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Can Stress Lead to Autoimmune Conditions? The Stress and Autoimmunity Link


February 28, 2012 | Published by

stressed and fatigued man

Where are all these immune problems coming from?

Where are all these immune problems coming from? Apart from a whole bunch of other minor reasons, I would put an increasingly poor immunity down to two basic things: 1) Stress (we do, expect and stress far too much) and 2) Toxins in our everyday lives. There are many other potential causes, but stress and toxins appear to be two of the largest triggers.

The problem with these two big potential causes is that the patient’s stress responses (generally adrenal gland depletion) are not recognized or treated in a medical setting, and toxins are rarely if ever considered to be an issue as a contributing factor in the development of any chronic disease, including conditions such as autoimmunity.

The stress/autoimmune connection

The best evidence so far for stress’s effect on autoimmune thyroid disease is the well-known relationship between the onset of Graves’ disease (hyperthyroidism) and a major stress in a person’s life. Most of the recent case-control studies have supported stress as a factor in the onset and clinical course of Graves’ disease. Because the onset and course of autoimmunity is generally inconspicuous, the effect of stress is often overlooked.

Numerous studies on animals and humans have shown that psychological and physiologic stressors induce various immune changes. Stress can affect the immune system directly or indirectly through the nervous and hormone systems. It is quite important for practitioners to take his or her time and look at each case “longitudinally,” i.e. looking at past life events to see how stress could have affected your health over the years, as well as the turning or defining points along the way which preceded the breakdown in health.

How can stress eventually cause an auto-immune condition? Stress causes a burden on adrenal function, which results in the body’s inability to counter inflammation through poor cortisol levels—your body’s own powerful steroid. In autoimmune reactions, white blood cells attack parts of your body as if they were the enemy, and in most autoimmune reactions the cortisol levels your body produces are inadequate for the degree of reaction taking place in the particular tissues of your body. This is exactly one of the reasons why strong corticosteroids (Prednisolone, Prednisone, etc.) are prescribed for all diseases involving a very strong inflammatory process, particularly autoimmune diseases. Doctors and patients alike love it—there’s almost an instant relief. It does feel great at first, but there are consequences.

But the blood tests say nothing is wrong …

It is apparent that most people who suffer from autoimmunity issues have multiple hormone imbalances, yet the blood tests will most often say there is nothing wrong with the glands involved, namely the adrenal glands and thyroid. The recovery process can be long for some. With proper treatment, many patients will find some improvement in their adrenal health in a matter of weeks. For some it can take months.  Recovery time depends on several factors, including one’s motivation to improve health, the degree of pre-existing damage, as well as the clinical skills of their health professional.

Even in the best of hands, the process can take anywhere between 2 months to 3 years. Please bear in mind that autoimmunity is a long marathon and recovery should not be expected to be easy. You will not wake up in a week and feel like nothing happened, as ideal as this would be. Remember: it probably took a few years to get to this point in the first place. The key is to pace yourself and work on your overall health in small steps, making gradual progress over time. Frustration and disappointments are unfortunately part and parcel of this process, so don’t beat yourself up! Stay patient and remember that most, if not all, will experience ups and downs during recovery.

dr eric bakkerAbout the Author: Eric Bakker B.H.Sc. (Comp.Med), N.D, R.Hom. is a highly experienced naturopathic physician who has been in clinical practice for 25 years. Eric is passionate about improving people’s lives through proven wellness and lifestyle principles, natural medicine practice as well as public and professional practitioner education. Eric specialises in candida yeast infections, as well as adrenal fatigue, and thyroid disorders. Dr. Bakker has written one of the most comprehensive books on yeast infections called Candida Crusher. Website:  You can complete his online survey to determine if you have a yeast infection here, or link through to his many You Tube videos:  Dr. Bakker’s Blog:

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  • cindy watson says:

    I have been struggling with Adrenal Fatigue for probably years but most recently…in the past 2 years and even more recently the past 6 months having a great deal of difficulity with all of the symptoms. I am seeing a Naturopath doctor now but every single day is a challenge. I am so weak that I feel like I am dying at times.
    I appreciate all of the information that you have given. You are correct in saying that a regular MD will not see this problem for what it really is. I found out that my sister is struggling with this as well. I didn’t know this was genetic. She has a leaky gut and systemic yeast in her body.
    Again Thank you-

  • Hi Cindy,
    It was interesting reading your story, one I have heard a thousand times before. Conventional medicine tends to view fatigue as a “side issue” and most medical doctors generally never takes patients seriously who complain of the typical signs and symptoms which make up the adrenal fatigue syndrome. Thank goodness for Dr. Wilson’s work, it has enabled me and many other enlightened doctors to help patients like you on the road to full recovery. Be sure to visit a doctor who understands and utilizes Dr. Wilson’s adrenal fatigue protocol – it could change your life.

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