How Inflammation Impacts Physical, Mental, and Social Health
Inflammation has become one of the most feared and misunderstood aspects of health. Any conversation about the human body should be one that is full of nuance – and discussions aimed at fleshing out whether inflammation is whole-heartedly good, or bad, is an exercise in futility.
Inflammation is a normal, healthy part of our immune system’s response to injury, pain, or stress. Some classic examples of helpful, productive inflammation are the swelling and redness you experience after spraining an ankle, the fever you have to endure when you are battling an illness or infection, and other short-term responses that are meant to protect various cells and tissues. In one way or another, acute inflammation is designed to protect you – you can’t live without it. When immune cells start to overreact, or get activated inappropriately (as is the case with autoimmune disorders) however, the helpful can turn detrimental very quickly.
Chronic inflammation can be caused by a variety of factors, as you will read about later on, but there are many reasons why you should seek to avoid having it run amuck and unchecked. Having a persistent, unnecessary inflammatory response increases your risk for many effects such as cancer, heart disease, depression, Alzheimer’s, and many more chronic illnesses that are notoriously difficult to manage and live with. Essentially, this incredibly nuanced topic can be summarized as: Acute inflammation is both helpful, and necessary for survival. But chronic inflammation is precisely the opposite.
We are going to cover the various and profound impacts that chronic inflammation can have on your physical, mental, and social health. Doing so will allow us to fully illustrate just how much of a concern this issue is for our body and mind, and just how much it can interrupt overall wellness. Of course, we will also provide you with some actionable steps that you can start implementing today to begin mending, or preventing the damage that unchecked chronic inflammation can have on your physical health, mental well-being, relationships, and more.
Effects of Inflammation on the Body
Rampant and constant inflammation can cause more than just a few issues in our bodies. In fact, most chronic conditions such as asthma, cancer, type 2 diabetes, obesity, arthritis, and many more are linked to inflammation and the destructive effects it can have on cells, tissues, and even the very structure of DNA.
There are a few areas of the body that seem to be particularly affected by the continuous presence of inflammatory molecules. Your brain, and the similarly complex gastrointestinal (GI) tract are both especially impacted by the excessive presence of the various immune cells, chemical messengers, and proteins that are on the frontline of your immune system. The effect it can have on the brain is at the root of many of the detrimental behavioral and social influences chronic inflammation can have. The effect it can have on your GI tract however, is an excellent example to show just how complex the immune system and it’s inflammatory responses can be.
It may surprise you to know it, but most of your body’s immune cells are located in your GI tract. This makes sense though, because there is a constant exposure happening from the foods and beverages you bring in from the outside world. The inside of your GI tract can really be thought of as being outside of the body, and everything that passes through it must be deemed safe or not safe to enter the body. Luckily, our immune system usually ignores the countless beneficial bacteria that live all over inside there. Also, while ignoring all of the usually “good” bacteria that have taken to living mostly inside of your large intestine, our immune system also has to be able to identify foreign invaders, help neutralize them if possible, as well as sound the alarm and mount an appropriate attack if they escape the GI tract and get inside the body. The ubiquity of bacteria inside our GI tract, and the constant warfare the immune cells there must be under, makes it pretty easy to see why there are so many inflammatory conditions of the gut. Conditions like irritable bowel syndrome, ulcerative colitis, and Crohn’s disease are all debilitating examples of how chronic inflammation can cause significant and persistent issues inside of you. The inflammation in your gut has the ability to spread throughout your body and brain.
Systemic, chronic inflammation is also implicated in:
- Obesity: Obese people have consistently higher levels of systemic inflammation. This leads to insulin resistance (type 2 diabetes), dysregulation of hormones that relate to hunger, and a reduced metabolic rate – making it increasingly more difficult to lose weight when they try to.
- Bone loss: The perpetual process of bone remodeling is effectively interrupted by chronic inflammation – leading to bone loss and corresponding conditions.
- Joint problems: Joints are especially degraded by chronic inflammation and conditions like rheumatoid arthritis and psoriatic arthritis are both directly linked to the unchecked presence of it.
- Heart disease, cancer, skin problems, asthma, and the list goes on…
The effects that systemic, chronic inflammation can have on the body are no joke. We will of course provide you with some action items to focus on to help empower you to prevent this from occurring – but to gain a much deeper understanding of the complex entity that is your immune system, take a look at our in-depth blog on the topic here.
Effects of Inflammation on the Brain
Chronic inflammation’s greatest threat to our health is due to the systemic effects it can have on the body. Your brain and body are nearly inseparable – except through an ever-vigilant, yet fallible border between the two. This barrier is known as the blood brain barrier, and we owe our lives to this thin membrane made of specialized tissues and immune cells. Unfortunately though, it isn’t impossible for stuff to sneak by and make its way to the brain. This is precisely the case with the cytokines and various other inflammatory molecules produced by your body.
