Stress: The Forgotten Inflammation Factor

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. Likewise, many diseases and conditions cause harmful inflammation. 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., Canyon Ranch physician (1994 – 2018), “so, reducing your stress levels should be one of your biggest health goals.”

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, depression, autoimmune disorders, Alzheimer’s disease and cancer. Importantly, “most people understand inflammation in terms of the symptoms it causes—soreness, achy joints and so on,” says Dr. Liponis. “But the inflammation causing these problems can’t always be felt…it doesn’t always cause pain.”

A blood test that measures a biomarker for inflammation called C-reactive protein (CRP) 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; we suggest you opt for the high-sensitivity version, which can detect even low amounts of inflammation. 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 this, 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 white blood cells are the main defenders of your immune system, and they travel throughout every inch of your body via the bloodstream. They can be engaged in war or kept at peace,” Dr. Liponis says. Choose peace: “A quiet immune system is the key mechanism to youthfulness and successful aging.”

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