The Role of Inflammation in Depression and a Lifestyle Program To Manage It

The Role of Inflammation in Depression and a Lifestyle Program To Manage It


It is in moments of illness that we are compelled to recognize that we live not alone but chained to a creature of a different kingdom, whole worlds apart, who has no knowledge of us and by whom it is impossible to make ourselves understood: our body. Marcel Proust:

Some of you are fortunate to have only an occasional cold or flu from time to time. For the most part, you can depend upon the health of your body to support you. But, others of you are struggling with physical illnesses (e.g., cancer, diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, crone’s disease, irritable bowel syndrome, allergies, and chronic fatigue/Epstein-Barr syndrome) that force you to chronically contend with downward changes in your health. How well you feel, think and act fluctuates from one day to the next. To be sure, your body may seem to you like a creature of a different sort that you are forever trying to tame, manage, repair, strengthen, and boost up.

People with mental health disorders often feel the same way. They too cannot depend upon their bodies to support them from one day to the next, as the symptoms that debilitate them are also physical. Weakness, fatigue, muscle pain, slowed motor movements, inability to concentrate and think, insomnia, changes in eating pattern, and nausea, headache, and constipation are physical symptoms that accompany major depression, anxiety, Bipolar Disorder, and even the attention-deficit and thought disorders.

There is a reason why physical and mental illnesses share many of the same symptoms. It’s the body’s response to stress. The body treats injury as a threat, no matter if it is through infection, physical or emotional harm, or by environmental toxin or irritant. The body calls for an all out response to stress to help you to cope with the threat on hand. The brain reacts to the threat by releasing stress hormones (cortisol), fat and sugar, and stimulating nerve transmitters into the bloodstream to help you to fight the threat or run away from it. This gives an immediate rise in blood pressure that leads to a pounding heart, sweaty palms, shakiness, rapid breathing and all of the other symptoms related to brain and body arousal. But, it doesn’t stop there.

Emotional and physical stress also affects the activity of the immune system that causes a widespread inflammatory impact on the brain and body. The brain signals the immune system’s cytokines (pro-inflammatory hormone) to tell the white blood cells to clean up the infected or damaged tissue resulting from the threat. It is these pro-inflammatory cytokines and the white blood cell cleaning up process that actually causes the symptoms in both physical and mental health illness rather than the stress or injuries themselves.

Weakness, fatigue, muscle pain, slowed motor movements, inability to concentrate and think, insomnia, changes in eating pattern, and even nausea, headache, and constipation are just some of the physical symptoms of inflammation that exist in all types of illness. Thus, although the death of a loved one, sexual or emotional abuse, social anxiety and fears, physical injury, infection, and environmental toxins and irritants differ in the type of injury, the body’s stress response is always the same.

Now, here’s the clincher. Once physical or emotional stress subsides, anti-inflammatory agents move in to begin the healing process. ?In a normal immune system, anti-inflammatory agents are able to restore balance throughout the body so that inflammation diminishes. But, in some cases, the immune system gets stuck in high gear, and symptoms of inflammation do not go away. This is known as chronic inflammation. Here, the immune system watchmen never  rest, so to speak, so that the body ends up attacking itself resulting in auto-immune diseases, like Rheumatoid Arthritis, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Crone’s Disease, Type II diabetes, and allergies.

Research is showing that chronic brain inflammation is also connected to virtually all types of mental illness that suggests that mood disorders may actually result from a dysfunction in the immune system (Depression linked to Brain InflammationThe Role of Adipose Tissue in Inflammation and DepressionAllergy and DepressionInflammation Theory of DepressionAntidepressants Suppress Inflammation; Suicide Attempts Linked to Brain Inflammation and Brain Inflammation).

Specifically, it is the increased inflammatory markers seen in depressed patients, the ability of the immune system’s pro-inflammatory cytokines to influence the neurotransmitter system relevant to stabilizing mood, and also the ability of administered cytokines and other inflammatory stimuli to induce depressive symptoms in mice that supports the strong role of brain inflammation in depression.

Additionally, scientists studying the developmental roots of mental illness have zeroed in on the body’s stress response as the likely culprit (The Beginnings of Mental Illness, The American Psychological Association; APA Monitor, Feb. 2012). Thus, it seems that inflammation not only plays a role in the symptoms of mental illnesses like depression but may also influence their onset.

What Does The Role of Inflammation in Depression Mean To You?

You need to start thinking about mental health disorders, especially depression, as not only having their roots in the body’s response to stress but also being problems of brain and body inflammation. This is good news, as you have another way to manage your symptoms besides prescribed medication and psychotherapy alone. You can make changes in your lifestyle (eating, sleeping, exercise, attitude and coping habits) that help to reduce inflammation that underlies many of your symptoms.

Inflammation Reduction Lifestyle Program

The six steps that follow make you less physically reactive to stressful changes and help you to reduce symptoms of depression that involve brain and body inflammation. You can start to make lifestyle changes that work with, rather than against, your body. You are going to befriend your body through your good habits, so that it does not seem to you like a creature from another kingdom that is always threatening your health, performance, and joy.

