Understanding Stress and Autoimmune Disease Through TCM Theory
The environment within our body indicates its function. How is our body expressing itself to communicate its current state? We experience stress throughout our lives to help us learn, survive, and thrive in whatever ways we are able to manage. When we experience excess amounts of “unmanageable” stress, the immune system can be negatively affected. Many diseases, namely autoimmune diseases, have an origin in harmful stress on the body. We can utilize TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) principles to understand what stress does to the immune system.
Stress comes in many forms to the body. Emotional, physical, and environmental are the main stressors that affect one’s life. What we experience and how we react to it can greatly affect our health. Stress weakens one’s overall energy; therefore they will not have enough energy to develop and nourish the immune system. Here is a brief look at how stress can affect our immune system to the point of creating an autoimmune disease. While the concepts within the anatomy/physiology and TCM theory have much deeper knowledge to explore, we will just touch on a few basics to convey the general aspects of autoimmune disease.
General Effects of Stress on the Nervous System
Understanding the effects of stress on our nervous system will help us conceive how stress affects our immune system. When we experience stress, this directly alters our nervous system and therefore our hormonal balance. Our autonomic nervous system (ANS) controls our involuntary internal organ function to breathe, pump blood, dilate pupils, be sexually aroused, and more. This ANS also contributes to our immune system response. There are two divisions of the ANS have a “fight or flight” (sympathetic) or “rest and digest” (parasympathetic) nervous system. Both divisions are vital for survival and maintaining homeostasis.
In a stressful situation, the sympathetic nervous system will activate corticosteroid hormones(also utilized in immune response) such as cortisol, norepinephrine, insulin, DHEA and epinephrine (adrenaline ) to help the body, especially physically, to get through the situation. In short spurts, this is healthy. Such as if one can utilize the cortisol and epinephrine released in their system. For example, to go chase down a gazelle to eat for survival, or have the energy to jump out of bed in the morning.
Yet if this stress survival method is prolonged, or unable to be properly processed, stress is very damaging. This can cause hyperactivity &/or fatigue perhaps leaving one feeling “wired and tired”. For example, if we encounter situations in a high-pressure job it will cause an internal stress response. We will excrete hormones that are meant to help us get out of danger. Many people in the workforce end up sitting stagnant at a desk all day, stewing on stress hormones coursing through their systems. It is optimal to be able to clear these hormones through physical exertion one way or another. Even if exertion upon stress response occurs, over a long period of stress the hormones will no longer be helpful or available.
Chronic stress can accumulate without the individual realizing it; as stressors add up as we can become desensitized to reoccurring stressors that once disrupted us on a conscious level. It is similar to the feeling some get from excess caffeine. One cup of coffee can energize, yet too many can lead the consumer to feel drained, perhaps “fried”. Like this, senses and internal responses are dulled as the body acclimatizes to new levels of stressful stimulation while continuing to deplete its vital resources. This is stress-induced depletion at work, which leads to inflammation. Inflammation within the body is one of the leading symptoms of stress and has major consequences for health. More explanation on how this happens in the next section.
The Immune System and Autoimmune Disease
In a healthy immune system, the body will attack foreign pathogens
directly with white blood cells to remove them or create protein antibodies to neutralize or remove them from the body. This is done by a series of internal actions when injury or pathogens disrupt the normal flow of the body. Humans have an amazing capacity to address anything that compromises health.
Part of a healthy immune response is to create inflammation to heal damaged tissue. Cortisol regulates the inflammation response by it’s anti-inflammatory abilities. If one is under stress, cortisol will be released relentlessly into the body, suppressing the immune system from inflaming the area for healing, to get through the stressful situation at all costs. With the immune system is repressed, the body is more susceptible to acquire diseases.
While this can last for years of stressed hyper-drive, the adrenals can and will eventually become depleted and dysfunctional under such conditions. Hormones and their associated functions will deplete one by one, cortisol being the longest lasting. If cortisol levels are drained, this is devastating for the system as immune inflammation reaction will no longer be properly regulated. From this chronic and excessive inflammation can easily overtake the body.
In the case of autoimmune disease, the body will create dysfunctional antibodies, called autoantibodies, which lose the ability to differentiate between foreign pathogens and healthy cells of the body; leading to a cascade of the body attacking its own healthy cells.