Once these inflammatory molecules make it into the brain, there is the potential for an unnecessary immune response to occur. Microglia (brain immune cells) are activated, and just like with joints and other tissues, brain tissue is damaged by the inflammation that ensues. This cascading response is specifically why multiple, severe mental illnesses are associated with increased inflammation. Neuroinflammation is especially dire because of all of the body’s processes that are controlled by the brain (so…basically everything). According to a study published in the Journal of Neuroinflammation, chronic inflammation in the brain is associated with:
- Depression/major depressive disorder
- Neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s
- Bipolar disorder
- Sleep disorders
If it wasn’t already, it should be pretty clear by now that many states of diseases, are linked to chronic inflammation. What most people don’t yet understand though, is how chronic inflammation can affect more than just our physical, and mental health – it can impact our relationships with others and social health overall!
Effects of Inflammation on Relationships
Human beings are social creatures. This logically stems from our evolution in groups that worked together to collectively find food, shelter, and survival.
Enter: Chronic inflammation.
Chronic inflammation is known to impact social interactions – a phenomena known as sickness behavior. Inflammation-induced, sickness behavior is primarily characterized by social withdrawal or loss of interest in social activities. In a systematic review published by Mona Moieni, Ph.D. and Naomi I. Eisenberger, Ph.D., investigating the social effects of inflammation, it was also noted that it also tended to cause following effects:
- Social disconnection.
- Social anhedonia (inability to feel pleasure).
- Increased sensitivity to both positive and negative social stimuli.
- Heightened sensitivity to social rejection, and threatful situations.
These behaviors are believed to be adaptive, and our desire to avoid others might have actually been a good thing. It would have kept us from socially interacting with others, and potentially infecting vulnerable members of our tribe. Our response to these varied social stimuli whilst under the throes of chronic inflammation can depend entirely upon the context of the situation as well as your perception of it. But your response is likely going to be innate and instinctual. It is easy to see just how easily chronic inflammation can disrupt your ability to live your life and enjoy healthy social relationships. Now, let’s start exploring how to reduce inflammation through diet, exercise, and lifestyle habits.
How to Reduce Inflammation
Reducing inflammation can be easily accomplished by making some basic adjustments to your diet, exercise, and wellness routines.
Many of these options are free, or nearly so – requiring only that you commit to the changes and make them a part of your lifestyle for good. One of the changes that can have the largest impact on your levels of chronic inflammation is what you choose to put on your plate.
The foods that you do or don’t eat can have a massive influence over whether or not you are able to overcome chronic inflammation and avoid the multitude of ill effects which we have already mentioned. Keeping in mind that a high percentage of your immune cells reside within or around the GI tract, it is clear how this relationship between diet and inflammation can be established. Avoiding foods that are heavily processed, those that contain high amounts of fat and sugar, and foods that you have an intolerance to (these can be huge triggers for autoimmune conditions) will allow you to essentially stop “feeding the fire” that is your chronic inflammatory response. We know that gut inflammation can travel throughout the body, and avoiding foods that are inflammatory for you is one key aspect of managing your diet. Another aspect of significantly impacting your inflammation through the diet is by including foods that have a recognized and established anti-inflammatory effects.
Some anti-inflammatory foods include:
- Leafy greens (plenty of phytonutrients and magnesium to help squelch inflammation).
- Cold-water, fatty fish (salmon, mackerel, anchovies, sardines, and herring are all chock-full of marine Omega 3 fatty acids).
- Nuts (especially walnuts which are brimming with ALA).
- Berries, and other fruits like oranges (full of antioxidants and other beneficial compounds).
When you boil it all down, it is clear that eating to reduce inflammation is essentially synonymous with eating for overall health and longevity. Eat a diverse diet full of whole, natural foods. Avoid processed foods, refined carbohydrates, and rancid or trans-saturated fats. Even after taking these steps, you may need to supplement with various nutrients that just aren’t very easy to get from the diet. Vitamin D, for instance, is uniquely difficult to get from the diet and you may need to keep a bottle of it in your cabinet at home. This powerful vitamin/hormone likely won’t be the only thing you will want to supplement with, however.
Dietary supplements are meant to be utilized to augment an already sound diet and lifestyle.
That being said, it is becoming increasingly difficult to get all of the nutrients you need from food alone – even if you are sticking to a well-rounded diet full of whole foods. There is an endless list of the supplements on the internet claiming to reduce inflammation, squelch free radicals, and lead you to better health – one expensive bottle at a time. Yet, most of these fall short when placed up against rigorous scientific analysis. Fortunately for us as consumers, these dilligent scientists did a lot of the hard work for us.
