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Is Stress the Cause of your Increased Inflammation?

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October 27, 2020 | Published by


Is stress the ultimate blessing and curse combination? On one hand stress can inspire us, push us to accomplish things we believe ourselves uncapable of, and survive a life or death situation. On the other hand, stress can be debilitating and harmful to our wellbeing. But how exactly does stress lead to sickness?

The main connection between stress and illness is inflammation. You may be thinking, isn’t inflammation a natural and helpful process? Indeed – put simply, inflammation is your body’s natural response to protecting itself from harm.1 The problem is when inflammation becomes steady or chronic.

There are two types of inflammation that occurs in the body: acute and chronic. Acute inflammation is more commonly known and is what happens when you get a cut or bruise. White blood cells are released by the immune system to surround and protect the affected area, creating redness and swelling. The same process happens with an illness like the cold. 1 A fever is also triggered by inflammation, is your body’s attempt to kill off the illness by turning up the heat to a temperature that is no longer hospitable to the invader.

Chronic inflammation is just as it sounds – inflammation that lingers and keeps the body in alert and defense mode. Some common causes of chronic inflammation are: 2

  • untreated causes of acute inflammation, such as an infection or injury
  • an autoimmune disorder, which involves your immune system mistakenly attacking healthy tissue
  • long-term exposure to irritants, such as industrial chemicals or polluted air
  • heavy substance and drug use, including alcohol and tobacco
  • obesity
  • chronic stress

Cortisol, the body’s chief anti-inflammatory agent, is released to help the body cope with both physical and mental stress. In this fight or flight response to stress, the body runs on emergency mode, pulling all available resources to handle the stress and get the body back to homeostasis. This means other areas like digestion and the immune system take a back seat. In a temporary situation, which is what the stress response is made to be, this is no problem. The stressor goes away or is quashed, and the body returns to normal.

When stress becomes chronic, your body’s fight or flight response can’t rest and must stay activated. This means cytokines, anti-inflammatory chemicals released by the immune system, are being steadily released. Over time, cytokines may perpetuate themselves, which is when inflammation starts to cause harmful effects to the body. 3

There are many mechanisms responsible for diseases, and we do not yet have a complete picture on the link between stress and illness. However, we do know that chronic, low-level inflammation is a factor in many conditions.

Chronic conditions with a known link to stress

  • Rheumatoid arthritis (RA)

It’s well understood that RA is exacerbated by inflammation, a disease where body’s immune system attacks joints and tissues, causing stiffness and pain. Cytokines play a big role in inflammation with RA. Therefore, the more stressed you are, the more pro-inflammation chemicals are released, leading to RA flare-ups. 3

  • Cardiovascular Disease

Another effect of the fight or flight response is constricted blood vessels. This forces your heart to work harder, which raises blood pressure. Chronic inflammation is one of the main causes of atherosclerosis, a precursor to heart disease. Moreover, those experiencing chronic stress tend to make poor diet and lifestyle decisions which can worsen heart health. 

  • Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD)

IBD is an umbrella term for inflammation-linked conditions that affect the gastrointestinal system, including Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis. Both are exacerbated by stress, which affects the body’s normal secretion of digestive enzymes, and can interfere with how you digest food, absorb nutrients, and rid the body of waste. 3

  • Depression

Cytokines can also trigger depressive symptoms in some people, leading to a depressed mood, tiredness, and a lack in joy of doings things normally enjoyed. In a study published in January 2018 in the journal Biological Psychiatry, researchers subjected mice to stressful conditions while monitoring signs of brain immune cell activation. In this study, anxiety and depression-like activity was associated with activation of the immune cells. This suggests that exposure to stress triggers immune cells in the brain, leading to the rewiring of neural circuits and triggering of mood symptoms. 3

References:

  1. Bhatt, D, MD. What is inflammation? Harvard Heart Letter. https://www.health.harvard.edu/heart-disease-overview/ask-the-doctor-what-is-inflammation
  2. Santos-Longhurst, A. Understanding and Managing Chronic Inflammation. Healthline. https://www.healthline.com/health/chronic-inflammation
  3. Schipani, D. Here’s How Stress and Inflammation Are Linked. Everyday Health. https://www.everydayhealth.com/wellness/united-states-of-stress/link-between-stress-inflammation/

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