Dealing with a chronic illness diagnosis is life-changing, especially when dealing with multiple chronic conditions like autoimmune diseases and mental health disorders.
Autoimmune diseases have far-reaching effects on the human body. This might be because of the compromised immune system or the effects of a chronic disease.
While autoimmune diseases primarily involve the immune system, emerging research suggests they can also be linked with various mental health conditions. Conditions like depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder have been found to coexist with autoimmune diseases, creating a challenge in disease management.
In this post, you’ll see the common mental health disorders that often occur with autoimmune diseases and the link between autoimmune disease and mental health.
Common autoimmune disorders and their causes
Autoimmune disorders are a group of diseases where the immune system mistakenly attacks the body’s tissues and organs.
While the exact causes of autoimmune disorders are not fully understood, they are believed to result from a combination of genetic, environmental, and immunological factors.
Here are some common autoimmune disorders and their potential causes:
1. Rheumatoid arthritis (RA)
RA is a type of autoimmune disorder that causes joint inflammation. This inflammation affects both major and minor joints. The causes of rheumatoid arthritis are not fully understood, but it is believed to result from a combination of genetic and environmental factors.
Environmental triggers, such as infections, smoking, or alcohol, may also contribute to the development of RA.
2. Systemic lupus erythematosus (Lupus)
Lupus is an autoimmune disorder that can affect different parts of the body, like the skin, joints, kidneys, and nervous system.
Genetics is a causative factor, as lupus often runs in families. Environmental factors like exposure to sunlight, infections, and certain medications can trigger or worsen lupus symptoms.
3. Type 1 diabetes
Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disorder that causes the body to attack pancreatic cells responsible for insulin production. This hormone helps the body use glucose for energy.
Type 1 diabetes is primarily due to genetic susceptibility. Viral infections may also trigger the autoimmune response that destroys insulin-producing cells in the pancreas.
4. Multiple sclerosis (MS)
Multiple sclerosis is an autoimmune disorder that affects the central nervous system.
Genetics still contributes to the risk of developing MS, but environmental factors, such as viral infections (e.g., Epstein-Barr virus), low vitamin D levels, and smoking, are thought to trigger the autoimmune attack on the nervous system.
5. Celiac disease
Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder that specifically affects the small intestine. It is triggered by gluten, a protein in wheat, barley, and rye.
Celiac disease will cause damage to the small intestine, leading to various symptoms, such as diarrhea, weight loss, and bloating.
While genetic factors are significant, exposure to gluten in the diet is the primary environmental trigger for celiac disease.
6. Sjögren’s syndrome
Sjögren’s syndrome is an autoimmune disease affecting the glands producing tears and saliva. Dry eyes and mouths characterize this disease.
The exact cause is unknown, but genetics and viral infections are potential factors in developing Sjögren’s syndrome.
- Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)
IBD is a group of autoimmune diseases that cause digestive tract inflammation. IBD can affect the small intestine (Crohn’s disease) or the large intestine (ulcerative colitis).
IBD is more common in young adults and combines genetic and environmental factors.
Psoriasis is an autoimmune disease that causes the skin to produce excess cells. These excess cells build up on the skin and cause itchy, scaly patches.
Psoriasis is more common in men than women and usually starts between 20 and 30.
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Autoimmune diseases and mental health disorders can sometimes be linked through shared underlying mechanisms or the psychological and emotional toll of living with a chronic illness.
Here’s an overview of the commonly linked disorders:
Depression is a common mental health condition that has to do with prolonged sadness and a loss of interest in activities you once enjoyed.
This study showed that women with a history of depression are likelier to have an autoimmune disease like lupus.
When a person is depressed, there is an increase in the activation of the immune system. Also, the levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines in the body are increased, which is why there is a likelihood of depression leading to an autoimmune disease.
Also, according to a Harvard study, autoimmune diseases can lead to depression because some ‘wayward’ immune reactions can end up triggering specific brain and nerve cells in the body, leading to depression.
