Understanding Stress-Induced Inflammation
You may already be aware of how stress makes you feel, maybe overwhelmed and agitated, but do you know the effects of chronic stress on your physical health? According to the American Psychological Association, stress affects all systems of the body including muscles, respiratory, cardiovascular, endocrine, gastrointestinal, nervous and reproductive systems.1 Stress has also been linked to inflammation, which can wreak havoc on the immune system if left unchecked. To understand the relationship between stress and inflammation, we’ll look at what happens in the body when your body experiences stress, the common signs of inflammation, and other chronic conditions which have been linked to stress.Erica Garza is an author and essayist from Los Angeles and a mother of one. She holds an MFA from Columbia University and a certificate in Narrative Therapy. Her writing has appeared in TIME, Health, Glamour, Good Housekeeping, Women's Health, and VICE.
What Is Stress-Induced Inflammation?Stress gets a bad rap, but it can actually be beneficial in small amounts. Stress initiates the body’s fight or flight response, activating the adrenal glands to release hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. These hormones fuel the body to flee or face threats and they were crucial for our ancestors. The hormone cortisol typically functions to reduce inflammation in the body, but over time, these efforts to reduce inflammation can end up suppressing the immune system, creating a pathway for stress-related diseases.2,3
Can Stress Cause Chronic Inflammation?Like stress, inflammation is beneficial as it plays an active role in the body’s healing process. From foreign invaders, such as viruses, to emotional stressors, threats are subjected to a variety of chemicals called pro-inflammatory cytokines to protect the body from harm. However, when the body experiences chronic inflammation as caused by chronic stress, inflammation can do more harm than good.
Signs of InflammationThe ancients characterized inflammation by five classic signs that included redness, swelling, heat, pain, and loss of function.4 Long-term inflammation may lead to a number of signs and symptoms that affect your body in a variety of negative ways. These include:
- Body pain
- Persistent tiredness and insomnia
- Depression, anxiety, and other mood disorders
- Gastrointestinal issues, such as constipation or acid reflux
- Weight gain
- Frequent infections
Chronic Conditions Linked to StressWhen chronic inflammation becomes the body’s habitual stress response, a number of stress-related conditions may develop. These include:
- Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA): RA is a condition in which the body’s immune system attacks joints and tissues, resulting in stiffness and pain.5
- Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD): This broad term includes a variety of gastrointestinal conditions like Crohn’s disease and ulcers.6
- Cardiovascular Disease: When the fight or flight response is chronically activated, the heart is forced to work harder, resulting in high blood pressure. There is also a correlation between chronically stressed individuals and unhealthy behaviors like smoking and overeating, which may contribute to heart disease.7
- Metabolic Diseases: These include diabetes and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.8
- Psychotic and neurodegenerative disorders: These include depression, Alzheimer’s disease, and Parkinson’s disease.9
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