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Stress, Trauma, and Autoimmune Diseases: They’re More Related Than You Think

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Autoimmune diseases have traditionally been seen as a black box by the broader medical community. For many people struggling with autoimmune conditions, they have cycled through dozens of doctors trying to find someone, first, to believe them, and second, to help them manage their symptoms. The medical community’s narrative is that autoimmune conditions are a complete mystery, but are characterized as “the body attacking itself.” While the exact process and course of the disease are unclear for many of these disorders, we now understand the factors that contribute to the development of autoimmune disorders. One of those factors is stress. Notably, long-term chronic stress; and one of the sources of long-term stress is early developmental trauma. A growing body of evidence suggests these experiences affect people on a biological level for years after the event has ended.

Instead of seeing our bodies as the enemy that is attacking itself and misfiring, by looking at the factors associated with autoimmunity, we begin to see the body is not letting us down, but instead is fulfilling a biological process that makes sense given the conditions we have experienced. Our bodies are brilliant and resilient and always working for our us, not against us.

The reality is adversity and stress play a significant role in your long-term health. This factor, that many of us have known or suspected for years, is now being supported by a growing body of research. On top of the trauma someone has experienced, people living with a chronic disease may face the additional trauma of living with the symptoms of the disease and dealing with the medical system on a long-term basis. I know this firsthand. My mother, maternal and paternal grandmothers all lived with autoimmune diseases, with my paternal grandmother passing away due to complications from her illness. So, when at 25, I started having strange and unexplainable symptoms, and then at 27, living bedridden with no diagnosis, I started to try and put the pieces together for myself. I found no support from the allopathic medical community, which left me confused, depressed, and alone. So, I started searching for answers, but it wasn’t until the first year of my master’s program the pieces started to fall into place.

As I sat in my childhood development class, a slide came up on the screen. It was about a study first developed in the 90s called the Adverse Childhood Experiences Survey (ACEs). It was an eight-question survey about adversity in childhood. The study showed that as adversity increased, the incidents of chronic mental and physical health conditions rose drastically. I was looking around the class, amazed. How did people know this stuff, and we weren’t shouting it from the rooftops? It seemed clear to me the biggest health crisis facing America was child abuse.

The ACE study has become one of the most widely recognized and replicated studies on adversity and health ever conducted. Studies on the ACE have shown that 64% of people hospitalized for an autoimmune condition had at least one ACE. In addition, first hospitalizations for any autoimmune disease increased with an increasing number of ACEs, and people with a score of two or more were at a 70% increased risk for hospitalization.

Armed with these new facts, I began to do more research into the stress/chronic disease connection. What I found was staggering. One study showed that childhood maltreatment was associated with elevated C-reactive protein (CRP) levels (a biomarker of inflammation) in adults 20 years later, suggesting childhood maltreatment independently increases inflammation later in life. Inflammation seems to be one of the most significant contributors to chronic disease and cancer. People who have experienced trauma also show biological changes to the system, such as increased inflammation, changes in the epigenome, and impaired immune cell signaling. What we know about stress and inflammation points to a bidirectional relationship between the two. Chronic stress affects inflammation, and pre-existing inflammation makes one more vulnerable to stress. For people who have experienced trauma and/or chronic illness, this can create a feedback loop that keeps both systems feeding one another.

However, it doesn’t just stop there. Other factors associated with trauma and the development of autoimmunity include compromised gut health and an increase (and eventual decrease) of cortisol and other stress hormones. Stress hormones are vital for keeping us safe, allowing us to experience movement, and waking us up in the morning feeling refreshed. Additionally, our gut is known as the “second brain” or the enteric nervous system. It communicates with our first brain and controls the digestive system via a complex network of over 100 million nerves and chemicals that send messages to the central nervous system. When there is an imbalance in the gut microbiome, other organs are affected, including our brain. Imbalances in the gut could play a key role in symptoms such as pain, stress, and sensory processing that can manifest as chronic fatigue, brain fog, low and high blood pressure, insomnia, hormonal imbalance, mental health symptoms, and many more.

Initially, all this information may sound pretty bleak, but the hope in knowing these things is it gives us the power to try something new to achieve more symptom-free days. In my experience, working with an integrative or functional medicine provider was key. Getting testing and guidance on treating systemic inflammation and gut health helped improve my overall level of functioning. In addition to working with a medical provider, my own work in therapy and my studies as a practitioner have been invaluable. It is my firm belief you are the expert on your own body, and protocols, recommendations, and practitioners should work to fit what you know is right for you.

Many things have helped me reduce symptoms and put my autoimmune symptoms into remission. I’ve found it helpful to practice skills that reduce my daily stressors, process past traumas and learn to regulate my parasympathetic nervous system. These all help alleviate stress and provide an overall reduction in autoimmune symptoms.

Additionally, as an integrative provider, I’ve found it helpful to combine traditional therapeutic modalities with integrative health tools such as getting quality sleep, practicing mindfulness and meditation, optimizing diet, incorporating movement, regulating circadian rhythms, and utilizing targeted supplements to address individual symptoms and root causes.

If you’re struggling and feel like there is no hope, I want you to know you are not alone and healing and happiness are possible at any stage.

Leah Miller is a licensed psychotherapist and Functional Mental Health Coach. She holds a master’s degree in counseling and is also a certified Integrative Nutrition Health Coach with advanced training in Nutrition and Integrative Medicine for Mental Health Professionals. She is also trained in trauma resolution modalities such as eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) and somatic experiencing. Leah is also someone living with an autoimmune condition and was a caregiver for family members living with chronic illness.

You can find Leah at Leah Miller Integrative Psychotherapy or follow her on Instagram at @leahmillertherapy.

Getty image by MoMo Productions

Originally published: February 27, 2022
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