Stress Management – the Key to Preventing Auto-Immune Disease?
By Dr Karen Coates
Previously I wrote about the increasingly common group of conditions known as the auto-immune diseases. These are potentially serious medical disorders where the body’s immune system begins to recognise its own body organs as germ- like and needing to be eliminated from the body through the process of inflammation.
Depending on your family history and genetic blueprint you may be programmed to develop a specific disease, such as certain types of arthritis, Lupus (SLE), thyroid and inflammatory bowel diseases to name a few. The key which turns up the volume of this abnormal immune pathway has been shown to be the stress hormone, cortisol.
During stressful periods in our life our bodies will undergo a variety of changes in biochemistry to compensate and cope with the stress. This stress reaction is patterned on a primitive survival reflex, known as the Fight or Flight Response, or in medical terms, the adrenalin/cortisol pathway.
In primitive societies, the major day to day stress was a threat to life or limb, an attack by an enemy tribe or wild animal. Our bodies adapted to this stress by surging the production of the hormone called adrenalin produced from the adrenal glands located behind each kidney. Adrenalin increases our heart rate and blood flow to the major muscles of our limbs to prepare us to either fight for our life, or run away from the danger. If we don’t respond in a physically active way when this happens some people will experience what is commonly known as a panic attack as a result of this adrenalin build-up in the body.
If stress persists over a longer period of time the adrenal glands start to produce a different stress hormone called cortisol, which under extreme circumstances (drought, famine war) can conserve fat stores and enable you to survive difficult times where food may be in short supply. Unfortunately, in today’s society, stress is seldom the result of such extremes, the food supply continues to be plentiful and the stress may persist in some form or another for years, rather than a season of bad weather and short food supply.
The end result of this demand on the adrenals is eventual exhaustion of the gland, and an inability of the adrenals to continue to produce even life saving hormones. Cortisol is also recognised as our natural anti- inflammatory hormone, and is the same chemical that synthetic drugs such as cortisone and prednisone are modelled on. If we lose this anti inflammation hormone then the auto-immune process is accentuated. Mainstream treatment for these conditions usually involves treatment with prednisone-like medication.
Understanding what it happening internally to cause the distressing symptoms of stress is the first step in breaking the stress cycle. Education on how to deal with stress, the use of exercise, relaxation techniques, natural therapies and herbal medicines will you give essential tools to use to survive the very unique stresses of today’s life.
Managing stress effectively may be the key to delaying or preventing the activation of any auto-immune gene determined by your family history.