Traditional Chinese Medicine Theory and Autoimmune Disorders
Why would someone’s system cause harm to its own healthy tissues? In TCM there is a way of understanding if we look at how our organs operate together within our system. We understand the internal processes within a human as a cohesive system of balanced elements, which are fundamental components of our existence. We see our body as a fluid ecosystem, akin to the world around us. There are 5 elements in this system with corresponding organs: metal (lung and large intestine), water (kidney and urinary bladder), wood (gallbladder and liver), fire (heart/pericardium and small intestine/triple burner), and earth (spleen and stomach).
These elements dynamically work together in a cyclical and inter-acting flow to maintain proper form and function in the body. The elements move cyclically through: metal–> water–> wood–> fire–> earth. And move in an inter-acting pattern (star-pattern) by metal–> wood–> earth–>water–>fire. Every element of the system needs to remain balanced if one goes out of balance that will create a power-struggle of sorts in the body. Meaning if there is an excess or deficiency in one of the elements this will disturb the systematic flow. Stress caused by excess and/or deficiency is the main cause of disruption to the body’s flow of energy or Qi. Sometimes this can result in a reversal or counter-flow in the cyclical patterns of Qi.
For example, in relation to autoimmune disease, we can see how the interplay of organs affects the system as a whole. The immune system is greatly influenced by the kidneys (water), which in TCM stores the “essence”, the vital hormones of the body. The liver(wood) works closely with the kidneys to regulate hormones and create and cleanse the blood from toxins. Hormones are our main “messengers” that dictate healthy functioning in the body.
If we are stressed out, this can damage our hormone balance and blood flow within our liver (wood). This causes stagnation and excess heat to build up. Excess heat can attack the kidneys by burning out water, leaving them depleted. In the same way, our essence, or our hormones, are depleted after stress causes excessive usage of cortisol and epinephrine. If the water element is deficient to the point of qi being disturbed and natural flow reversing, the fire element will counter-act in the 5-element cycle. This will cause harm to the flow of the entire system, as the fire will consume vital resources, leaving the body to deplete.
Understanding the mechanics of the stress-immune-inflation disorder in the eyes of TCM theory can help one understand how they are imbalanced. From there, one can see how to balance themselves. It is important to get a well-rounded view of the processes within the body to understand how we can live in our optimal flow-state.
The Importance of Maintaining Stress Levels to Keep Healthy Qi Flow
In TCM we understand the result of inflammation primarily as blood and qi stagnation. Meaning that there is not a smooth flow of nutrients and energy flowing to this area, causing imbalance, perverse, &/or stagnate qi accumulating. It is important for us to be aware of what causes stagnation in our system. The autoantibodies created in autoimmune disorder attack healthy cells leading to tissues being damaged and inflamed.
Stress is the main cause of inflammation, and there are many ways of encountering stress. We need to be sensitive to what our bodies are experiencing to help mitigate stressors in a healthy way, as they come. If we do not have awareness of how our external and internal influences are affecting us, we are more prone to letting stagnation accumulate to harmful potential. All disease starts somewhere, and more often than not unnoticed at first. This includes autoimmune disease. The diseases that originate from qi stagnation are plentiful.
So keep in mind, especially if going through trauma or living with stress, find how to keep your emotions calm and qi flowing smoothly throughout your body. There are many indicators for us to check-in with ourselves to make sure we are handling our stress well. We can identify our stress levels by observing our breath, emotions, physical sensations, mental activity, sleep, digestion, and energy levels. By staying aware, we are preventing symptoms from getting worse and improving general health.
What Should I do if I am Struggling with Stress or Autoimmune Diseases?
If you are struggling with stress in general, seek treatment and lifestyle alterations as early as possible to instill balance and healthy patterning within the body. With acupuncture and herbs there is much that can be done to help this; especially in the earlier the of stages the disease. This will lead to a healthier lifestyle, as stress will be decreased. This has the potential to help reduce symptoms, disease progression, and/or even cure the disease.
For those struggling with autoimmune disorders, know that there are effective treatments available. The doctors at Oshio Clinic have worked to effectively treat autoimmune diseases of all kinds including yet not limited to Rheumatoid Arthritis, lupus, Multiple Sclerosis, Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis, Celiac disease, Crohn’s disease, autoimmune Hepatitis, and others. While many of these diseases are very complicated, there is hope in treatment.
Understanding the nature of autoimmune disease and how to balance one’s body to their optimal state of being, can be applied in specific case analysis to assist the patient. By assisting the body to find this flow we can take steps towards a cohesively functioning body system. The body’s natural impulse is to smoothly regulate its form and function optimal for life, this is the basis for TCM as medicine.
Article by Celeste Houvener
Oshio College of Acupuncture and Herbology
Diagram provided by http://www.acupuncture.com