Is Stress Making You Sick and Sad? Inflammation in the Body Linked to Depression
Emerging evidence demonstrates that there is a connection between inflammation and depression. When your body is in a state of constant, low-level inflammation, you may feel sad.
Recent research is encouraging, and shows that feeling sad or depressed is not just “in your head.” The stigma of depression has ruined many lives, and this stigma has created barriers to getting help. For example, a mother will not easily admit to feeling depressed for fear that social services will show up at her front door to take her children away. Military veterans risk damaging or losing their career or chance for upward mobility in rank, if they admit to feeling less than stellar in the psycho-emotional department.
But the recent news underscores that depression is not a weakness or something you did, but rather a complex state of events in the body that happened to you. Feeling depressed is nothing to be ashamed of, and certainly should not be hidden or “swept under the proverbial rug.” If you have inflammation in your body, which is easily identified with a blood test, you are at serious risk for developing chronic disease, not just depression.
Other disease processes are connected to inflammation levels in the body as well, including premature aging and cardiovascular disease, cardiopulmonary disease, metabolic disorders like diabetes, neurological disease, some types of cancer, and even autoimmune diseases. Read more about the role of inflammation in accelerated aging
A review article presents the science of stress and depression (Littrell, 2012).
- Stress decreases immune function, activating monocytes and macrophages that release inflammatory cytokines.
- Studies have shown that those induced by stress show signs of depression, correlated with high levels of inflammatory cytokines.
- Animal and human studies show that if you infuse the body with inflammatory cytokines, they present with signs of depression.
- Depression reflects an inflammatory state in the brain (brain-derived neurotrophic factor is likely involved). An inflammatory state in the brain can be induced by inflammatory cytokines in the periphery or by psychological stressors.
- Psychosocial stress and depression contribute to a greater risk for infection, prolonged infectious episodes, and delayed wound healing, all processes that can fuel pro-inflammatory cytokine production. However, stress and depression can also directly provoke pro-inflammatory cytokine production in the absence of infection or injury (Kiecolt-Glaser, 2010).
Are You Depressed?
If you are feeling any of the depressive symptoms, seek help. Take this QUICK QUIZ to see if you are feeling more than just sad or down. Persistent stress, trauma, adipose tissue/obesity, and/or pain can also be factors in creating chronic inflammation in the body.
What Can You Do?
A CRP test can be a first step in identifying inflammation in the body, which puts you at risk for depression.
Other proactive measures you can take are diet, exercise, and movement with meditation therapies, like yoga. Stress management is an important benefit of practicing yoga, since it has been shown to affect the inflammatory process in the body.
- Yoga and meditation have been studied to assess their role in decreasing systemic inflammation. There was a study done to compare markers of inflammation in novice and experienced yoga practitioners to assess the potential of yoga’s stress-reduction benefits. Across a battery of inflammatory assays, 60% of novices produced higher levels of inflammatory markers compared to 24% of experts at baseline levels. And 40% of experts produced low levels of inflammatory products compared to 0% of novices.
- We know the science behind diaphragmatic breathing and it’s ability to regulate the autonomic nervous system (ANS) by way of its proximity to the vagus nerve, as well as the sympathetic chain. And we are capable of teaching awareness or “mindfulness” of the bodies’ physiological responses (muscular tension, rapid breath, actions/reactions). The practice of controlled breath acts to down-regulate the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, reducing the heart rate, lowering blood pressure, and easing respiration (Sengupta 2012).
- Diet is another way we can alter the inflammation in our bodies. Diets that promote inflammation are high in refined starches, sugar, saturated and trans-fats, and low in omega-3 fatty acids, natural antioxidants and fiber from fruits, vegetables, and whole grains (Kiecolt-Glaser 2010).
- Higher fruit and vegetable intake are associated with lower oxidative stress and inflammatory pathways in the body. Refined sugars and starches can rapidly alter blood glucose levels. This postprandial hyperglycemia can increase production of free radicals as well as pro-inflammatory cytokines (Kiecolt-Glaser 2010).
