More proof stress will kill you: Study finds a link between PTSD and lupus


Women who’ve been exposed to trauma or have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are thrice as likely to develop lupus, according to research. The study, published in Arthritis & Rheumatology, contributes to the growing body of evidence linking high levels of stress to autoimmune diseases.

Led by Andrea Roberts, PhD, the researchers from Harvard University examined data from the Nurses’ Health Study II and followed 54,763 women for 24 years. Through this, they were able to keep track of any women who reported experiencing traumatic events, such as major auto accidents, just before displaying the symptoms of and being diagnosed with lupus.

The women were then divided into four categories: women who did not undergo trauma, women who experienced trauma yet showed no signs of PTSD, women who exhibited one to three symptoms indicative of PTSD, and women who had four to seven symptoms of PTSD.
Of the women used for the study, 73 of them developed lupus in the follow-up period.

The researchers reported that women who had a high probability of PTSD had a much higher risk of lupus than women without trauma, even when lifestyle — such as contraceptive use and smoking habits — was taken into account. Factoring in lifestyle only increased the risk. They further noted that exposure to trauma tripled a woman’s chances of lupus, regardless of whether or not she had symptoms of PTSD. They concluded that the correlation between physical disease and mental health was far stronger than other risk factors.

The association between lupus and PTSD is not at all surprising, however. According to Dr. Karen H. Costenbader, an author of the study, individuals with PTSD live in a “constant state of vigilance.” In this state, the heart rate goes up considerably and the production of cortisol is increased. This causes an imbalance of cortisol which then leads to inflammation — one of the hallmarks of lupus.

Dr. Andrea Roberts, lead study author, stated how their study “asks us to turn our attention to the mind body relationship”, then added: “How we feel about things really does affect our physical bodies.”

What stress can do to your health

Although stress is meant to protect the body in the short-term, chronic stress can negatively impact a person’s health and put them at serious risk.

According to, placing the body under constant stress can affect numerous bodily systems. For example, stress causes one’s breathing to quicken to rapidly distribute blood all throughout the body. This can be dangerous to individuals struggling with breathing problems such as emphysema or asthma. The heart suffers as well as stress causes the blood vessels to constrict and divert oxygen to the muscles, which in turn elevates blood pressure and increases the likelihood of heart attack or stroke.

Stress affects the digestive system as well: the fast heart rate and quick breathing can upset the digestive system and intensify stomach acid production, possibly causing heartburn or acid reflux in the process. Moreover, a stressed-out liver will generate more blood sugar to energize the body, and can overwhelm the body with the sheer amount of glucose being pumped out.

On top of all that, chronic stress is considered to be a factor in harmful behaviors like social withdrawal, substance abuse, and overeating, which can occur if the person is unable to cope well with their stress. So far from just bringing about loads of physical damage, stress can take an emotional toll that wears a person down in the worst ways.


March 1, 2019

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