Researchers have made meaningful strides in better understanding stress-induced disorders (depression, PTSD, anxiety, etc.) and autoimmune disorder (AD) to come up with new comprehensive treatments.
The connection between the two disorders arose when examinations on their causes and symptoms indicated similarities.
Depression & the Numbers
The American Psychiatric Association (APA) defines depression as a serious yet treatable medical illness that negatively affects how you feel, the way you think and how you act. It can lead to a variety of emotional and physical problems and can decrease a person’s ability to function.1
The cause of depression has been widely studied and there has been no identified singular cause. Rather, several factors can contribute to the development of depression. These are:
Biochemistry – Identified variances in brain chemicals can play a role in depression
Genetics – Depression can run in families. In fact, twins have a 70% chance of having depression when one is affected.
Personality Type – Certain personality types are more prone to develop depression, specifically, those with low self-esteem and a low tolerance for stress. Generally pessimistic personalities are more likely to experience the depression.
Environment – Growing up around violence, neglect, abuse or poverty can make a person more vulnerable to depression.
In 2018, the World Health Organization (WHO) stated that there are over 300 million affected by depression and anxiety disorders have been diagnosed in about 40 million people in the US. As it stands, brain disorders are now the leading cause of disability.2
Recent Stats on Autoimmune Disorder
On the other hand, autoimmune disorders are now recognized as a major health crisis in the United States. The most recent statistics from the American Autoimmune Related Diseases Association (AARDA) showed that there are around 50 million Americans — 80% of whom are women — who suffer from one or more autoimmune conditions. The numbers in Europe and Scandinavia have been estimated as similar to the US.3
These numbers are a stark contrast when compared to thirty years ago wherein only one in 400 individuals were reported to have developed an autoimmune disease.3
What is an autoimmune disorder?
The general definition of autoimmune disorder (also called inflammatory disease) is a condition where the body’s immune system “misfires” and attacks its own tissues. There are multiple types of autoimmune diseases and some of the most common are rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis, multiple sclerosis, and Type 1 diabetes.4
According to the AARDA, there are now 80 to 100 different autoimmune disorders with at least 40 additional ailments that have an autoimmune basis. These disorders are chronic and can be life-threatening.3
An observational study…
An observational study headed by Dr. Huan Song from the Center of Public Health Sciences at the University of Iceland aimed to explore this correlation with the question: Are psychiatric reactions induced by trauma or other life stressors associated with subsequent risk of autoimmune disease? 4
An important caveat to note is that the study does not state that stress-induced disorders such as depression are the actual cause of AD.
Scope of the study:
100,000 people diagnosed with stress-related disorders (control group)
126,000 siblings of the control group (for initial comparison)
1,000,000 more people without stress-related disorders (secondary comparison)
Objective: Compare the control group with their siblings and the other one million people to examine their (the control group’s) tendency to develop an autoimmune disorder after one or more years.
Key Findings of the Observational Study: Participants with a stress-related disorder were more likely to be diagnosed with an AD and had higher tendencies to develop multiple autoimmune disorders. 4
The conclusions of the study provided valuable insights that are worth a deeper dive into the correlation between the two disorders. Now, there is more evidence to support the theory, however, further studies are needed to better understand the underlying mechanisms.
Analysing the Similarities of Treatments
The National Center for Biotechnology Information published a study that said up to 50% of patients with autoimmune disorders exhibited psychiatric symptoms similar to depression and bipolar disorder. The most common similarities include fatigue, loss of interest in daily activities, and cognitive deficits or “brain fog”.5
These common denominators have encouraged the prescription of medications used for autoimmune disorders to help alleviate the symptoms of mental health diseases like depression.
This brings forth the question: Could patients who actually have an autoimmune disorder be misdiagnosed with depression or other mental health diseases?
The quick answer is, “possibly.”
Since the onset of depression and autoimmune disorders are difficult to pinpoint, it also makes it challenging to accurately determine if the symptoms being treated are early indications of an AD or the physical or mental manifestation of depression.
To be diagnosed with most autoimmune diseases, there must first be signs that the immune system has damaged a significant amount of tissue in the brain or another organ. Yet, autoimmune disorders start long before damage is noticeable.
The time gap between the start of an autoimmune disorder and the visibility of tissue damage causes patients to exhibit known symptoms of depression and anxiety, therefore, leading doctors to a mis-diagnosis.
Point of Reflection
Could these discoveries on epidemic diseases such as depression and autoimmune disorders imply the need for more holistic approaches to therapy and maintenance of overall wellbeing?
Given all the available data, the productive route is to look at every possible source. The aim is to treat the cause, not just the symptom.