The following is an adapted excerpt from Beat Autoimmune, The 6 Keys to Reverse Your Condition and Reclaim Your Health, by Palmer Kippola, with a foreword by Mark Hyman, MD (Kensington Books). Palmer is a Functional Medicine Certified Health Coach who reversed her MS by removing her inflammatory root causes and healing her gut. She has created a framework for healing and preventing autoimmune conditions called F.I.G.H.T.S.™ which represent the root cause categories we can control: Food, Infections, Gut health, Hormone balance, Toxins and Stress. This excerpt focuses on one of the 6 keys: Stress.
No one escapes stressful events. Thankfully, our bodies are built to weather most storms, and even thrive or grow from those experiences in small doses. However, it’s all too common for many of us to experience longer lasting and more damaging effects of stress.
Science shows that three types of stress — whether ongoing daily stressors of modern life, a major stressful event, or emotional trauma from childhood — are deeply connected to the advent and perpetuation of autoimmune disorders, even decades later. Your doctor may not have inquired about stress in your life or educated you about the strong connections between stress and autoimmune issues, and that’s a gaping hole in modern medicine. As much as we may want to ignore it, there is ample evidence that the mind and body are inextricably linked.
Physiologically, our bodies react to a stressor with the “fight, flight or freeze” response, a series of chemical reactions involving a cascade of hormonal changes. The adrenal gland releases stress hormones cortisol, epinephrine — also known as adrenaline — and norepinephrine into your bloodstream, preparing your body to fight or run.
Your sympathetic nervous system activates, causing your heart rate and blood pressure to go up, your muscles to tighten and digestion to stop — all in an attempt to increase your chances of survival. If the event is short-lived and you outran the bear or learned that the strange noise in your house was your cat and not a burglar, your stress response subsides, and ideally, you return to the “relaxation response,” your body’s “rest and digest” mode under the control of the parasympathetic nervous system.
But what happens if you don’t go back to a relaxation response? What if your stress reaction gets stuck in the “always on” position?
Studies have shown that chronic stress can have negative impacts on just about every system and organ in the body. With prolonged stress, the body’s tissues — including immune cells — can become less sensitive to the regulatory effects of cortisol, reducing cortisol’s ability to manage the inflammatory response. This can lead to uncontrolled inflammation, which is associated with the onset and progression of autoimmune disorders. (1)
Studies show that 80 percent of people report uncommon emotional stress before autoimmune disease onset; and not only does stress cause disease, but the disease itself also causes significant stress, creating a vicious cycle. (2)
The Stress-Autoimmune Connection
Here is a snapshot of the science linking stress with the onset and amplification of autoimmune disorders:
- A longitudinal study of 54,000 women over 24 years showed that those who had been exposed to any kind of trauma — from car crashes to sexual assaults — were three times more likely to develop lupus compared with women who had experienced no trauma. (3)
- A study of 2,490 Vietnam veterans found that those with chronic PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) had a 174 percent increased risk for autoimmune diseases, including rheumatoid arthritis (RA), psoriasis, type 1 diabetes and autoimmune thyroid disease, compared to those without PTSD. (4)
- People who experienced “more negative life events” in the past year were 6.3 times more likely than controls to develop Graves’ disease. (5)
- People with RA frequently note the occurrence of stressful or traumatic life events prior to the onset of their illness and/or disease flares. (6)
- The incidence of emotional disorders is higher in people with Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis compared to the general population. (7)
- Family conflict and job-related problems are strongly correlated with the development of new brain lesions in MS patients eight weeks later. (8)
Bottom line: If you want to heal from or prevent the advent or progression of autoimmune conditions, you must tend to your emotional well-being.
7 Ways to Reduce Stress By Cultivating Emotional Well-Being
While you may not always be able to control the demands in your life, it makes sense to do what you can proactively to reduce your stress and increase your capacity to cope with stress, ideally before, but especially after, symptoms arise.
Consider the wise words of airline personnel: Put your own oxygen mask on first! Many people, especially women, resist taking care of themselves first because they think it’s selfish. But it’s actually the opposite: Prioritizing your emotional well-being gives you more energy for your daily roles and responsibilities. Beyond increasing your energy capacity, studies show that these strategies lower inflammation, strengthen your immune system, increase happiness and build a better brain.
A study at Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital confirms that relaxation-response techniques, like meditation, yoga and prayer, could reduce the need for health care services by 43 percent. (9) Imagine how simple relaxation practices might reduce your need for medication or help you avoid the doctor altogether!
The following strategies are scientifically proven to reduce stress and relatively simple to adopt:
1. Prioritize Sleep
Chronic sleep deficiency can lead to a slew of negative health outcomes including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, obesity, cancer, and potentially a shortened lifespan. Even a few hours of lost sleep in a single night causes inflammation, insulin resistance and harms your immune system. (10)
On the other hand, a good night’s sleep is imperative for helping our bodies and brains repair, reorganize, reset, restore and regenerate.
Give it a try:
- Make a habit of going to bed before 10 p.m. (if you can) for the most restorative sleep.
- Create a sleep sanctuary by putting your phone in airplane mode (some experts recommend shutting off your WiFi router), unplugging other electronics and using ear plugs and eyeshades or blackout curtains for total darkness and quiet.
- Get some early morning sun without sunglasses to support a healthy circadian rhythm, increase HGH (human growth hormone), strengthen your eyes and boost your immune system.
