Emerging studies have shown a likely relationship between autoimmune disease and trauma.
Trauma can affect an individual’s health and well-being, whether physical, emotional, or psychological.
While the link between traumatic life events and mental health challenges is well-established, recent studies have started unraveling the connection between non-life-threatening traumas and the onset or amplification of autoimmune diseases.
What Are Autoimmune Diseases?
Autoimmune diseases are a group of diseased conditions in which the body’s immune system attacks healthy cells and tissues, leading to inflammation, pain, and damage to the affected organs and tissues.
There are over 100 known autoimmune diseases that affect the body. Some of the most common autoimmune diseases include:
- Rheumatoid arthritis
- Systemic lupus erythematosus (lupus)
- Type 1 diabetes
- Multiple sclerosis (MS)
- Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)
- Celiac disease
- Sjögren’s syndrome
- Crohn’s disease
- Thyroid disease
- Psoriatic arthritis
When the immune system functions properly, it can identify and attack foreign invaders like bacteria and viruses. However, in autoimmune diseases, the immune system cannot distinguish between these intruders and the body’s cells, which results in an immune reaction against healthy tissues.
Although the cause of autoimmune disorders is unknown, a combination of genetic and environmental factors is thought to be responsible. Autoimmune diseases have no known cures, but one can control the symptoms with the help of treatments, which can also enhance quality of life.
Chronic Inflammation and Autoimmune Diseases
Autoimmune diseases caused by chronic inflammation are referred to as inflammatory diseases.
Inflammation is the body’s natural response when it fights infections and repairs damaged tissues. However, this response becomes chronic in autoimmune diseases, meaning it persists over a prolonged period, even without a real threat.
When the body’s immune system is activated, it releases chemicals called cytokines. Cytokines are responsible for recruiting immune cells to the site of inflammation and causing inflammation.
In autoimmune diseases, the immune system is overstimulated and produces too many cytokines, leading to chronic inflammation and damage to tissues and organs.
What Is Trauma?
Trauma refers to an emotional, psychological, or physical response to an overly stressful event that is distressing, harmful, or threatening to your well-being.
Trauma has a long-lasting impact on a person’s mental, emotional, and physical health. If you experience trauma as a child, it can create a subconscious mindset that will limit you even as an adult.
For example, a physical trauma like almost drowning as a baby can make you grow up with a phobia for water-related activities.
It can be caused by a variety of events, including:
- Natural disasters
- Physical or sexual assault
- Childhood neglect or abuse
- Witnessing violence
The Relationship Between Autoimmune Disease and Trauma
The relationship between trauma and autoimmune disease is complex and not fully understood. However, research indicates that experiencing trauma increases the risk of developing an autoimmune disease. Get regular checkups and discuss your risk for autoimmune disease with your doctor if you have experienced trauma.
a. The release of stress hormone – cortisol
When a person experiences trauma, the body releases stress hormones from the adrenal glands. The immune system’s activity can be suppressed by elevated cortisol levels in the body, which can also increase inflammation and reduce the production of white blood cells.
Creating an environment where the immune system cannot distinguish between self and non-self cells might make it harder for the body to fight infections. It may even increase the risk of autoimmune reactions in which the body attacks its tissues.
b. Changes in the gut microbiome
The group of bacteria in the digestive tract makes up the gut microbiome. These microorganisms significantly impact the immune system and can control inflammation.
Emerging research suggests that trauma may impact the composition of the gut microbiome. There might be an imbalance in the gut microbiome due to trauma-related changes.
This imbalance, known as dysbiosis, can lead to increased inflammation and immune dysregulation, potentially promoting autoimmune responses and increasing inflammation.
c. Changes in the brain’s hippocampus
Trauma can significantly impact various brain structures, like the hippocampus, responsible for memory and stress regulation.
Chronic stress and trauma can cause structural changes in the hippocampus, such as shrinking or impaired function. This can interfere with the brain’s ability to regulate stress and modulate the immune system.
Inflammation and immune dysfunction, linked to autoimmune diseases, can result from dysregulation of the stress response.