- Studies have shown that nutraceuticals can affect the inflammatory process in the body. Turmeric (or curcumin), ginger and cinnamon have been shown to alter the inflammatory pathways (Aggarwal 2010).
- Other spice nutraceuticals may also have an affect on obesity and insulin resistance by way of their effect on inflammatory pathways. They suggest this because of the similar structural homology hat exists between curcumin, capsaicin (red chili), piperine (black pepper), eugenol (cloves), cinnamaldehyde (cinnamon), and gingerol (ginger). These spice-derived nutraceuticals have been shown to inhibit oxidation of low-denisty lipoproteins (LDL), demonstrating anti-oxidant properties (Aggarwal 2010).
- Polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs), particularly ratios of omega-3 (n-3) to omega-6 (n-6) fatty acids, have also been shown to have influence on the inflammatory processes in the body. Omega 3 PUFAs can be found in Flaxseed (oils, seeds),Fish (salmon), Chia seeds, Walnuts, Basil, Oregano, Cloves, or by supplements.
- Ginger buys organic culinary herbs in bulk from Napa Valley based Whole Spice Company, a certified organic and kosher spice US-based company.
- Eating Ourselves to Death (and Despair)
- CRP Test
- Depression Screen – Quick Quiz
- The Role of Exercise and Nutrition in Longevity
- Kiecolt-Glaser, J. (2010). Stress, food, and inflammation: Psychoneuroimmunology and nutrition at the cutting edge. Psychosom Med, 72(4), 365–369. doi: 10.1097/PSY.0b013e3181dbf489.
- Kiecolt-Glaser, J., Christian, L., Preston, H., Houts, C., Malarkey, W., Emery, C., Glaser, R., & , (2010). Stress, inflammation, and yoga practice. Psychosom Med., 72(2), 113. doi: 10.1097/PSY.0b013e3181cb9377.
- Kiecolt-Glaser, J., Belury, M., Belury, R., Belury, W., & Glaser, R. (2011). Omega-3 supplementation lowers inflammation and anxiety in medical students: A randomized controlled trial. Brain Behav Immun, 25(8), 1725–1734. doi: 10.1016/j.bbi.2011.07.229.
- Littrell, J. (2012). Taking the perspective that a depressive state reflects inflammation: implications for the use of antidepressants. Frontiers in Psychology,3(297), 1-18. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2012.0029.
- Sengupta, P. (2012). Health impacts of yoga and pranayama: A state-of-the-art review. Int J Prev Med, 3(7), 444–458.
- Additional sources are linked directly in the article.
About the Authors
Dr. Meriage-Reiter began her practicing yoga in 2006. It wasn’t until she began studying with Professional Yoga Therapy Studies (PYTS), that she began to see that her practice might have been causing her harm – the physical positions were not safe for her body and the fast-pace was wreaking havoc on her nervous system. PYTS helped her to begin her own personal journey towards more mindful living and allowed her to pass this on to her patients. She now uses the science of physical therapy bridged to the mind-body connection of therapeutic yoga to provide her patients / clients with the tools to heal themselves.
She holds a bachelor’s degree in Physiology & Neuroscience from UCSD and a Doctorate of Physical Therapy degree from UCSF/SFSU. Presently, she works in an outpatient clinic, working with post-surgical rehabilitation, sports and work related injuries, spinal pain and other painful conditions. She also teaches therapeutic yoga classes in Alameda, California and is available for private physical therapy in-home or in-studio. Find out more atwww.mindbodymovement.org or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ginger Garner PT, MPT, ATC, PYT
Ginger is the author and founder of Breathing In This Life. When she isn’t practicing integrative physical therapy or writing/teaching curriculum in medical therapeutic yoga, she sings the blues away using music as medicine.