Stress-Related Disorders and Autoimmune Diseases

by Nina
Photo by Heidi Santschi of Heidi Santschi Garden Design
Just a quick post today to let you know about a recent scientific study Association of Stress-Related Disorders With Subsequent Autoimmune Disease that aimed to answer the question, “Are psychiatric reactions induced by trauma or other life stressors associated with subsequent risk of autoimmune disease?” 

I might have to unpack that question for you. First of all, what are the “psychiatric reactions” that they are referring to? They list the conditions as: 

“Diagnosis of stress-related disorders, ie, posttraumatic stress disorder, acute stress reaction, adjustment disorder, and other stress reactions.”

I’m actually not familiar with the disorders mentioned here other than PTSD. But it turns out that acute stress reaction is an anxiety disorder and an adjustment disorder is when a person’s reaction to an event is greater than what you would normally expect for that kind of event. As for the “other stress reactions,” I’m not sure what those might be, but I would assume they would include prolonged anxiety and depression.

And, second, what is autoimmune disease? There are actual several autoimmune diseases, including rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, and multiple sclerosis. But what these all have in common is that they are diseases caused by our immune systems attacking healthy parts of our bodies, including tissues, joints, muscles, nerves, or skin, as if they were foreign invaders. Normally, your immune system can differentiate between your own cells and foreign ones. foreign cells and your own cells. But, in an autoimmune disease, for reasons that we do not yet understand, the immune system identifies your own cells as foreign ones. Needless to say, these are very serious chronic diseases. So knowing if having a stress-related condition increases the risk of developing developing an autoimmune disease would be very useful information. 

To answer this question, the authors of the study looked a very large group of people, including 106,464 patients with stress-related disorders, such as PTSD, panic disorder, anxiety, etc., 1,064, 640 matched “unexposed” people, and 126,652 full siblings. And they found that stress-related disorders were indeed “significantly associated with risk of subsequent autoimmune disease.” (In their study the incidence rate for people who had stress-related disorders having autoimmune disorders was 9.1 per 1000 person-years compared with 6.0 in the matched unexposed group and 6.5 in the sibling group.

Their conclusion was:

“exposure to a stress-related disorder was significantly associated with increased risk of subsequent autoimmune disease, compared with matched unexposed individuals and with full siblings. Further studies are needed to better understand the underlying mechanisms.” 

So, there you have it. There IS an increased risk for those with stress-related disorders of developing autoimmune diseases. However, the scientists don’t yet know why. Knowing the underlying mechanisms would help us identify exactly how to lower the risk for those people. However, until then, we do know that yoga can help both with stress and with stress-related disorders, including PTSD, anxiety, and depression. For example, the work of people like Dan Libby, Ph.D. of the Veterans Yoga Project, who works with veterans who have PTSD, and Richard Miller, Ph.D. who has an iRest Program for Healing PTSD, have shown the benefits of yoga to support the healing process in those with PTSD. And, of course, we have lots of information about how yoga can help with prolonged anxiety (see Yoga for Anxiety: The Big Picture).

To me this new evidence strengthens the argument for practicing yoga for stress management on a regular basis to help yourself become more stress hardy and for practicing it as part of your self-care when you are undergoing stress (see Stress Management for When You're Stressed ) or have suffered from trauma. 

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