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Stress: The Forgotten Inflammation Factor

Chronic tension and worry can contribute to the dangerous role this concern plays in your risk for many diseases
Written by 
Holly Pevzner
Canyon Ranch Reviewer: 

We couldn’t be happier that inflammation is getting more attention these days. The issue, where your body’s natural immune response essentially goes haywire and starts attacking healthy tissue and cells, is at the root of many health concerns. From losing weight to exercising regularly to getting more sleep, people are starting to take steps to keep inflammation in check—and that deserves our applause. But one weapon in this war is often overlooked—managing stress. “Stress plays a major role in disease and disability,” says Mark Liponis, M.D., corporate medical director at Canyon Ranch in Lenox, Mass., “so, reducing your stress levels should be your biggest health goal.”

When you’re stressed—because of something like an impending meeting or a traffic jam, for example—your body releases hormones including cortisol and adrenaline to help you deal with the perceived threat. Cortisol elevates your blood sugar levels and provides your brain with a burst of fuel to deal with the crisis. It also suppresses and alters bodily functions that may not be needed at the time, including certain aspects of your immune system. Once the tense moment passes, everything usually goes back to normal. However, if you’re dealing with chronic stress—say your job is overwhelming or you can’t stop worrying about finances—your body gets stuck in “fight-or-flight” mode. Cortisol lingers in your body trying to fend of threats that don’t exist. The constant presence of the hormone may actually make you less sensitive to its regulatory effect on your immune system, and chronic inflammation can set in as a result.

Ever wonder why you seem to get sick more often when you’re stressed? Inflammation affects how your body fends off illness. Take the common cold, for example. The symptoms you experience when you are sick are actually the result of inflammation. The less inflammation in your body, the more likely you will be able to fight off the cold virus without feeling sick.

And the effects of stress on your immune system go beyond your susceptibility to the sniffles: There’s growing evidence that inflammation is one of the first stages of a long list of serious conditions, including heart disease, stroke, asthma, autoimmune disorders, Alzheimer’s disease and cancer. 

A blood test that measures a biomarker for inflammation called C-reactive protein can help determine if there’s recent inflammation in your body, which could be due to stress (or a number of other factors). You’ll need to request the test, as it’s not always part of routine health screening. At Canyon Ranch, we prefer CRP levels to be below 0.7. “If you’re in optimal health, you really shouldn’t have C-reactive protein level greater than 0.7 mg/L circulating in your bloodstream,” Dr. Liponis says. “But even when someone is physically well, we still tend to see elevated CRP if they are constantly worried, nervous, anxious, scared, hostile or depressed.”

Aside from a CRP test, there are other signs that you could benefit from stress reduction. For example, you might need to work on your stress levels if you can’t shake that anxious feeling and you’re experiencing back pain or muscle stiffness, headaches, sleep problems, fluctuations in weight, high cholesterol or difficulty breathing.

One surprisingly simple way to help reduce stress is slowed, deep breathing, which “sends a message to you immune system that you’re not in a state of anxiety.” Dr. Liponis says. Abdominal breathing also synchronizes your heart rate, respiratory system and blood pressure, which are all thrown off by stress. Visit our article Using Your Breath as an Anchor to learn helpful techniques for bringing your mind and body into balance.

Beneficial breathing techniques are just the start.  “Meditation, yoga, learning to think more compassionately and other means of dealing with your emotions can mitigate or nullify the adverse effects of stress,” Dr. Liponis says. “In fact, research shows that a key to preventing heart disease lies in the ability to manage emotions.” It’s simple, really: Reducing stress helps to quiet the immune system and keep inflammation in check. And a well-rested immune system will be better able to fight the good fight when a real danger or disease strikes. “Your immune system travels throughout every inch of your body. It has the ability to wage war or to keep the peace,” Dr. Liponis says. Choose peace: “A quiet immune system is the key mechanism to youthfulness and successful aging.” 

Reference(s) 
Carnegie Mellon University
Mayo Clinic
MedlinePlus
About the author 
Holly Pevzner is a health and nutrition writer living in Brooklyn, NY.