“I think nutrition certainly plays a strong role but we’d be kidding ourselves if we didn’t acknowledge the role that I think increasing stress of modern life plays in the rising incidence of autoimmune disease” Chris Kesser
The Autoimmune Disease Series
This week I am going to examine some research that shows us how stress, in whatever form it takes, can create a chemical cascade in the body that results in inflammation.
Inflammation in turn causes a leaky gut.
Alessio Fasano, MD, Medical Director of the Center for Celiac Research , a cutting edge researcher into autoimmune disease, explains that a compromised gut, is one of three key components in autoimmune disease.
So this week we are going to look at the following:
- Stress and inflammation, why this can be a viscous cycle.
- Understanding that there are many different types of stress.
- Examining three factors involved in autoimmunity.
- Introducing Zonulin, a protein that regulates the tight junctions in your gut.
- Switching off your fight or flight response – tips and tricks to lead a less stressful life.
If this all looks too complicated to you, the take away from this week’s blog is to identify the areas of stress in your life and find ways to cut them down or out. Also look at some methods that can help you to relax and switch off your “fight or flight” response.
So it might be that you have made some great changes in your diet, you are taking anti inflammatory and supportive supplements and yet flare ups are still an issue. Or maybe you are just at the beginning of your journey with an autoimmune disease; either way this session will be a really important one, so read on.
Now let us take a more in-depth view of what happens to your body when you suffer from stress:
Sheldon Cohen from Carnegie Mellon University says:
“Inflammation is partly regulated by the hormone cortisol and when cortisol is not allowed to serve this function, inflammation can get out of control.”
He has observed that long-term stress can alter the efficiency of cortisol to regulate your inflammation response. This is because stress decreases your tissue sensitivity to cortisol, that is your immune cells become less-responsive to cortisol in a similar way to diabetics and insulin resistance.
This means that when your stress levels are chronic, you put yourself at risk of runaway inflammation which spins out the kind of symptoms that we see so often in autoimmune diseases.
Remember here that stress can take many, many forms, from a bad relationship with your mother, to overexercising; from damp and mouldy rented accommodation, to a gut infection; from spiraling debt, to shift work, or an injury.
Unfortunately it can take a lot of effort to break away from damaging behaviours, relationship conflicts and poor lifestyle choices. There can be a downward spiraling of stress and the consequent chronically inflamed picture that we see all too often.
So now is the time to tell yourself to step back, identify where the stress lies in your life, imagine how you would feel if you could shrug off that anxiety and address that toxic relationship, or change your working hours, stop driving yourself so hard.
Find another way forward.
In A Leaky Gut and Autoimmune Diseases, Alessio Fasano, offers an alternative theory on autoimmune disease, that is rapidly gaining support through the scientific studies that support his work.
To understand this we should first look at his earlier work where he describes a three legged stool approach to the model of autoimmunity. He suggests that there are three vital components to autoimmune disease. If any one of these components are not part of the picture, the symptoms do not appear. The three are:
- A genetic predisposition
- An environmental trigger
- A leaky gut
A leaky gut is of particular importance in this trinity because it represents your body’s last chance. If you already are genetically predisposed and you come under the influence of an environmental trigger all will be well if there are no holes in your gut. It is only when this last line of defence is breached, that your body will initiate an immune response, generating inflammation not only in your gut but elsewhere in the body too.
Fasano explains in his recent paper that researchers have recently identified a protein called zonulin, which they have found regulates the tight junctions in your gut wall.
When zonulin levels rise, the tight junctions open partially and this is the moment when your gut integrity is breached, now potential “triggers” may pass through into your blood stream. This is when we will see your body mounting an immune response and presenting you with those flare-up symptoms that you know so well.
Gluten can increase zonulin levels in the body, but so too it appears can inflammation. We have come full circle, to chronic stress which, may well also increase zonulin levels in our body, contributing to one of the three legs of Fasano’s three legged stool of autoimmunity.
So how can you manage your stress?
When stressed or overwhelmed, the immediate relief is always in the softening, and the surrendering. Your surrounding world already offers its medicine everywhere. Place your hands in the soil to feel grounded. Wade into water to feel cleansed and healed. Fill your lungs with fresh air to feel mentally clear. Raise your face to the heat of the sun to feel your own immense power. You are part of the earth, and comprised of the very same elements. And this is something you should remember. – Victoria Erickson
- Look at food stressors such as the unhelpful foods that I listed in last weeks blog. Look also for food triggers such as wheat or dairy and look to eliminate them for some time to see what an effect this has on your overall health.
- Get out in nature, better still take off your shoes and socks and get grounded on sand, grass or soil.
- Take time out to meditate, practice yoga, so breath work or visualisation exercises.
- Journalling – get your mental whirlwind down and out onto a page
- Slow down. If you have a demanding and hectic job for instance, don’t head for the gym after work, stop pumping that adrenaline; go to a yoga session or for a sauna instead. Take time to eat your meals (and chew them!). Sit down at a table to enjoy home cooked food, cut down on food on the go. Relax.
- Take responsibility for your own health and well being, set up a support team that is positive; friends, family, support group, yoga teacher and nutritionists can all offer help and advice at different times.
- Have an Epsom salt bath, to help you to relax and unwind after a long day. You would be surprised how many clients I see that can’t even find time for this; they always use a shower because it is quicker.
Cutting out your stress might be one of the hardest changes that you need to make, but might also prove to be the most important one. Lessen the “fight or flight” response and switch instead to “rest and digest”. Really this should be non-negotiable. Lighten up your life.
“A diamond is just a piece of charcoal that handled stress exceptionally well”