The Wellness Library

The Impact of Chronic Stress and Inflammation on Mental Health

by | Jun 6, 2024 | Mental Health

The Correlation Between Chronic Stress and Inflammation

When you’re stressed, the first thing you may be think about likely isn’t inflammation. However, it is important to understand the connection between the two, and how they can impact your health overall! Below, we’ve outlined the correlation between chronic stress and inflammation, possible triggers, tips for management, and how integrative medicine may help in your case.

What is Inflammation?

Inflammation refers to a process generated by the immune system in response to injury or infection. This process involves sending in nutrients, blood flow, and immune cells to help the body heal. In acute situations like an ankle sprain or the flu, signs of inflammation can include redness, swelling, pain, or a fever; these responses are indications that the immune system is actively working to heal the body, which is a protective, helpful response. 

Inflammation can become problematic if it becomes chronic—this is a long-lasting form of inflammation, due to persistent immune activation from threats that still need to be managed or removed. Over time, chronic inflammation can affect various organs, such as the gastrointestinal system and the brain, and impact mental health.  

How Chronic Stress and Inflammation Affect Mental Health

Chronic psychological stress is a major trigger of inflammation. Chronic stress suppresses the immune system and taxes the adrenal glands, leading to limited output of cortisol over time. Cortisol helps the body to adapt to stressors. When the body’s in a state of chronic stress, the ability to produce powerful antioxidants such as glutathione—which reduces inflammation—is limited. Various mental health conditions, such as general anxiety disorder, major depressive disorder, PTSD, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia have been linked to increased inflammation.[1],[2] Chronic inflammation can additionally stem from dietary triggers, gut microbiome imbalances, and environmental toxins. 

Dietary Triggers of Inflammation

Food plays a role in regulating inflammatory processes.[3] Diets high in processed foods and refined sugars tend to promote inflammation and lack nutrients such as magnesium and zinc, which are important for mental health. Other common triggers of dietary inflammation include gluten and dairy. Food sensitivity tests can help identify which foods are inflammatory for you and just how much they trigger your immune system. Food sensitivities tend to be delayed-onset reactions, which means they can take several hours or even days to develop and can produce non-specific symptoms like fatigue, joint pain, depression, and anxiety.  

Imbalanced Gut Flora Can Impact Stress

Various bacteria, viruses, fungi, and protozoa make up the gut microbiome and communicate with the brain through the vagus nerve, forming the gut-brain axisThe vagus nerve controls the parasympathetic nervous system, which promotes rest, digestion, and relaxation. Researchers have found associations between imbalanced gut flora and depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder.[4] Imbalances in the gut microbiome lead to a pro-inflammatory state that causes the immune and nervous systems to become dysregulated. Chronic stress impairs digestive function and compromises the immune system’s ability to defend against infectious microorganisms.  

The Effects of Environmental Toxins

Environmental toxins such as mold and heavy metals can affect the nervous system and lead to mental, emotional, and neurological changes. Mold exposure is traditionally linked to allergies and respiratory conditions. Mycotoxins, which are dense byproducts of mold and much smaller than mold spores, enter the body through the skin, inhalation, and food; additionally, they can accumulate in various organs.[5] The brain contains high levels of fat, which tend to store environmental toxins that damage the brain over time, increasing oxidative stress and inducing structural changes linked to neurologic and psychiatric conditions.[6]

Tips for Reducing Inflammation and Improving Mental Health

  • Incorporate calming practices and relaxation techniques to reduce daily stress.
  • Prioritize restful sleep and create a pre-bedtime ritual to help you wind down at night.
  • Focus on eating anti-inflammatory foods.
  • Minimize exposure to environmental toxins from food, water, and personal care products: The Environmental Working Group (EWG) has helpful consumer guides and databases to minimize exposure to environmental contaminants and help people choose safer products.
  • Include one or two daily detox activities, such as using a sauna, lymphatic drainage massage, or castor oil packs to release and eliminate toxins.
A doctor listens to the heart of a smiling woman.

How Can an Integrative Medical Provider Help?

Integrative medicine aims to address the root cause of mental health issues—including those caused by chronic stress and inflammation. If you are interested in developing a more in-depth plan for managing inflammation, consider adding an integrative medicine provider to your healthcare team.

Integrative providers conduct a thorough examination of medical history to identify what your triggers of chronic inflammation likely are, and use comprehensive testing to identify the root cause of your inflammation. Testing can include functional tests like food sensitivity panels for dietary triggers of inflammation, stool tests to identify gut infections and imbalances in your gut microbiome, and testing for heavy metals and mycotoxins. Integrative medical providers work with you to create an individualized treatment plan for diet, lifestyle, medication, and supplements for your optimal physical, mental, and emotional health

Integrative Medicine Works Best Alongside Conventional Care

Integrative medicine does not replace the role of other providers, including psychiatrists and therapists, and works best in collaboration with the rest of your care team. Identifying and treating the root causes of mental health and addiction takes time. Medications and supportive therapies are often necessary and valuable for stabilization, and to make sure you have the best support on board while addressing the root cause of your chronic stress and inflammation. 

References

[1] Yuan N, Chen Y, Xia Y, Dai J, Liu C. Inflammation-related biomarkers in major psychiatric disorders: a cross-disorder assessment of reproducibility and specificity in 43 meta-analyses. Transl Psychiatry. 2019;9(1):233. Published 2019 Sep 18. doi:10.1038/s41398-019-0570-y

[2] Bauer ME, Teixeira AL. Inflammation in psychiatric disorders: what comes first?. Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2019;1437(1):57-67. doi:10.1111/nyas.13712

[3] Firth J, Veronese N, Cotter J, et al. What Is the Role of Dietary Inflammation in Severe Mental Illness? A Review of Observational and Experimental Findings. Front Psychiatry. 2019;10:350. Published 2019 May 15. doi:10.3389/fpsyt.2019.00350

[4] Ouabbou S, He Y, Butler K, Tsuang M. Inflammation in Mental Disorders: Is the Microbiota the Missing Link?. Neurosci Bull. 2020;36(9):1071-1084. doi:10.1007/s12264-020-00535-1 

[5] Ratnaseelan AM, Tsilioni I, Theoharides TC. Effects of Mycotoxins on Neuropsychiatric Symptoms and Immune Processes. Clin Ther. 2018;40(6):903-917. doi:10.1016/j.clinthera.2018.05.004 

[6] Orisakwe OE. The role of lead and cadmium in psychiatry. N Am J Med Sci. 2014;6(8):370-376. doi:10.4103/1947-2714.139283 

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