Stress Might Be Causing Chronic Inflammation in Your Body—Here's What You Can Do About It
Stress is a normal occurrence that everyone experiences, and it is triggered by a stressor or perceived threat. Stressors can be events that are potentially life-threatening, like being chased by a bear or veering to avoid a car crash. But stressors can also be less dramatic, such as deadlines, difficult people, lack of sleep, financial worries and chronic pain. The reality is that anything that causes a person to question whether they have the ability to cope or manage—no matter if it's physical, mental, psychological, lifestyle-related or environmental—triggers some level of stress response.
Also known as fight or flight, the body's stress response is designed to protect and to help the body survive. When the body senses a threat or stressor, the nervous system elicits the fight-or-flight response, and the brain signals the endocrine system. This triggers the immediate release of adrenaline and an increase in cortisol. These two hormones speed up heart rate, breathing, reaction time and muscle contractions, actions that are all designed to almost instantaneously provide the resources the body needs to outrun a stressor or get it under control. Then the body slowly returns to normal—breathing and heartbeat slow, muscles slowly relax, and adrenaline and cortisol levels decline—as the stressor leaves or subsides.
The stress response is a good thing, even life-saving at times, but that's when it works as it was designed: short, temporary and sporadic. Issues arise when the stressor sticks around and the stress response continues. While some may joke about stressors being aggravating or annoying, the stress response literally "gets under the skin" when it's ongoing or unmanaged. The effects cause dysfunction in the nervous and endocrine systems, leading to chronic inflammation, which can have long-term impact on the body and brain.
The short-term impact of stress on the immune system is often seen in one's increased susceptibility to catching a cold or getting sick after a stressful time. The long-term effects from inflammation are harder to see, yet they are much more pronounced in the body. Most chronic diseases— including heart disease, diabetes, cancer and autoimmune conditions—are either triggered or exacerbated by low-grade inflammation primarily stemming from our lifestyle choices. Key lifestyle inflamers include a sedentary lifestyle, regular inadequate or restless sleep, smoking, stress and diets that don't minimize processed foods, added sugars and saturated fats, as well as diets that include an excess of calories, carbohydrates or alcohol.
Ongoing stress is particularly harmful when low-grade inflammation already exists, since it builds on what's already present. For example, a person who is overweight and not very active may also have some insulin resistance. All three factors—excess fat, inactivity and insulin resistance—suggest the presence of chronic inflammation. When ongoing stress enters the picture, it creates a cyclical inflammatory effect: elevated cortisol makes insulin resistance worse and increases appetite, and that leads to higher blood sugar and possibly weight gain. This, in turn, increases insulin resistance, weight and blood sugar, contributing to even more inflammation, demonstrating how an inflammatory storm is created and builds.
Even though most people know that practicing stress management techniques is beneficial, it's easy to blow them off when you're pressed for time—or worse, stressed. However, it's important to find ways to destress on a regular basis because an individual's coping skills can help minimize stress's impact on the brain and body. Movement-related activities are typically some of the most effective ways to reduce stress, and there are three forms that research suggests can reduce inflammatory markers in the body.
Consistent, regular exercise—both moderate and high intensity—not only reduces stress but also enhances the effectiveness of the immune system. Although exercise initially causes some acute inflammation during and right after a workout, research suggests that engaging in a longterm physical activity program acts as anti-inflammatory therapy. Atlanta-based personal trainer and yoga instructor Julie Jones agrees: "Regular exercise helps manage stress overall, but even just a quick 10-minute walk or run has benefits and boosts mood by increasing serotonin function."
Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that stabilizes mood and improves outlook, including that associated with current stressors. Jones says that resistance training, when done at a low to moderate intensity, has been shown to be the most reliable form of exercise to reduce stress and anxiety.
Long, exhaustive episodes of high-intensity exercise, particularly when there is inadequate rest between them, can increase inflammatory blood markers and contribute to chronic inflammation. However, you can avoid this by not going overboard. Listen to your body and take a rest day when needed. You should feel a little tired after a workout, but also energized and refreshed.
Regularly practicing yoga can also significantly reduce stress and inflammatory markers in the body. While that's largely thought to be due to the stress-reducing effects, yoga may also aid in reducing inflammation by helping the autonomic nervous system relax.
A 2015 study found that adults who had been practicing yoga or a type of relaxation technique daily for five years had lower levels of inflammatory markers, suggesting they had lower overall inflammation, when compared with active adults who did not regularly practice yoga. The study also found that these yoga devotees experienced significantly less of an increase in their inflammatory markers after a stressful event. These findings suggest that regular yoga may potentially dampen the inflammatory response or may even have a protective effect when a stressful situation arises.
Another technique to relieve stress that is a form of mediation in which one pauses to focus on rhythmic breath work. Forms of meditation like this are associated with lowering cortisol levels and inflammatory markers in the blood, and breath work appears also to decrease cytokines, compounds in the body that create and promote inflammation.
For those struggling to incorporate daily relaxation or yoga into their day, breath work may be a good place to start. Minimal time is required, sessions ranging from two to 10 minutes can reduce stress, and it can usually be done anywhere—even an office desk!
If you're new to breath work, Jones recommends two techniques. The first is a form of focused breathing known as pranayama, in which you focus on your breath. Jones says to start by audibly inhaling through your nose and then exhaling through your nose.
"If you were in a yoga class, you'd want the person next to you to be able to hear you breathe," Jones says. "Some call this the 'sound of the ocean' or even Darth Vader breathing. Now add a count to your breathing. Inhale for a count of four. Hold for a count of one. Exhale for a count of six. Continue for two minutes or until you feel better."
Managing stress has always been important to overall health. But when you understand the connection between stress and inflammation, it becomes a much more important health priority. Look for ways to minimize stress, as well as cope with it, and try to incorporate an activity that reduces stress and inflammation regularly.
This article originally appeared in EatingWell, Anti-Inflammation