Does stress increase the risk of autoimmune diseases?

Stress wreaks havoc on the mind and body. For example, psychological stress is associated with an increased risk of depression, heart and infectious diseases. But until now it has not been known exactly how it affects diseases and the general health of the body.

Typically, stress triggers a chain reaction in the body that includes the release of the hormone cortisol and helps the body deal with stressful situations.

Cortisol also helps regulate the immune response. In small doses, the body’s response has a protective effect, while high or more relentless amounts of stress have the opposite effect.

A number of studies have shown how chronic stress can impair the body’s ability to regulate immune function.

The authors of most of them found that autoimmunity occurs as a result of chronic stress, which alters the effectiveness of cortisol in regulating immune function by reducing tissue sensitivity to the hormone.


In particular, immune cells become insensitive to the regulatory effects of cortisol. In turn, constant inflammatory processes support the development of autoimmunity.

In addition, the researchers found that exposure to high levels of corticosterone, the equivalent of cortisol in rodents, by simulating chronic stress, reduced the number of immune cells.

This increases the number of cells that cause inflammatory damage compared to those that have an inhibitory effect.

This mechanism was more pronounced in female rodents and may explain in part the higher rates of autoimmune disease in females than in males.

This study also confirms previous research, which found that a large proportion, up to 80% of patients, were exposed to unusually high emotional stress, before the onset of the disease.

Unfortunately, not only does stress cause disease, but the occurrence of disease itself causes significant stress in patients, creating a vicious cycle.

The authors of the study believe that there are ways to protect the body from high cortisol levels. Thus, the worsening of autoimmune diseases can be prevented when exposed to chronic stress.

But administering steroids for treatment can make their symptoms worse.

Therefore, although steroids are one means of treating chronic inflammation, the use of such therapy, especially in patients suffering from chronic stress, should be carefully weighed against the benefits and possible side effects.

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