Autoimmune Diseases That Have Been Linked to Trauma
Here are some autoimmune diseases that studies have linked to trauma:
1. Rheumatoid arthritis (RA)
Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease that affects the joints. It causes chronic joint inflammation, leading to pain, swelling, and stiffness.
Some studies have suggested that traumatic events, particularly severe stress and trauma, may increase the risk of developing RA or exacerbate its symptoms. Chronic stress can lead to immune system dysregulation, potentially contributing to the autoimmune response seen in RA.
2. Lupus (systemic lupus erythematosus)
Lupus is a systemic autoimmune disorder that affects various organs and tissues. It often involves joint pain, skin rashes, and systemic inflammation.
Evidence suggests that stress and trauma may trigger lupus flares or worsen its symptoms. Stress-induced hormonal changes and immune system dysregulation could play a role in the disease’s exacerbation.
3. Sjögren’s syndrome
Sjögren’s syndrome is an autoimmune disease that affects the salivary and tear glands that produce tears and saliva. It is characterized by dry eyes and mouth and other symptoms, such as fatigue, joint pain, and Raynaud’s phenomenon.
While research on the connection between trauma and Sjögren’s syndrome is limited, chronic stress could potentially contribute to the development or exacerbation of the disease by influencing immune responses and inflammation.
4. Multiple sclerosis (MS)
Multiple sclerosis (MS) is an autoimmune disease that affects the central nervous system. It destroys the protective myelin sheath around nerve fibers, causing neurological symptoms.
Some studies have explored the relationship between traumatic events and the risk of developing MS. Trauma may influence MS risk through mechanisms related to inflammation and immune system dysfunction. However, we need more research to establish a clear connection.
5. Celiac disease
Celiac disease is an autoimmune condition triggered by gluten consumption. Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye. Celiac disease primarily affects the digestive system.
Research on the relationship between trauma and celiac disease is limited. Trauma is not a well-established risk factor for celiac disease, but the stress associated with managing the condition’s dietary restrictions may impact symptom severity in some individuals.
How to Know If an Autoimmune Disease Might Be Due to Stress
Determining if an autoimmune disease might be due to stress involves considering several factors and assessing your medical history and experiences.
Here’s how to evaluate the potential role of stress:
i. A history of trauma or abuse
If you have a history of significant trauma or abuse, such as physical, emotional, or sexual abuse, you may be at a higher risk of developing autoimmune diseases.
Chronic stress resulting from these experiences can disturb immune regulation, potentially causing the onset or worsening of autoimmune diseases.
ii. A family history of autoimmune diseases
A family history of autoimmune diseases can increase your susceptibility to these conditions. While genetics plays a crucial role, environmental factors, including stress, may interact with genetic factors to trigger autoimmune responses.
iii. The timing of the onset of symptoms
Pay attention to when the symptoms of the autoimmune disease first appear. If symptoms emerge or worsen during or after significant stress periods, it could indicate a stress-related trigger. Remember that autoimmune diseases can have various triggers, so stress is just one possibility.
iv. The severity of the symptoms
Think about how much stress affects the severity of autoimmune disease symptoms. In times of stress, symptoms may become worse and more prominent. Monitoring symptom patterns and their relationship to stress can reveal information about the disease’s relationship to stress.
v. The response to treatment
Stress and other underlying factors may cause a poor response to treatment.
Analyze how the autoimmune condition responds to various forms of treatment, such as stress reduction techniques. Suppose stress reduction methods, such as mindfulness exercises, therapy, or relaxation techniques, result in better symptom control or fewer flare-ups. In that case, stress may be a factor in the development of the condition. Positive responses to stress management interventions probably support the theory that stress worsens the condition.
Autoimmune diseases, already challenging in their own right, may be further complicated by trauma, particularly non-life-threatening events (NLEs).
Recognizing trauma in autoimmune care is essential, as it can profoundly influence disease progression and severity of symptoms.
To those trying to navigate autoimmune diseases and trauma, seek holistic approaches to your well-being that address not only the physical aspects of your condition but also the emotional and psychological aspects.
Reach out for support, engage in mindfulness practices, and consider trauma-informed care a part of your healing journey.
Do you have any autoimmune disease that might be due to trauma?