Burnout happens when we are overwhelmed by stress and spend more time trying to catch up to all that life throws at us. This affects all areas of our lives, including the immune system.
Burnout and Stress
Burnout leads to chronic stress. This is not only the stress we feel in our minds but involves the stress that is borne out by the body.
Chronic stress causes the release of cortisol from the adrenal cortex. This primitive response once did our ancestors some good but now just results in immune suppression and an increased risk of getting sick.
Cortisol is a hormone that reduces the body’s immune system and increases blood sugar. This is in an attempt to fight off attackers in what is a spin-off of the “fight or flight response.”
The problem is that we no longer have anything to flee from or fight and cortisol gets pumped out of our adrenal glands. The cortisol directly affects the immune system, putting it on the back burner while we are fighting our imagined enemies.
Cortisol and Autoimmune Diseases
Unfortunately, when cortisol is allowed to run rampant, it puts us at risk of infections—both acute and chronic infections. While the body is busy not healing well, antibodies are created to regular human tissue and we begin to fight off parts of our own body. How this happens isn’t exactly clear.
What is known is that there are hundreds of autoimmune diseases out there—from lupus, to gluten intolerance, to Crohn’s disease, psoriasis and many more diseases. These diseases result from an immune system gone awry. In an attempt to heal from infections, the body instead makes antibodies to tissues of the body and this is what the immune system is busy doing when we have actual real infections to fight off.
Autoimmune diseases force us to face the stressors in our lives, as these are the likely cause of the environmental component of autoimmune diseases. There is a hereditary component to be sure but it isn’t hard and fast. Those that are under greater amounts of burnout and stress are more likely to turn their genetic heritage into chronic disease.
Treating Autoimmune Diseases
Autoimmune diseases are ‘for life’. Once you get them, you can’t magically de-stress yourself to get rid of them. The antibodies will always be there. You can reduce the effectiveness of the autoantibodies on your tissues by doing things like yoga, meditation, Tai chi, and qigong.
These activities help control burnout and allow the immune system to rest and to be redirected at killing off real infections. Unfortunately, the treatment of autoimmune diseases involves suppressing the immune system even more. Some people with autoimmune diseases are treated with prednisone—a synthetic form of cortisol that makes infection risks even higher.
The problem with autoimmune diseases is that to treat them, we need to give the immune system another big hit to shut down the immune system altogether. This is why those who suffer from autoimmune diseases are more likely to get infections and to have problems healing from infections. It’s the treatment of the autoimmune disease that gets in the way of being able to fight off infections.
The Immune System and Cancer
We rely on our immune system to fight off cancerous cells that pop up in the body. Cancerous cells are foreign substances in our bodies and we usually have a good immune system so that the cancer cells don’t take off and start a solid tumor or blood-based cancer.
When we suppress the immune system to decrease the symptoms of autoimmune diseases, we allow a window of opportunity for cancer cells to grow. This indirectly means that, by suffering from burnout, we create diseases that can, by their very nature, lead to cancer that can ultimately kill us.