Stress and the Autoimmune Process

Current medical research shows that all autoimmune conditions are essentially the same process occurring in the body: the inflamed immune system, under the strain of continual cellular stress (triggers), mistakes healthy tissue as foreign and begins to destroy it.1 The only difference between various autoimmune conditions is which organ is being attacked. With lupus, it can be the skin, the liver, the joints, etc. With type I diabetes, it’s the pancreas; with multiple sclerosis, it is the brain and spinal cord; and with ulcerative colitis, it is the large intestine and rectum.

In the case of Hashimoto’s and Graves’, the thyroid is the obvious target, but it’s important to note that it’s rarely just the thyroid being affected, and there are typically many conditions happening at the same time. In the autoimmune process, the cells of the immune system, that ordinarily work to kill harmful invaders and regulate immune response, get overworked, and thus become overproduced, under-produced or confused. They begin, instead, to tag and destroy our healthy cells and tissues.

Throughout history people have known that stress makes you sick. While they may have lacked the “science,” ancient healing systems were built upon relieving stress and detoxing the body, thus restoring balance and health. Today, scientists have proven how both acute and chronic stressors directly affect the cells of your immune system resulting in autoimmunity. Here are just a few examples:

  • Acute stress in any form (psychological and physical) can cause a rise in the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol, which suppress T-cell activity. This is why you may catch a cold after a stressful event.
  • Chronic stress in any form can cause adrenal fatigue, which causes the hormones cortisol, adrenaline and norepinephrine to become depleted. This can allow immune system T-cells to get out of control, resulting in inflammation and an imbalance between T-cells and B-cells.2
  • Chronic stress can impair methylation, which can suppress T-cell production. Impaired methylation of T-cells may be involved in the production of autoantibodies.3
  • Chronic infectious stress can cause both B-cells and T-cells to be overproduced resulting in autoimmunity.4,5
  • Gastrointestinal stress, perhaps caused by parasites, yeast or an overgrowth of bad bacteria, affects all the cells of your immune system, and disrupts the balance between T-regulator cells and Th1 and Th2 cells.6
  • Food allergies and sensitivities, for instance to gluten, can cause B-cells to be overproduced, which may result in an accidental attack on healthy tissues.7
  • Nutrient deficiency is a form of stress that can be at the root of an autoimmune response; for instance, selenium and iodine deficiencies have been found to cause thyroid inflammation, thus driving up the production of T-cells and B-cells.8
  • Exposure to heavy metals can cause both T-cells and B-cells to be overproduced.9
  • Certain medications and vaccinations can be “antigenic,” which means that the body produces antibodies to the substance, thus initiating an immune response. In some cases this can trigger an autoimmune response.10,11
  • Literally thousands of environmental toxins from cleaning products and pesticides to dry cleaning fluids and plastics can become antigenic and trigger an autoimmune condition.12

What I really want you to grasp is that the autoimmune process is a “symptom” of several underlying issues that have gone ignored or untreated for so long that the immune system becomes totally overloaded. Scientists are scrambling to understand the mechanics of the immune system so that they can find a way to chemically manipulate it to function properly while being pushed past its limits. But what if we were to take a different approach? What would happen if the stressors were removed and the immune system was taken off its 24/7 high-alert schedule? There is no question that modern medicine has made incredible advances in understanding the complexities of immune function, yet experts still don’t agree on why the immune system turns against its own body. Our immune systems are influenced by everything in our environments from our positive and negative thoughts, the good and bad foods we eat, to the toxins and infections we are exposed to. Once we observe these effects, we can accentuate the positive and reduce the negative so the immune system can come into balance. When we reduce the burdens on our body and emotions and restore the conditions for wellness, autoimmunity can be reversed. I know this in my heart, and I have seen it hundreds of times with my clients!


  1. Eggleton P. Stress protein–polypeptide complexes acting as autoimmune triggers. Clin Exp Immunol. 2003 October; 134(1): 6–8.
  2. Stojanovich L, Marisavljevich D. Stress as a trigger of autoimmune disease. Autoimmun Rev. 2008 Jan;7(3):209-13.
  1. Richardson B. DNA methylation and autoimmune disease. Clin Immunol. 2003 Oct;109(1):72-9.
  2. Ercolini A M, Miller S D. The role of infections in autoimmune disease. Clin Exp Immunol. 2009 January; 155(1): 1–15.
  3. Kivity S, Agmon-Levin N, Blank M, Shoenfeld Y. Infections and autoimmunity – friends or foes? Trends in Immunology – 1 August 2009 (Vol. 30, Issue 8, pp. 409-414)
  4. Velavan TP, Ojurongbe O. Regulatory T cells and parasites. J Biomed Biotechnol. 2011;201(1):520940.
  5. Biagi F, Pezzimenti D, Campanella J, Corazza GR. Gluten exposure and risk of autoimmune disorders. Gut. 2002;51(1):140–141.
  6. Negro R. Selenium and thyroid autoimmunity. Biologics. 2008 June; 2(2): 265–273.
  7. Bigazzi P E. Autoimmunity and Heavy Metals. Lupus December 1994 vol. 3 no. 6 449-453
  8. Orbach H, Agmon-Levin N, Zandman-Goddard G. Vaccines and autoimmune diseases of the adult. Discov Med. 2010 Feb;9(45):90-7.
  9. Vial T, Descotes J. Autoimmune diseases and vaccinations. Eur J Dermatol. 2004 Mar-Apr;14(2):86-90.
  10. Burek C L, Monica V. Talor M V. Environmental Triggers of Autoimmune Thyroiditis. J Autoimmun. 2009 Nov–Dec; 33(3-4): 183–189.


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