1. Calm Body: To lower inflammation, you need to relax your brain and body at a cellular level. Just laughing, socializing, playing tennis or golf isn’t enough, as any activity that requires that your mind and body be alert involves brain and body arousal. This means that stimulating chemicals and hormones, like the immune system’s cytokines are chronically circulating through your system. Only deep breathing can help to tone down the fight-or-flight response to stress and diminish these chemicals, so that the calming and anti-inflammatory nerve transmitters and hormones can come out. Thus, you need to set aside times in the day where you treat yourself to exercises that involve deep breathing.  Muscle relaxation, visualization and deep breathing, alternate nostril breathing, and even a good nap are excellent ways to restore well being. Deep rest and relaxation is vital to keeping your immune system in proper working order. Even 10 minutes two to three times per day can do much to restore your nervous system to calm.

2. Contemplative Mind: Much of our daily stress has to do with the way we think about the things happening to us. We tend to dramatize experience by emotions and value statements that do little more than give us anxiety and stress. A meditative mind is just as important as a calm body.

Mindfulness practice reduces stress by focusing your attention, so that do not dramatize what’s happening or ruminate on stressful thoughts, and it also lowers your reactivity to stressful situations that activates the fight or flight response and kicks your immune system into high gear. Just like the stress management techniques that relax the body, mindfulness suppresses the activity of pro-inflammatory cytokines. Mindfulness practice not only protects the immune system, but over time can help it to recover.

At the very least, a practice of mindfulness can stop a stress response from carrying itself out. There’s an abundance of research showing the benefits of mindfulness on physical and mental health (Mindfulness and the Immune System on Early Stage Breast Cancer; Alterations in Brain and Immune Function Produced by Mindfulness Meditation; Mindfulness Meditation Reduces Loneliness and Immune Function; Mindfulness Meditation has Positive Health Benefits; and Mindfulness Practice Helps Fibromyalgia Patients). Also, take a look at my  articles on mindfulness for more understanding of its benefits on well being (Become Mindful: Take Charge of Your Life; What You Say To Yourself Matters; and Strengthen the Empathy Muscle).

3. Anti-Inflammatory Diet. Some foods inflame the brain and body, while other foods lower inflammation. If you have physical or mental disorders that involve inflammation, it’s especially important for you to eat an anti-inflammatory diet. Dr. Andrew Weil is a leading authority on the topic. He maintains that by”following an anti-inflammatory diet, you can help counteract the chronic inflammation that is a root cause of many serious diseases, including those that become more frequent as people age.” You can learn how to select and prepare foods that do not stress your body. Dr. Weil gives you an anti-inflammatory food pyramid and anti-inflammatory vitamin advisor. But, there’s a lot of information available on the web that you can find on the subject matter (15 Top Anti-inflammatory Herbs and Spices; What You Need to Know About Inflammation.

Additionally, over-eating can lead to too much brain and body inflammation. The accumulation of lipids (fat) in the body in the form of white adipose tissue in the abdomen is now known to activate immune mechanisms (Eating Ourselves To Death, National Center for Biotechnology Information). One primary source of inflammation in depression involves adipose tissue (fat tissue) that is a rich source of inflammatory factors (adipokines, chemokines, and cytokines). Not only can fat increase depression, but depression in turn influences the inflammatory capability of fat tissue (Inflammation in Depression: Is Adiposity the Cause?, National Center for Biotechnology Information). By maintaining a healthy weight, you will do much to lower inflammation related to symptoms of depression.

4. Exercise. There’s a large body of research that shows the benefit of exercise on depression. Exercise stimulates your body’s anti-inflammatory abilities and keeps your blood circulating at its optimum level. This may underly the lift in mood that often accompanies an exercise regimen. Some advocates of exercise emphasize exercising to reduce whole body inflammation rather than to lose or maintain weight ( This is especially good advice for those of you struggling with a mental health disorder, as many of you have sensitive immune systems that too little or too much exercise can activate.

Start off slowly, and work your way up until you are getting 20 to 30 minutes of exercise at a minimum of 3 times per week. But, remember too much exercise increases inflammation and breaks down the body. It is especially critical in immune-system disorders, like allergies, chronic fatigue and arthritis disorders.

5) Social Support. You don’t need research to tell you the importance of having loving, warm, and supportive people in your life. Nonetheless, there is a vast body of research extolling the health and well being virtues of social support. The quality and quantity of social relationships affect gene expression and also inflammatory markers of the immune system. Relationship conflict and lower social support produces a pro-inflammatory cytokine response in the body. Thus, if you don’t have enough meaningful, supportive friendships, you need to find a way to get more, to reduce the stress response and the brain and body inflammation that comes with it (Social Support, Social Strain, and Chronic Inflammation; Princeton University Press; Close Relationships, Inflammation and Health).

6) Self Love. What you think about yourself affects your body. If you hate or disapprove of yourself, your body hears this message and responds in kind. Eating well and exercising isn’t enough. You have to appreciate and value who you are to create an emotional state that is friendly to your body.  Thus, give yourself a break. Don’t be so hard on yourself. Self-love is an integral part of a healthy lifestyle. Learn to accept yourself for who you are with your strengths, talents, weaknesses and flaws. See my Seven Step Prescription for Self-Love for steps you can take to start to love yourself more. But, if you need professional help here, don’t hesitate to see a therapist.

One thing has become very clear to me, in treating people for many years. You cannot easily understand or adequately treat a mental health condition, without a full assessment of one’s physiology and lifestyle habits. If you don’t approach depression, anxiety, addiction disorders, and anger and stress conditions through lifestyle, as well as prescribed medication and psychotherapy, you lessen the effectiveness of treatment and recovery.

Thus, get into good relationship with your body starting today. Treat your mental health condition through a whole lifestyle. The good news is that you may not have to take as much medication for the problem or may be able to forgo medication altogether.

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