How Stress Is Linked To Auto Immunity And Chronic Infections


Stress is anything that puts the body under pressure. You can have positive stress – such as moderate exercise and intermittent fasting which strengthen the body – or negative stress which can cause damage or change in the body. We are all familiar with emotional stress, but stress can also be physical – such as an injury, infection or toxin exposure. It can even be inherited. You may not always be aware of stress. It may have been something that you didn’t know happened such as not getting your needs met as a baby. If it occurred when you were very young – before speech and cognition had developed – it can remain in the subconscious driving feelings and behaviours, such as perfectionism or abandonment issues throughout the rest of your life. Perfectionism is a very hard taskmaster and places you and your body under enormous stress.

It is now understood that the fight or flight response is not the only way we react to stress. Fight or flight is the initial response in the face of threat but if the stress is ongoing – as it is if you suffer from anxiety – the body switches into a chronic form of stress which causes changes in the cells, immune system and more. This is the type of stress found in autoimmunity, chronic fatigue and chronic infections.

How does stress affect cells?

Cells need to feel safe in order to work effectively. Recent research by Dr Robert Navio shows that the mitochondria play a major role in cellular defense. They take their cues from the vagus nerve and, if stressed, switch from energy production and nutrient absorption to the Cell Danger Response or CDR. Instead of taking in nutrients and making energy, they shut down, the membrane thickens, and they switch to CDR. Your cells are now in survival mode. Since every system in the body is made up of cells, the organs become inefficient. Free radical levels go up, detox goes down, the body becomes inflamed and chronic infections often result. Your body gets stuck in defense mode which is characterised by systemic inflammation. This may start in childhood with eczema and allergies which set you on the downward spiral into autoimmunity. The key to healing is not to focus on the original cause, but on what is preventing healing now. The cells (and organs) become clogged up and until they are drained, you cannot get well. And if the viral or toxic load is higher than cellular energy production, you will never detoxify or rid yourself of infection no matter how many detox supplements or anti-microbials you take. The key is to switch the mitochondria out of CDR so you have a fighting chance of regaining your health and this begins with drainage and working on the emotional level. I will explain in a future blog which treatments are good for healing emotional trauma and how important this is so that the mitochondria can feel safe again.

The Vagus Nerve

Different stages of the CDR are matched by changes in the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve and mitochondria communicate with each other (1). The vagus nerve and mitochondria regulate inflammation throughout the body. When stressed, the vagus nerve freezes and in addition to inflammation, this can cause digestive problems such as indigestion, constipation or IBS and can lock you into feeling fatigued, anxious, unable to cope with stress and overwhelmed. Mental health issues are linked to inflammation in the brain and signs of brain inflammation can include mood instability and sleep disturbance. Loss of vagal tone can cause many, many symptoms but often may cause muscular aches and pains and stiffness especially in the neck and shoulders. Weight gain (or inability to gain weight) is now recognised to be linked to inflammation – as fat cells and the immune system are in communication with each other. But the main symptoms of chronic inflammation boil down to sleep issues, fatigue, anxiety and pain.

The Gut Microbiome

What is amazing is that the vagus nerve constantly reads your gut microbiome. It is looking for pathogens. Are the bugs healthy or not? It takes four years for a baby to lay down the microbiome and the health of the microbial population is determined by factors such as the health of your parents, whether you were breast fed and for how long, whether you’ve taken antibiotics, toxin exposure, lifestyle – do you get enough sleep and time in Nature – and of course your diet. This directly links the health of the microbiome with inflammation. It also explains why autoimmunity is increasing. It is estimated that 90%of Americans have an autoimmune disease and even more have chronic inflammation. Interstitial cystitis, eczema, fibromyalgia  and migraines, along with 4,000 other diseases are now recognised as autoimmune. Electrical stimulation of the vagus nerve has resulted in remission of autoimmune diseases within eight weeks!
Electrical stimulation takes the vagus nerve out of the freeze response and into normal function, the mitochondria relax because the perceived threat has gone, the cells come out of CDR and start producing energy again and inflammation goes down (2). This shows how powerfully your psychological state impacts your health. Obviously, long term you need to address the cause of your stress and adopt healthy lifestyle habits that help keep you more centred.

Cells shut down energy when you have flu so they can focus on defending you against the virus and you go to bed until you are better. But if you have chronic fatigue, your cells have permanently shut down energy production which is often due to chronic viral infection such as EBV or Retrovirus.  Cells can also go into viral defense mode when exposed to radiation from wi-fi, mobiles etc., as they think they are viruses. If your body is stuck in CDR, you have what is like a chronic form of flu and you have two choices – you either drag yourself around and limit activities to what are essential, or you withdraw from life. But all this can be reversed – this is not a life sentence, and my future blogs will look at some cutting edge research that has led to some real breakthroughs for treatment. Clue: lifestyle is the new medicine – you can’t get out of this by taking a drug although the drug companies have tried to develop one!

Adrenal Fatigue is a Myth

The old high cortisol theory has been recently been shown to have no relevance to stress and energy levels. The theory states that chronic stress lowers morning cortisol causing fatigue on waking but studies of salivary cortisol levels do not correlate with fatigue. This is because the problem lies in the mitochondria rather than the adrenals. Mitochondrial psychobiology is a new and emerging branch of science. If you feel safe, you have peacetime metabolism. There is no relationship between cortisol levels and energy production apart from the minor, indirect effect via blood sugar and adrenaline. Chronic stress can deplete the body’s energy levels in a day. If you have a bad night, the effects are immediate – you feel tired, craggy and crave sweets due to impaired insulin sensitivity the next day. Stress does, however, puts the brakes on the thyroid. Thyroid output drops in response to slowed cellular metabolism.

In my next blogs, I am going to discuss how your lifestyle can support healthy vagal tone and good energy production and how working within energy medicine can heal deep emotional trauma which underlies anxiety and fear.


  1. Dr Stephen Porge, Psychiatrist who has studied the physiological effects of trauma
  2. Electrical stimulation of the vagus nerve has also cured depression, anxiety, epilepsy and fibromyalgia