Updated: May 22
Autoimmune diseases are on the rise. A report released by the American Autoimmune Related Diseases Association, equates “this poorly understood category of disease a public health crisis at levels comparable to heart disease and cancer.” As per the report 50% of patients with RA become unable to work within ten years of disease onset.
A new study now indicates the possibility that stress may also cause autoimmune disease. This opens up new avenues for its treatment. But before we dive into this potential, let’s better understand the meaning of autoimmune system, its disorders, its disease list, its symptoms and what is commonly defined as “stress”.
Understanding the Immune system:
Our immune system, is a network of special cells and organs that defends itself from germs and other foreign invaders. At the core of its function is its ability to tdifferentiate between self and non-self: what’s self and what's foreign.
What is Autoimmune Disorder
A dysfunction can make the body unable to tell the difference between self and non-self. When this happens, the body makes autoantibodies that attack normal cells by mistake. The result is a misguided attack on one’s own body. This causes the damage we know as autoimmune disease.
Common Autoimmune Diseases:
Autoimmune diseases are broadly classified based on the part where the immune overacts or attacks. A few common diseases include rheumatoid arthritis (attacks joints), lupus (attacks joints, lungs, blood cells, nerves, and kidneys), Inflammatory bowel disease, Multiple sclerosis (attacks nerve cells), Type 1 diabetes (attacks insulin-producing cells in pancreas), Guillain-Barre syndrome (attacks leg muscle nerves, sometimes arms and upper body), Psoriasis (attacks skin), Graves disease (overstimulates the thyroid), Hashimoto's thyroiditis (attacks thyroid), Myasthenia gravis (under stimulates muscles), Vasculitis (attacks blood vessels).
Our Stress response
“Stress” is generally defined to include any experience that causes physical, psychological, or emotional tension. During stress, adrenaline is released , leading to rapid breathing and an increased heart rate which prepares the body for a burst of activity. This is a precursor to our natural “fight” or “flight” response. Which is necessary in the case of physical threat. However, in the event that the body continues to react in this manner even after the passage of the actual event for a prolonged period, it creates a stress disorder. This is mainly due the due to the residual emotional tension being effectively unprocessed. An example is post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), in which a grave physical/psychological stress results into distressing memories of the event which recur.
Autoimmune Disease and Stress
In the study, researchers studied people diagnosed with stress-related disorders and compared their tendency to develop autoimmune disease at least one year later with their siblings, and another group of people who did not have stress-related disorders.
The study found that individuals diagnosed with a stress-related disorder were more likely to be diagnosed with single or multiple autoimmune diseases and had a higher rate of autoimmune disease if younger. It may be mentioned here that the study did not rule out the fact that the autoimmune condition could have already been present before the stressful incident.
Hence, although the study does not conclusively confirm the connection, it certainly opens up a fresh perspective on the subject. Could the autoimmune’s overreaction, be a result of the toxicity build-up due to an inability to process the residual traumatic experiences? If so, then possibly there may be a need to pay even greater attention to releasing trauma, rather than merely suppressing the immune system through medication. This need to be seen against the backdrop of the USD $19.3 bn. annual cost ((direct & indirect)) estimated only for treating rheumatoid arthritis in the the AARDA report.