2. Breathe Consciously and Slowly
One of the fastest paths to stress relief is right under your nose. It’s something you do every minute of every day; it’s automatic, free, and yet sadly, breathing is overlooked. Slow, controlled belly breathing calms the brain’s arousal center, activates the calming rest-and-digest parasympathetic nervous system, and sends the message to your mind and body that all is well.
Give it a try:
Try “5 x 5 breathing”: Slow your breathing down by slowly counting to 5 on the inhale and the exhale. Feel your belly expand on the inhale and deflate on the exhale. Repeat six times to complete one minute.
The 5 x 5 breathing technique was proven to significantly increase feelings of relaxation compared with baseline breathing, as well as increase heartrate variability (HRV), an important indicator of health, resilience and youthfulness. (11)
3. Move More
Science shows that prolonged sitting, defined as more than four hours per day, and lack of movement are associated with greater incidence of poor health outcomes including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer and early death. (12)
However, consistent, moderate exercise, like 30 minutes or more of daily walking, cycling, swimming or strength training, is anti-inflammatory, immune system enhancing, and a powerful buffer against stress. (13)
Give it a try:
Start wherever you are and build from there. If you’re bed- or wheelchair-bound, or too ill to even contemplate 30 minutes of exercise, experiment with micro-movements or chair/bed yoga, and gradually increase the duration and number of times you move per day.
If you’re physically able and have energy for more activity, pick and schedule exercise you enjoy and will do consistently. For variety and proven stress-relief, consider yoga, qigong, or tai chi classes, in person or online.
4. Spend Time in Nature
Most people spend about 90 percent (22 hours) of each day indoors; and a growing body of research shows that the air within homes and office buildings may be more seriously polluted than outdoor air, leading to or worsening health problems, especially for the young, elderly, and chronically ill.
Research also confirms that spending time in nature has a long list of health benefits including lowered cortisol, reduced inflammation, improved immune function, decreased feelings of depression and anxiety, and even improved memory. (14)
Give it a try:
Wherever you live, make it a priority to get outside and spend time in nature. Even a one-day trip to a suburban park boosts natural killer (NK) cells and anticancer proteins for seven days afterward! (15) And whenever you can, get a little sun to increase your vitamin D levels, improve your mood and improve your sleep. (16)
5. Meditate — Even a Little
Mind chatter, commonly called “monkey mind,” is the common default mode of modern minds. For some lucky people, the default mode is creative, while in most of us the pervasive thoughts are a steady, ruminative loop of worries, anxieties, and fears.
The science is definitely in on meditation as a means to tame mind chatter by engaging the “relaxation response,” the parasympathetic counterbalance to the fight-or-flight stress response. Meditation has been shown in numerous studies to decrease stress, anxiety, depression, increase resilience and empathy, increase the size of your brain, and produce beneficial and immediate changes in the expression of genes involved in immune function. (17)
Give it a try:
For 10 minutes, ideally when you wake up, simply sit in a relaxed position in a quiet place, if possible. Close your eyes. Focus on your breath as you breathe into your belly, consciously and slowly. Repeat a word or sound, like “peace,” “love,” or “om.” When your mind wanders, gently bring it back to the word or sound.
Don’t think you have 10 minutes? Start with five. If that still sounds daunting, start with one.
6. Cultivate Social Connections
Fortunately, we can change our situation and our perceptions. Strong social connections have been shown to strengthen the immune system, help people recover from disease faster, help to lower levels of anxiety and depression, and can lead to a 50 percent greater chance of longevity. (19)
Give it a try:
If you feel isolated, muster the courage to reach out and connect with others. Or, you may need to examine why you feel lonely despite having sufficient social connections. Here are some ideas to help you find greater connection:
- Consider a class at a local community center: yoga, qigong, meditation, art, etc. Talk to the teacher and other students before or after class to get acquainted.
- Find a local recreational group: walking, hiking, dancing, bridge, mahjong, etc. Using the social media site Meetup.com is a good way to find a group based on area of interest.
- Join or create a book club.
- Volunteer at a soup kitchen, food pantry, hospice, or a local school.
- Explore a faith community that resonates with you. There are many spiritual and non-religious organizations that meet weekly.
- Reconnect with old friends.
- If you’re home-bound, ask friends and neighbors to visit; and if you’re part of a faith-based community, inquire about community outreach programs.
7. Forgive Everyone
Did you know that “unforgiveness” is classified in medical books as a disease? While harboring emotions like anger, resentment, or regret is harmful or even deadly, forgiveness can lead to huge health rewards: lowering the risk of heart attack, improving cholesterol levels and sleep, reducing pain and bouts of anxiety, depression and stress. (20)
Give it a try:
Forgiveness can be defined as a conscious, deliberate decision to release feelings of resentment or vengeance toward a person or group who has harmed you, regardless of whether they actually deserve your forgiveness. It does not mean you must forget, deny or excuse the behavior; it just means that you free yourself of deeply held negative feelings.
One of the most effective forgiveness practices I know is a short but powerful ancient Hawaiian prayer called Ho’oponopono: I’m sorry. Please forgive me. Thank you. I love you. Just saying those four lines — in any order — when thinking about people who have harmed you, is heart opening.
Be sure to say the prayer for yourself! Self-forgiveness may be even more powerful, reducing the risk of clinical depression and improving health by lowering markers of inflammation. (21)
Whether or not you have an autoimmune condition, addressing stress in your life is hands down one of the best ways to improve your health outcomes. Take heart in knowing that when you proactively engage the relaxation response, you improve your immunity, repair damaged tissue, and become better able to deal with life’s inevitable stressors.
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