still be conducted to pinpoint the precise long-term effects stress has on the body, and more specifically, on the immune system. Experts speculate that factors such as changes in cortisol levels and pro-inflammatory cytokine levels may need to be examined. Another hypothesis set forth by researchers is that individuals living with conditions such as PTSD might be more inclined towards unhealthy behaviors such as drinking more alcohol or sleeping less.
Although further research into this connection has yet to be conducted, one important takeaway from the findings is the fact that seeking treatment for stress-related disorders should now be considered more critical than ever. By consulting mental health professionals, individuals living with these conditions can pursue a tailored treatment approach to support short- and long-term improvements in overall wellness. For those with an auto-immune condition, see how stem cell therapy may help your symptoms and improve quality of life.