Feelings of worry, nervousness, or unease characterize anxiety. It is a normal emotion but can become a mental health disorder when excessive or uncontrollable.
Like depression, chronic inflammation may impact brain function, increasing the risk of anxiety disorders. The unpredictability of autoimmune diseases, their prolonged nature, sleep disorders, and the stress of living with a chronic condition can also trigger anxiety.
c. Bipolar disorder
Bipolar disorder is another mental health condition linked to autoimmune diseases. It is a condition that causes extreme mood changes, from manic to depressive episodes.
According to some scientists, bipolar disorder is also an autoimmune disease. A study in England suggests a high prevalence rate of bipolar disorder in people with autoimmune disorders like lupus, psoriasis, sicca syndrome, and multiple sclerosis.
Inflammation may also influence mood swings and the severity of bipolar symptoms.
Schizophrenia is a mental condition that causes a breakdown in how a person thinks, feels, and behaves. Someone with schizophrenia will appear to be out of touch with reality due to hallucinations and delusions.
While the link between autoimmune disease and schizophrenia is not fully understood, some hypotheses suggest that the genetic findings in schizophrenia can lead to increased inflammation and increase the risk of autoimmune and psychotic disorders.
Inflammation and immune system dysregulation are also explored as potential factors in developing or worsening schizophrenia.
e. Eating disorder
These are mental health conditions that affect the way a person eats. It involves symptoms such as intentional starvation, binge eating, stress eating, etc.
Malnutrition can affect the immune system, and these alterations in the normal immunological responses result in autoimmune diseases.
Autoimmune diseases can also affect weight and appetite, leading to body image concerns and potentially contributing to eating disorders like anorexia or bulimia.
Psychological distress from coping with chronic illness may also play a role.
f. Personality disorder
Personality disorders are a group of mental health disorders that involve inflexible and maladaptive patterns of thinking, feeling, and behaving. They can include borderline personality disorder, narcissistic personality disorder, and antisocial personality disorder.
There isn’t a direct link between personality disorders and autoimmune diseases, but individuals with autoimmune conditions are said to have mental health symptoms that are not disease-related.
The mental impact of a chronic disease diagnosis can also affect a person’s personality traits.
g. Obsessive-compulsive disorder
Obsessive-compulsive disorder is a condition that causes unwanted and intrusive thoughts (obsessions) and repetitive behaviors (compulsions).
Autoimmune disorders affecting the brain or nervous system may lead to OCD-like symptoms. Additionally, the chronic nature of autoimmune diseases and the need for meticulous self-care can sometimes trigger obsessive-compulsive tendencies.
h. Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder
ADHD is a mental condition/disorder that begins in childhood and causes difficulty paying attention, controlling impulses, and hyperactivity.
Some studies have explored potential links between prenatal exposure to maternal autoimmune diseases and an increased risk of ADHD in children. However, more research is needed to establish a clear connection.
i. Post-traumatic stress disorder
PTSD is a disorder characterized by a person’s inability to recover from a traumatic experience. It can cause symptoms such as flashbacks, nightmares, heightened responses to similar or the same experiences, and avoidance of trauma reminders.
PTSD has been linked to certain autoimmune diseases such as psoriasis, rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn’s disease, and celiac disease. Chronic stress can lead to immune system exhaustion and result in immune dysfunction.
The strain of managing a chronic illness, mainly if caused or made worse by a traumatic event, can raise the risk of developing PTSD or exacerbate existing symptoms.
Depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and other mental health challenges can significantly impact the lives of individuals with autoimmune diseases.
They affect not only emotional well-being but also disease management and overall quality of life.
Recognizing and addressing these coexisting conditions is vital for comprehensive healthcare.
If you are managing autoimmune diseases and mental health disorders, seek integrated care, early intervention, and the support of healthcare professionals who understand the relationship between these conditions.
How do you take care of your emotional and mental health?