A few weeks ago, we published the first two parts of three from our interview series on autoimmune diseases and lifestyle. Have you missed when Maria Berglund Rantén told us about the link between autoimmune disease (AIS) and sleep, you can find the interview here and the article on training and recovery can be found here. Today though we have come to the third and final part of our series of autoimmune diseases and lifestyle. This time it is about how stress affects autoimmune processes in the body.
– Hello Maria!! Stress… the word feels so vague in some way. Let’s start from the beginning, where does it come from?
Right, the word stress was coined in the 30’s and has since been used extensively in our vocabulary – in all languages. Sometimes it feels like we are describing how successful we are by talking about how stressed we are. You define yourself based on your stress… Regardless, the word stress was coined by Hans Selye, a Hungarian doctor who was an international leader in endocrinology. He found that his patients who suffered from different diseases often had identical/similar symptoms and that is how he came up with the concept of stress.
– Can you briefly explain what stress is and what happens in the body when we are stressed?
The concept of stress is tremendously researched as there are so many different angles to research. There are different definitions, but you could say that stress is a physical response to a change or challenge. Very simplified, there are two different types of stress system in the body. Both communicate with your nervous system and the brain – the sympathetic (fight & flight) and the parasympathetic (rest & digest) nervous system.
– That’s exactly what we’ve heard about, our fight & flight system. Can you please explain more about both of this and stress triggers autoimmune diseases?
The sympathetic nervous system, our so-called fight & flight response, is activated when in danger and the body has to prepare to either escape or fight. From an evolutionary standpoint, this acute response has kept us alive as we face life-threatening dangers such as wildlife that wanted to kill you. I do not intend to go into what happens biochemically but this kind of response was vital and should be short and then return to normal. When in an emergency situation we had to flee or fight it was important that we got more blood to arms and legs so that we could fight or run fast, we got temporarily better eyesight and became more quick-thinking so that we could quickly analyze the danger .
Even today we react in this way but the threat is no longer dangerous animals but situations such as bad relationships, separations, deaths of someone close, deadlines, layoffs, bad finances, illness, pressure to get a good job and to have children. It can also be internal ”bullying ” thoughts, the feeling of not being popular, illness, nutritional deficiencies, exposure to toxins, poor diet, too little sleep, inactivity or other imbalances that put pressure on the body. The list of triggers is huge which unfortunately contributes to many being in a close proximity to chronic stress. The big downside of this is that we drain our bodies of nutrients, hormones, neurotransmitters and a well-functioning immune system. In the long run, research has shown how chronic stress makes us sick and can trigger autoimmune diseases.
Going a bit deeper we can explain how stress triggers an inflammatory molecule called IL17 which according to research, is associated with immunopathology, autoimmune diseases and tumor progression. For a short time this is ok but it becomes a problem when the body is chronically stressed because then it can not work normally and makes it much harder for the immune system to protect us. Researchers have shown how stress, for example, contributes to Sjögren’s syndrome, a very painful autoimmune disease. I can only agree, from a clinical point of view, I can see clear links to how stress contributes to many different autoimmune diseases.
-Can you explain what rest & digest means?
Yes, and it’s a nicer topic of conversation. You could say that is the opposite of what fight & flight is. The body is in peace and quiet and can perform all vital functions to be healthy. Various systems such as digestion, the immune system, the heart and the vascular system and our brain can work undisturbed. Our bodies are fantastic at self-healing if they only get the chance with proper self-care.
–Self care, a term we like. Can you expand on that?
Yes a little self-love – to be kind to oneself. To respect your body and support it with the right things so that it can heal and recover. There are plenty of examples of self-care. The first five listed below come from Harvard Health Publishing as helpful stress reduction techniques but the others are just as good. Perhaps you need to test some different techniques to find what works for you.
- Breathe correctly and breathe deeply
- Guided imagery – a kind of meditation technique
- Body scan
- Mindful meditation
- Yoga, Tai Chi and Qigong
- Gratitude (gratitude and gratefulness)
- Go out into the wild and really ”see and smell it ”. It is great to go out and jog in the woods but do you really have to measure all your data and progress or could you look around and enjoy nature?
- Do a digital detox in the evening and first thing in the morning
- Prioritize sleep
- Have a hobby
- Laugh and have fun and try to look positive on most things
- Hanging out with friends (and I don’t mean on social media)
- Eat a good diet full of vegetables and fruits of different colors, good proteins (in my opinion, grass-fed is the ultimate for us humans but also for biodiversity), root vegetables and healthy fats.