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How Does Stress Impact Inflammation?


January 23, 2023

On my journey to understand what causes inflammation in the body, especially chronic inflammation, I came upon stress as a culprit. Let's unpack what stress does to the body, and then we can understand how it leads to inflammation and how to reduce the impact.


Our bodies were made to survive threats. Our caveman ancestors were exposed to real threats like saber-toothed tigers. In this example, the threat would register in the brain, which would trigger a response in the body through the Autonomic Nervous System. The body wants to stay in, and achieve, balance, so there are two pathways, the "fight or flight" pathway (Sympathetic Nervous System) that we are all aware of, and the "rest and digest" pathway (Parasympathetic Nervous System), which restores the body post-stressor.


In order for our body to face the threat or flee from it, adrenaline is produced which triggers our body to increase blood flow to the areas that need it most, such as the arms and legs, and away from non-essential functions, like digestion and kidney function.

As a result of adrenaline, we experience an increased heart rate and blood pressure to pump and circulate the blood and an increased respiratory rate and blood glucose levels to increase oxygen in the blood and energy stores for muscles. Cortisol, a type of glucocorticoid, is released. Cortisol has been given a negative reputation as causing insulin-resistance and weight gain, but it is essential to regulate sleep (circadian rhythm) along with regulating glucose metabolism to make sure our muscles have the energy they need to face the stressor. This response should be short in duration. We no longer have to flee from saber-toothed tigers. However, our stressors have become nearly constant, from work-life imbalance, work deadlines, and relationships to name a few. Our body no longer sends the hormones to turn off the stress response, which keeps cortisol higher in the body. The elevated cortisol produces chronic low-grade inflammation, increased insulin resistance, and a suppressed immune system. As a result, our body is less able to heal wounds or fight infections, which can be a pre-cursor for autoimmune disorders, cardiovascular disease, and depression.


Impact of Elevated Cortisol

In addition, the elevated cortisol levels increase our appetite, especially for simple carbohydrates, for quick energy. The increased hunger can lead to overeating. As a result, the extra is stored as abdominal fat which can contribute to the development of cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes.


How to Restore Balance

The first step is to increase awareness. If you are not aware of how you internalize stress, then you will not be able to combat it. A program that I went through in my college years is called Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, which is designed to help you tune into your body over the course of several weeks. At that time, I had the tendency to clench my jaw along with my shoulders and neck, which caused headaches and knots in my back.

Some other great ways include:


Sleep

When you rest and get a full night's sleep (at least 7 hours), your body is able to enter deep sleep to heal and repair itself. You will wake up rejuvenated with improved cognition, creativity, and energy for the day. You are better able to handle and recover from stressors.


Deep breathing/relaxation exercises

Just taking a moment to take a few deep breaths, increases oxygen in the blood, reduces heart rate and blood pressure, and allows you to be present in the moment to notice any tension hiding in the body. Taking this moment allows you to recover from a stressful event or situation, instead of dwelling on it, keeping the "fight or flight" response active,


Activity/exercise

Doing something you enjoy, like taking a walk outside, going for a jog, or lifting weights in the gym, helps release tension and the body's "feel good" hormones relieving tension in the body. As an added benefit, activity and exercise can also help improve your sleep quality.


Journaling

Journaling is a great way to track changes that are being made, and the body's response as a result of that change. For instance, if you want to improve your sleep quality, you can make notes for several days of your normal routine. Then you can implement turning off the blue lights (cell phone, computer, and tv) 30 minutes before your normal bedtime and rate how rested you feel in the morning. This allows you to be more mindful of your body and the specific impacts of your change efforts. Trying to change everything all at once can be overwhelming and harder to pinpoint what is, and what is not, working.

In addition, journaling things that you are grateful for can also help keep your mind focused on the positive, which can help reduce stress.




Resources

  1. American Council on Exercise (2019) The Professional's Guide to Health and Wellness Coaching


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