Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) may cause changes in the immune system that increase the risk of autoimmune disease.

PTSD commonly co-occurs with autoimmune conditions and immune-related conditions.

Long lasting stress-related disorders, such as PTSD, may increase the risk of autoimmune disease. PTSD may cause changes in the immune system that affect hormone levels, stress response, and inflammation. This may contribute to the development of autoimmune diseases.

This article explores the link between PTSD and autoimmune diseases, PTSD and inflammation, and treatment options for PTSD and autoimmune diseases.

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A 2020 study examined the link between PTSD and autoimmune diseases in 120,572 active military personnel in the United States. The study included the following autoimmune diseases:

The study found that in participants with a history of PTSD, there was a 58% increased risk of these autoimmune diseases compared with those with no PTSD history.

PTSD can have various effects on the body and may trigger certain changes that lead to autoimmune disease development. The study describes the following effects this condition may have:

  • Due to a constant state of hyperarousal and fear, PTSD may have links to atypical characteristics in the endocrine, immune, and nervous systems, affecting how well they function.
  • PTSD may have links to lower levels of glucocorticosteroids, an increase in factors promoting inflammation, changes in gene expression, and increased aging of immune cells. These may all lead to problems with the immune system and disorders relating to the immune system and inflammation.
  • Hyperarousal may increase hormonal activity in the central nervous system, which may trigger an increase in stress hormones. This can contribute to immune system dysfunction and the possible development of autoimmune diseases.

A large-scale 2018 study in Sweden looked at the link between stress-related disorders and autoimmune disease.

The study found a significant link between exposure to a stress-related disorder and an increased risk of autoimmune disease. Scientists have outlined potential reasons for this link:

  • Psychological stress may impair immune function, contributing to the development of autoimmune disease.
  • People with PTSD may have atypically low cortisol levels, particularly with exposure to trauma in early life, which may lead to an overactive immune system over time.
  • Exposure to trauma may result in lifestyle changes, such as disrupted sleep, increased smoking, or alcohol or substance misuse, which affect the risk of developing autoimmune diseases.

Further research is necessary to examine a potential link between genetics and early environmental factors in developing autoimmune disease with PTSD.

Learn more about PTSD.

There are over 80 known autoimmune diseases. Some of the most common types include:

Learn more about autoimmune diseases.

According to a 2022 review, some people with PTSD show higher levels of inflammatory markers, including:

  • C-reactive protein
  • interleukin-6
  • tumor necrosis factor-alpha

According to a 2021 review, PTSD has associations with changes in immune response, including an increase in inflammatory factors and a decrease in anti-inflammatory factors.

Trauma exposure and prolonged stress may result in glucocorticoid receptor resistance (GCR). This makes immune cells less sensitive to glucocorticoid hormones, which help stop an inflammatory response. GCR may lead to chronic inflammation.

Read more about inflammation.

Various factors may increase the risk of PTSD causing inflammation, including:

The American Psychological Association (APA) strongly recommends the following treatments for PTSD:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): CBT aims to change patterns of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors to improve symptoms and functioning.
  • Cognitive processing therapy (CPT): CPT, a type of CBT, helps people learn ways to change unhelpful beliefs relating to the trauma they have experienced.
  • Cognitive therapy: Cognitive therapy involves changing negative memories and thoughts relating to trauma and thought patterns that interfere with everyday life.
  • Prolonged exposure therapy: Prolonged exposure is a type of CBT in which people learn to gradually face memories, feelings, and situations relating to trauma to reduce feelings of danger at memories and triggers.

According to a 2021 review, prompt treatment with continuous drug therapy, including selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, may help decrease the risk of developing physical diseases relating to PTSD. Treatments may also help reduce immune dysfunction with PTSD.

Read more about psychotherapy for PTSD.

Treatments vary depending on the type of autoimmune disease but may include:

  • Medications: Medications can help manage pain and relieve symptoms, suppress the immune system, control inflammation, or replace substances the body cannot produce on its own.
  • Alternative therapies: People may try alternative therapies to manage symptoms, such as acupuncture, hypnosis, or chiropractic treatments. However, it is best to discuss these treatment options with a doctor first.
  • Lifestyle changes: Eating a nutritious diet, getting regular exercise, getting enough sleep, and managing stress may help people with autoimmune diseases manage their symptoms.

According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, PTSD may increase the risk of alcohol misuse. Consuming alcohol may also worsen PTSD symptoms and increase the risk of other mental and physical health issues.

People with PTSD may use drugs to help them manage symptoms, but they can worsen PTSD symptoms and cause other issues, such as relationship problems.

People can talk with a healthcare professional if they have concerns about alcohol or drug use with PTSD. Treatments, such as CBT, may help treat both PTSD and substance use disorders simultaneously.

Read about PTSD and relationships.

PTSD can cause changes to the immune system and may lead to an increased risk of autoimmune disease. PTSD may also increase inflammatory markers and reduce anti-inflammatory ones.

Treatments for PTSD may help control immune system changes and reduce the risk of developing certain related disorders. Treatments include cognitive behavioral therapy, cognitive processing therapy, and prolonged exposure therapy.