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New Study Associates Stress-Related Disorders With Increased Risk of Autoimmune Disease

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It’s no secret that chronic stress can have a negative effect on your health. Long-term stress can have physical, mental and emotional consequences, such as depression, headaches, irritability, insomnia and fatigue. Now, research published Tuesday in JAMA suggests exposure to certain stress-related disorders — like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), acute stress reaction (also known as acute stress disorder) or adjustment disorder —  can increase your risk of developing an autoimmune disease.

These stress disorders can cause an array of physiologic changes, which researchers believe can make your body more susceptible to disease. While many people may gradually recover after experiencing a significant stressor or traumatic event, others may develop one of these disorders, for reasons that aren’t entirely clear.

As part of the study, researchers examined more than 106,000 Swedish patients with diagnosed stress disorders between the ages of 33 to 50 as well as more than 1.1 million people without stress-related conditions. The research team found that those with stress disorders had a 36 percent higher chance of developing one or more of 41 distinct autoimmune diseases such as Crohn’s disease, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, multiple sclerosis and psoriasis.

While researchers found that having a psychiatric disorder like PTSD increases the risk of autoimmune disease, those who took selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) consistently a year after being diagnosed had a lower risk of developing an automimmune condition. Dr. Huan Song, one of the lead researchers, explained to The Mighty why it can therefore be beneficial for those experiencing extreme stress to seek medical treatment:

[E]ffective treatment may break the vicious ‘stress-autoimmunity’ pathway. This finding implies timely and effective interventions for patients with severe stress-related disorder might not only lessen psychiatric symptoms, but also benefit patients in terms of reducing their further risk of health decline, e.g. the risk of autoimmune diseases.

However, the research team notes that this evidence should not affect how people treat or manage their stress disorders. Although the study reveals there is certainly a correlation between stress disorders and autoimmune disease, it doesn’t indicate that these disorders are the cause of autoimmune disease.

If you struggle with chronic stress or a stress disorder, it’s important to take the time to practice self-care and seek out whatever help or treatment you may need. For those living with stress disorders, Song recommends seeking treatment early on. “There are now several treatments, both medications and cognitive behavioral approaches, with documented effectiveness of core symptoms of stress disorders and their co-morbidities,” Song said.

Although this study focused specifically on people with stress disorders and no prior history of autoimmune disease, more studies are needed to determine if stress disorders pose a risk to individuals who already have an autoimmune disease. Regardless of where you are in your health journey, it’s important to listen to your body and seek treatment for any physical, mental or emotional health issues you’re experiencing.

Getty Image by kirstypargeter

Originally published: June 25, 2018
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