How Stress Can Mess with Your Health & Autoimmune Symptoms

inflammation stress Jan 16, 2024


We all have some level of stress. That's part of everyday life with work, family, community, friends … you name it! We run into trouble when it starts to run us down ... or we develop poor tolerance, common with fatigue.


“Stress” is not a bad thing … it’s designed to protect us from internal and external dangers, like issues in tissues (an injury, an illness or chronic conditions like your autoimmune flaring) and perceived threats like stranger danger (a bear in the woods, traffic, your boss, your mother-in-law).

Acute stress (that’s temporary stress) usually won’t derail your health for the long term. It is your body’s natural reaction to circumstances, and can even be life-saving. You’re able to jump out of the way of a bus. You find superhero strength to lift an overturned car so you can save a small child. You shake with excitement at a hockey game, watching your kid ski race, enjoying a nail-biting movie or beating your arch-rival at cards. 

Adrenaline. You soar and when the “threat” or “thrill” is gone, the reaction subsides and all is well. It’s been like this throughout history. Your body was built to handle stress. It gives you the drive to run away from that sabre tooth tiger, or bear, or creepy person on the street. You live. You breathe. Crisis averted. Your hormones normalize and your body has time to rest, repair and regenerate.

Chronic stress is the problem with autoimmune when there is no time for rest, repair and recovery. You see, your body has specific stress reactions and if these stress reactions are triggered multiple times a day, every day, every week, every month, every year! Well, that can negatively impact your health over the long term.

Some sources of chronic stress include:

  • Emotional or mental life load (work, emails, deadlines, relationships, family, finances, traffic)
  • Physical agitators (over exercising, under exercising, obesity, injuries that have not healed, blue lights, electronic screens, electromagnetic frequencies)
  • Food deficiencies or excesses (too much sugar or refined carbohydrates in your diet, processed foods, allergies, sensitivities, the wrong diet for your constitution)
  • Digestive imbalances (medications, gas, bloat, rapid release, diarrhea)
  • Environmental influences (chemicals, synthetic hormones, toxins, bacteria)
  • Lifestyle habits (lack of sleep, no down time, no sense of community/connection, no exposure to daylight)

This list is a bit of a description for everyday life. What does this mean to the average person - a woman like you and I - trying to get their health under control, so we can move past our diagnosis? What do we need to consider?  

Well, ALL doctors agree that stress causes inflammation and that chronic inflammation is the number one predictor for disease. So, let's dive into the stress mess and how we can stress LESS while living with a chronic diagnosis (or several).


Understanding the role of stress on the body - your body has the SAME reaction to both perceived and internal stressors!


When your body perceives a stressor - internal or external - it launches a hormonal and nervous system response to deal with the threat at hand. It doesn't matter who or what it is. Your body will have the same inflammatory, biochemical response to both. That will response will then suppress other systems and actions in the body so it can divert resources to the internal or perceived danger (issues in tissues or stranger danger).

When your brain registers a threat, it sends messages through the limbic system, which keeps the central nervous system on high alert, impacting immune health and digestion (you have a nerve highway running between your gut and your brain for two-way communication). It also sends messages through HPA Axis which creates a hormonal cascade, starting with cortisol ... the primary stress hormone designed to protect you.

When it's constantly being triggered without taking actions for "rest and recovery" or "rest and digest", here's what can happen.


Mess #1 - Increased risk of heart disease and diabetes


Anything that increases the risk for heart disease and diabetes (both serious, chronic conditions) needs to be discussed. Stress increases the risk for heart disease and diabetes by promoting chronic inflammation, affecting your blood "thickness," as well as how well your cells respond to insulin. That's because stress hormones will increase blood sugar, blood pressure and cholesterol.

It's unfortunate how quick we are to blame what a person is eating alone instead of looking at this everyday link. For example, when you have rheumatic disease like RA, you are at increased risk for insulin resistance. Yes, what you're eating is important, but physical and lifestyle imbalances like joint deterioration, lack of sleep or lack of exercise due to pain/fatigue can equally contribute.


Mess #2 - Immunity


Do you flare more often when you’re stressed? What about colds? Cold sores? Flu? Weird rashes? This is common.  Your stress hormones affect cytokines (chemical messengers secreted by immune cells). Depending on someone’s predisposition, it can activate an immune response (i.e., turn UP your already hyper immune response) or suppress your immune system. This can lead to autoimmune-like flares or picking up every cold/flu going around.

Here's an example.

