The impact of daily stress on autoimmune conditions

Stress has a detrimental effect on immune health

Photo: Christian Erfurt/Unsplash. Design: BOOST Thyroid.

For most people, stress is an everyday experience caused by all the small hassles you encounter in your daily life. But stress is also one of the key triggers of Hashimoto’s flare-ups, which contributes to faster aging (1).

What happens to the immune system under stress?

The immune system is one of the first protective mechanisms to be activated when you’re exposed to stress. When this happens, a major part of the brain and many hormone-producing glands are activated. Certain types of molecules—such as adrenaline and cortisol—are then released into the blood (2, 3).

Adrenaline and cortisol activate immune cells through small extensions on the immune cell surface, called receptors. When this happens, immune cells prepare to charge against the “enemy” (4), one of the hallmarks of long-term stress exposure (5). Long-term stress leads to chronic inflammation, and increases the risk of developing autoimmune conditions (6).

Even stress from one’s past or childhood can cause the immune system to behave differently than it normally should (7, 8). Stress impacts hormones, and hormones impact the immune system—making immune cells produce more of the stress molecule cytokines, which causes changes in sleep pattern, depression, and appetite (9).

How stress ages the immune system

Chronic stress makes the immune system and entire body age an increased rate (10). It diminishes heart health and makes people more likely to become overweight and even obese (11,12).

As people age, their bodies becomes less capable to respond well to stress, as certain regions of the brain are no longer able to react to stress signals in a timely way (13). Thus, the stress hormone cortisol takes a longer time to be suppressed. Long term exposure to cortisol enhances inflammation (10).

Other factors

Prolonged stress makes people significantly more likely to develop allergies and autoimmune diseases (14-16).

Alcohol consumption, smoking, malnutrition, and sleep disturbances all amplify the negative impact of stress on the body (17, 18). By reducing these behaviors, you can improve your immune and overall health.

Sex hormones—especially DHEA (dehydroepiandrosterone), a building block for both estrogen and testosterone—can tamper with the immune system as well (19).

Even unexplained health issues, like wounds taking a long time to heal, can be caused by the impact of high stress on the immune system (20).

Stress and sleep

Getting good sleep is important for maintaining low stress levels and keeping the immune system in check. Even just one night of bad sleep can mess up the immune system (21, 22).

Emotional stress and start of the disease

About 8 in 10 people who have autoimmune diseases have experienced emotional stress before the onset of the disease (26).

Reducing stress

Health interventions aimed at reducing stress have a positive effect on reducing autoimmune diseases (27)—they should be considered as part of a comprehensive treatment approach.

It has also been shown that people who lead a healthy lifestyle are more protected from inflammation and autoimmune flare-ups (28).

Mindfulness techniques, such as meditation, have been proven to work well for a large majority of people (29).

Track your stress levels in BOOST Thyroid app and analyze the impact of your lifestyle on your stress levels.


  1. Brent GA. Environmental exposures and autoimmune thyroid disease, 2010
  2. Segerstrom SC, et al. Psychological stress and the human immune system: a meta-analytic study of 30 years of inquiry, 2004
  3. Steptoe A, et al. The effects of acute psychological stress on circulating inflammatory factors in humans: a review and meta-analysis, 2007
  4. Dhabhar FS, et al. Stress-induced redistribution of immune cells — From barracks to boulevards to battlefields: a tale of three hormones, 2012
  5. Gouin JP, et al. Chronic stress, daily stressors, and circulating inflammatory markers, 2012
  6. Ershler WB. Interleukin-6: a cytokine for gerontologists, 1993
  7. Carlsson E, et al. Psychological stress in children may alter the immune response, 2014
  8. Coelho R, et al. Childhood maltreatment and inflammatory markers: a systematic review, 2014
  9. Glaser R, et al. How stress damages immune system and health, 2005
  10. Vitlic A, et al. Stress, ageing and their influence on functional, cellular and molecular aspects of the immune system, 2014
  11. Phillips AC, et al. Cardiovascular and cortisol reactions to acute psychological stress and adiposity: cross-sectional and prospective associations in the Dutch famine birth cohort study, 2012
  12. McEwen BS. Protective and damaging effects of stress mediators, 1998
  13. Sapolsky RM. Glucocorticoids, stress, and their adverse neurological effects: relevance to aging, 1999
  14. Atanackovic D, et al. Acute psychological stress increases peripheral blood CD3(+)CD56(+) natural killer T cells in healthy men: possible implications for the development and treatment of allergic and autoimmune disorders, 2013
  15. Dhabhar FS. Enhancing versus suppressive effects of stress on immune function: implications for immunoprotection and immunopathology, 2009
  16. Marshall GD, et al. Cytokine dysregulation associated with exam stress in healthy medical students, 1998
  17. Dallman MF, et al. Chronic stress and obesity: a new view of “comfort food”, 2003
  18. Hussain D. Stress, immunity, and health: research findings and implications, 2010
  19. Phillips AC, et al. Stress and exercise: getting the balance right for aging immunity, 2007
  20. Shaw TJ, et al. Wound repair at a glance, 2009
  21. Besedovsky L, et al. Sleep and immune function, 2012
  22. Ruiz FS, et al. Immune alterations after selective rapid eye movement or total sleep deprivation in healthy male volunteers, 2012
  23. Kennedy PJ, et al. A sustained hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis response to acute psychosocial stress in irritable bowel syndrome, 2014
  24. Dhabhar FS. Effects of stress on immune function: the good, the bad, and the beautiful, 2014
  25. de Brouwer SJ, et al. Immune responses to stress after stress management training in patients with rheumatoid arthritis, 2013
  26. Stojanovich L. Stress and autoimmunity, 2010
  27. McCray CJ, et al. Stress and autoimmunity, 2011
  28. Puterman E, et al. Determinants of telomere attrition over 1 year in healthy older women: stress and health behaviours matter, 2014
  29. Sharma M, et al. Mindfulness-based stress reduction as a stress management intervention for healthy individuals: a systematic review, 2012

Boosted — by BOOST Thyroid App

Companion health app for people diagnosed with Hashimoto’s…

Dr. Vedrana Högqvist Tabor

Written by

CEO @Boost_HealthApp|| TEDx speaker || Cancer hunter || Hashimoto’s patient|| Parentpreneur || Learning from own mistakes since 1977

Boosted — by BOOST Thyroid App

Companion health app for people diagnosed with Hashimoto’s and an underactive thyroid.

Dr. Vedrana Högqvist Tabor

Written by

CEO @Boost_HealthApp|| TEDx speaker || Cancer hunter || Hashimoto’s patient|| Parentpreneur || Learning from own mistakes since 1977

Boosted — by BOOST Thyroid App

Companion health app for people diagnosed with Hashimoto’s and an underactive thyroid.

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