The Link Between Stress and Chronic Disease

Stress and Chronic Disease
Chronic stress is like a duck on the water... On the surface all appears calm but underneath you are paddling like a mad-woman!
Let’s talk about the frustrating link between stress and chronic disease

Frustrating because when you experience chronic illness, it adds to your stress at a time when reducing stress is the ideal…

In this case, stress is not the elephant in the room. Rather, it’s a duck. (Spoiler alert – it’s likely that you are the duck in this analogy.)

The longer I navigate this AIP way of life, the more I understand what an important role managing stress plays when it comes to health. That’s your health, my health and everyone’s health.

When you start out on your Autoimmune Protocol (AIP) caper, it’s oh-so easy to think it’s all about the food. And, for a while, in that first blush of the elimination phase, it is certainly what consumes the lion’s share of your attention. But then, after you start to find your groove, it often becomes clear that stress management is a BIG piece of this autoimmune disease puzzle.

I cannot think of a single client who has not come to recognise that stress is at best a contributor to their chronic disease, and in some cases even the root cause.

In fact, Leonard H. Calabrese, DO and vice chairman of rheumatic and immunologic disease at the Cleveland Clinic suggests that, “Perhaps one of the reasons for the increase in autoimmune diseases over the past 8 decades may be because of ‘modern stress’ and stressors that were not present before.”

Oh, goody.

It’s why stress management gets it’s own segment on the Wheel of Health. And if I’m honest, stress management has been one of my biggest personal areas of struggle, too.

If it looks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, we have at least to consider the possibility that we have a small aquatic bird of the family anatidae on our hands.” – Douglas Adams

What is the link between stress and chronic disease?

If you’ve been following the AIP for a bit, you’ll already be aware that autoimmune conditions develop when the immune system attacks your body’s own tissues, organs, and cells. Your body responds to them as though they were disease-causing bacteria and viruses.

The bad news is that long-term stress leads to chronic inflammation and actually increases your risk of developing autoimmune conditions. This is particularly troubling when you consider the level of stress that most of us consider normal in this day and age.

When I first introduced the idea of calming the fajizzle down, the often talked about fight or flight response turned out to be just the first piece of this stress puzzle. To be clear, when I reference stress in this article, I really mean chronic stress. Chronic stress is the stuff that is with us all the time. THIS is the really insidious stuff when it comes to the link between stress and chronic ill health and autoimmune disease.

Stress actually contributes to the development of virtually everything that can go wrong with you. But this is especially true of autoimmune disease and chronic issues. Consider how your willpower diminishes when you are tired or stressed

Oh wait, we know that stress and sleep are closely linked!
Stress and Chronic Disease
When it comes to stress and chronic disease – stress causes inflammation. Inflammation is a factor in the make-up of autoimmune disease.

Stress causes issues with gut health. Over time, chronic stress causes a leaky gut and hinders your digestion. When your digestion is sluggish, this is what causes gut dysbiosis and malabsorption of nutrients. Improving your diet alone isn’t enough – but improving your diet will help you manage stress and managing stress will help to reap more benefits from improving your diet.

It’s all interconnected. The more stressed you are the more likely you are to suffer from chronic illness, which increases your stress levels.

Yep – Stress and Chronic Disease are A vicious cycle.

The big-daddy of stress hormones is cortisol – a steroid hormone. Not only is cortisol an important player in your fight or flight response, but it also factors into your ability to regulate inflammation, circadian rhythms (aka your sleep/wake cycle) and your whole metabolism.

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Chronic stress results in dysregulation of cortisol.

The effects of dysregulated cortisol can create all sorts of responses when it comes to your immune system. There have been oodles of studies into this and it is widely accepted that chronic stress causes immune system disfunction.

How you respond to chronic stress is, at least in part affected by diet. We know that a deficiency in Omega-3 fatty acids amplifies stress responses. The converse is also true. Supplementation with fish oil results in a reduction in cortisol secretion in responses to stress. There is no question that eating a nutrient-dense diet will improve your ability to handle sudden stressful situations and your overall success at managing chronic stress.

Stress and Chronic Disease
Be like nature: bend and be as resilient as this gorgeous tree in Lake Wanaka
Just TWO of the recent studies on the link between stress and chronic disease…

In a recent study (i), researchers analysed more than 100,000 people diagnosed with stress-related disorders and compared their tendency to develop autoimmune disease at least one year later with 126,000 of their siblings, along with another million people who did not have stress-related disorders. The study found that there was a significant link between individuals diagnosed with a stress-related disorder and those diagnosed with an autoimmune disease. Further, they were more likely to develop multiple autoimmune diseases and had a higher rate of autoimmune disease if they were younger.

What wasn’t explained is why or how a stress-related disorder might provoke or cause autoimmune disease.

A study (ii) from researchers at Bar Ilan University in Israel may shed some light. They found that gut bacteria in mice respond to social stress by increasing the number of effector T helper cells. These are the immune cells that play a role in autoimmunity.

It’s enough to make you think more seriously about how you manage stress, isn’t it?
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