Stress Management, Well-being and Self-Care

an example of Alopecia areata: blotches of hair loss.

The Complex Connection: Exploring the Relationship Between Idiopathic (unexplained) Health Problems and Stress-Related DIS-EASE

by James Porter June 15, 2023

The picture above shows: Alopecia areata, sometimes attributed to stress, is just as commonly considered idiopathic. In other words, the cause of it is considered to be unknown.

In last week’s blog I wrote about the term iatrogenic which is defined as when the treatment is the cause of the disease. More specifically we looked at how this term often pops up in situations where the health issues are stress-related. This week we’ll look at the term idiopathic – when the source of a health-problem is unknown. From my perspective, idiopathic health problems often have a stress component to them, also.

In medicine, there are certain health problems that elude precise diagnosis, confounding both patients and doctors alike. These enigmatic conditions, known as idiopathic disorders, present a unique challenge to mainstream medicine. Interestingly, there exists a close association between idiopathic health problems and stress-related conditions. This 2-part series aims to shed light on the difficulties doctors face in identifying stress-related health problems and explaining how stress can contribute to and possibly cause these idiopathic disorders.

Idiopathic health problems are characterized by symptoms or diseases that cannot be attributed to a known cause. Such conditions encompass a wide range of medical issues, including chronic pain, fatigue, gastrointestinal disorders, migraine headaches, skin conditions and more. Despite advances in medical science, doctors often struggle to pinpoint the precise triggers or underlying mechanisms responsible for these ailments. The frustrating reality is that patients suffering from idiopathic disorders experience significant distress, both physically and emotionally, as the lack of a definitive diagnosis can lead to feelings of helplessness and uncertainty.

One example of an idiopathic illness is a certain type of peptic (or stomach) ulcer. Stress used to be considered a primary cause of these kinds of ulcers. Then, in the late 1980’s two doctors (appropriately) from down under won the Nobel Prize for discovering that – no it wasn’t stress that caused ulcers – but the presence of a certain bacteria in people’s guts which could be tamed with antibiotics. This treatment could cure many peptic ulcers without any stress management training required!

But in a small number of cases, the problem-causing bacteria: AKA, helicobacter pylori, ISN’T present. These cases are considered idiopathic. To me, this is a perfect example of an idiopathic health problem that could very well be caused by stress.

Stress can exert profound effects on our overall well-being. While occasional episodes of stress are normal, chronic stress can lead to a host of health problems. Conditions such as anxiety, depression, cardiovascular disease and weakened immune system are widely recognized as stress-related and to my mind, this category also includes certain kinds of ulcers, skin conditions, and alopecia areata where a person’s hair falls out in clumps.

The connection between stress and idiopathic health problems lies in the intricate relationship between the mind and body. Stress can act as a catalyst, triggering or intensifying symptoms in patients with idiopathic disorders. Research suggests that chronic stress can disrupt the body's natural balance, leading to inflammation, hormonal imbalances, and altered immune function. These physiological changes can contribute to the development or exacerbation of symptoms in individuals already experiencing idiopathic conditions or possibly create the conditions themselves.

Identifying stress-related health problems can be a daunting task for healthcare professionals. Due to the complex nature of these conditions and their multifactorial causes, accurate diagnosis often eludes doctors. Symptoms may be diverse and overlap with other medical conditions, making it challenging to attribute them solely to stress. Moreover, the subjective nature of stress and its manifestation further complicates the diagnostic process. Consequently, patients often find themselves undergoing numerous tests and consultations, seeking answers for their unexplained symptoms.

So if you ever hear your doctor use the term idiopathic to describe a medical problem you are suffering from, let that be a signal to you to at least explore the notion that this illness just might be  stress-related. Next week we’ll look more at how doctors and patients can identify and treat their stress-related idiopathic health problems.

James Porter
James Porter