True story. We sold our house eight years ago and we had only 3.5 weeks to find a rental, organize a move and take care of my kids during the busiest school/recital month of the year. Well, I broke out in a full body rash the day after we signed the papers when I realized what was in store for the weeks ahead. This rash was EVERYWHERE. On my chest, stomach, legs, in my nose and places I can't describe in a blog.

Stress was at the root of this crazy immune response. It lasted for weeks. No cream was able to calm it down. I had to dig into some lifestyle changes and actually turned to restorative yoga to finally find some relief and I’m so glad I did.


Mess #3 - Poor digestion and/or "leaky gut"


Most people are hyper focused on food as the big contributor to digestive issues, which makes sense, but they completely miss the state of how they eat their food and the impact of their stress  hormones on their gut! 

Chronic stress diverts blood, water and resources that are needed for prime digestion. When this happens, we experience acid reflux, burping, gas, bloating and toilet time troubles. Yet, we blame it on the food.

Many people are also spending thousands on fixing "leaky gut" with expensive tests and supplements and are completing missing that stress is one of the biggest contributors (leaky gut is also called "intestinal permeability"). Stress hormones can suppress beneficial bacteria in the gut which then creates opportunity for the damage to occur. These "leaks" can then allow partially digested food, bacteria or other things to be absorbed into your body. This further contributes to stress and an immune response.


Mess #4 - Thyroid & reproductive hormone imbalances 


Stress hormones will also suppress thyroid and reproductive hormones. You see, cortisol is more essential to our survival and so it will steal resources for itself to function. As a result, we're suddenly experiencing thyroid challenges (or Hashimoto's or Graves if predisposed) and all the metabolic challenges that come with that. 

We can also experience terrible PMS, early onset menopause or terrible menopausal symptoms as our body struggles for balance ... all the while we're being told "it's all part of being a woman" which just makes us more made (and stressed).


Mess #5 - Sleep disruption


Have you ever felt tired, but wired? It’s difficult to sleep when you have very important (and stressful) things on your mind! Now, I don’t know about you, but when I don’t get enough sleep, I’m crabby. My husband agrees.  And I'm on the floor the next day – NO. ENERGY. My memory goes into the vortex – I forget words, names. And I don’t think clearly ... I'm slow on the response and need time to think things through.

Sleep is SOOO important to your health. Research shows adults need 7 – 10 hours of sleep daily. Any less than that puts us into an inflammatory state. And catching up on the weekend doesn’t cut it. Adults need a long stretch of sleep day after day so they can turn on our anti-inflammatory hormones and process, repair and regenerate. 

Sleep is a priority in stress management.


Stress-busting tips for autoimmune


So, how do you reign stress in? What’s the magic bullet? Here's what I look at inside The Integrative Autoimmune Membership.

Balancing blood sugar throughout the day will reduce insulin spikes and crashes. The spikes and crashes amplify your stress reaction. To do so, reduce refined carbohydrates (flour based foods like bread, crackers and cereal). And make sure you include a protein and healthy fat (along with lots of vegetables or fruit) at every meal. This simple correction can help calm the stress rollercoaster caused by food which is why we spend time teaching our members how to build an autoimmune plate and balance their macros according to energy needs.

Reducing stressors in your life is another obvious step.

Ask yourself, can you:

  • Put less pressure on yourself?
  • Switch perfection for “good enough”?
  • Ask for help?
  • Say "no"?
  • Delegate to someone else ... AND be ok with it not being done your way (this is a hard one, I get it)?
  • Finally, make that decision and commitment to yourself? You might not be there. Or, perhaps you focus on only one thing. That one thing can set you up for success for the other steps in this list.

Beyond the above shifts, try to incorporate:

  • A set bedtime. Start by identifying what time you have to get up (for me, it's 6:15 am) and work backwards 7 - 10 hours. That's the time to hit the hay.
  • Breathwork – the only action you have control over that can actively turn down stress hormones
  • Yoga - a moving meditation that incorporates breathwork for an improved stress response
  • Mindfulness when eating … slow down and CHEW your food
  • A walk in nature. OK, not all of us have nature at our finger tips. How about a walk to work or at lunch so you can let a little sunshine into your life? Light during the day will help produce melatonin at night
  • Unplug before bed (read a book, take a bath, connect with your partner)
  • Connect with loved ones (a phone call, a conversation, a cup of tea, a walk, SKYPE)




Stress is a huge and often under appreciated factor in our health. It can impact your physical body much more than you might realize.

Stress has been shown to increase the risk for heart disease and diabetes, affect your immune system, digestion and sleep.

There are things you can do to both reduce stressors and also to improve your response to it.

You can ditch that stress mess!



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