If you are seeking to reduce chronic inflammation, and need some help from the supplement realm, take a look at proven options like:
- Fish oil or other sources of Omega 3 fatty acids
- Circumin (turmeric)
- Cannabidiol (CBD)
- Body Protection Compound 157 (BPC-157)
It is important to point out here that non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs) like tylenol or ibuprofen are not on this list. NSAIDs are incredibly effective at managing acute inflammation, but their frequent use for attempting to handle chronic inflammation (usually in conjunction with corticosteroids) can be highly destructive and harmful to the human body. In contrast, BPC-157, which stimulates the growth and repair of injured tissues throughout the body, is emerging in the health and wellness sphere as a clinical alternative to the antiquated usage of NSAIDs and steroids that still remain (currently) as the standard of treatment for chronic inflammation and pain. As you might have guessed, the connection between chronic inflammation and the human body goes much deeper than just your diet, and which supplements you choose to take. To remain healthy and with appropriate levels of inflammation for the long-haul, you probably need to move!
Exercise and inflammation are deeply intertwined. Inflammation is by nature an immune response. And the cells, resources, and waste associated with the immune system are transported in the lymphatic system. Unlike your circulatory system, your lymphatic system does not have a pump. This means that bodily movement and muscular contractions are required to push your lymphatic fluid around – keeping what can be thought of as your own internal sewer system, moving freely.
Exercise has another implication in chronic inflammation, and that is that it can allow you to achieve or maintain a healthy body weight. It is no secret that high levels of body fat are directly linked to high levels of systemic inflammation. Simply increasing your daily activity, and participating in a structured resistance training protocol can do wonders for weight loss and reduce levels of chronic inflammation as a result. Exercise can be overdone however, which would ultimately lead to you doing more harm than good when it comes to the levels of inflammation you are experiencing. If you want to make the most of your exercise approach, take a look at our article titled “Your 3 Keys to Post-Quarantine Fitness Success” – where we lay out a clear and concise explanation of what actually matters for you to make significant changes both in and outside of the gym. The importance of not over-doing it with exercise in a misguided attempt at creating healthy changes cannot be overemphasized. In fact, the stress from excessively exercising can and does easily contribute to the total burden of stress on your body – which, unsurprisingly can influence inflammation.
Stress of any kind can be beneficial for us in small, intermittent doses. A perfect example of this is how lifting weights can help build muscle, make us stronger, and make us healthier. Taken too far however, this stress can quickly become negative.
In the case of psychological stress, chronic inflammation can come as a result of living in a stressful environment, working at a stressful job, dealing with financial distress, or just simply neglecting to manage the mounting burden placed upon you. The intersection between psychological stress and physical disease or dysfunction seems to hinge on the hormone cortisol. Our bodies release the stress hormone cortisol in response to, you guessed it, stress. Having too high of cortisol, for too long can have lasting and negative implications on your body, brain, and overall health. Luckily, as you may have already surmised, much of what you can do to manage stress is easy, and free.
Some great tips for reducing stress are:
- Meditation or another mindfulness practice
- Get out in nature
- Working out
- Start an intentional breathwork practice
- Keep a gratitude journal
You may find another activity or hobby that works for you to reduce stress – that’s great, do it often. What matters is that you are consciously engaging in some consistent practice to proactively deal with stress before it can rear its ugly head and manifest some unwanted physical, social, and mental health effects. Even cheaper than these stress reduction techniques, is one that you likely already know the importance of, even if you don’t currently appreciate it.
By now, if you aren’t aware of just how important sleep is, then you must have been living under a rock for quite some time. Sleep is, and likely always will be, our number one resource for developing and maintaining health at nearly every level. Sleep is crucial if you want to manage stress, lose body fat, build muscle, manage your appetite, and much more.
Mechanistically, sleep is the time when your body rests, recovers, and prepares for another day. Your circadian rhythm is the metronome by which nearly every bodily function aligns itself, and living in a way that disrupts this natural ebb and flow can lead to a whole host of disease and dysfunction – not the least of which is uncontrolled, chronic inflammation. If you aren’t sleeping well, there isn’t much else that you can do to significantly and sustainably improve your health.
Get enough good, quality sleep, every night!
Chronic inflammation is a growing concern in our society with real consequences if you don’t take steps to control it. But there are steps that you can take to protect yourself, and many of them are free of cost. Chronic inflammation typically goes unseen and unaddressed until it has culminated in disease or dysfunction that cannot be ignored. Before you reach this state, put a plan in place and stick to it!