Stress and inflammation – what’s the link?

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S.A.C. Dip (Diet, Exercise & Fitness), Advanced Human Anatomy & Physiology Level 3
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20 January 2020

Can stress and anxiety cause inflammation?

From job interviews to future plans, stress is a natural part of our everyday lives. Unfortunately, though, persistent stress can have some negative effects on our body, including the fact that it induces inflammation. You can find out more about this issue by reading on. Here I discuss some key issues relating to stress and inflammation, including:

  • How does the body respond to stress?
  • How does stress lead to inflammation?
  • Can stress make muscle and joint pain worse?
  • What is the fastest way to reduce inflammation in the body?

How does the body respond to stress?

The stress response mobilises the body to deal with an immediate threat so it abandons many everyday bodily functions, such as reproduction and growth, until the source of stress has passed. Immune function also becomes focused on countering injuries arising from the stressor, whilst patrols to spot infections are put on hold (hence why you may be more likely to suffer from colds or flu when stressed!).

In addition to the above, no surplus energy is stored when stress is present, so fatigue becomes more likely. Bone formation and mending is also neglected, whilst the metabolism of food is no longer regarded as a priority.

So, when the stress is purely psychological, the stress response can become more damaging than the stressor itself.

How does stress lead to inflammation?

The body relies on inflammatory processes to deal with harmful components, such as bacteria or a virus. Inflammation is also part of the body's natural response to stress.

Inflammation causes the release of white blood cells which are intended to protect the body from foreign substances. These chemicals may leak into the tissues, however, resulting in swelling; plus, it can stimulate the nerves and cause pain. If you're already suffering from muscle or joint pain, inflammation that is the result of stress is likely to make it worse.

Whilst inflammation is a normal bodily process, chronic inflammation can arise if stress persists for an extended period of time. Also, the problem may be fuelled by the fact that we are unlikely to make healthy food choices or get sufficient sleep when stressed. Both of these factors are likely to drive inflammation further.

Can stress make muscle and joint pain worse?

By triggering inflammation, stress can make muscle and joint pain worse. Another issue can be related to the secretion of Glucocorticoid (GCs) receptors.

GCs are present in most cells and these trigger the release of anti-inflammatory proteins to help regulate inflammation.

GCs support the activity of adrenaline, which increases heart rate, raises blood pressure and boosts energy supplies in response to stress. They can also help mediate the stress response and prepare you for the next stressor.

GC secretion can be triggered by the expectation of stress, meaning there doesn't actually have to be a physical threat present for it to kick in. This can be problematic for muscle and joint health as, in the long term, GC administration can lead to delayed wound healing, muscle weakness (the body can't do repair work when it's busy dealing with the source of stress), inhibition of bone formation and suppression of calcium absorption.

What is the fastest way to reduce inflammation in the body?

If you're struggling with stress and inflammation, there are a few things you can do to try and manage the problem.

Deal with stress

As stress drives inflammation, it is vital to get on top of the issue. Now, there are lots of stress management techniques out there, and the most effective one is likely to vary from person to person. You could try a few different things, however, to see what works for you. Some options include:

  • Gentle exercise – this releases feel-good hormones and can be a distraction from stress.
  • Talking – other people around you will be able to offer advice, support and a different perspective on what you're going through.
  • Relaxation techniques - the likes of meditation and mindful breathing are both effective in relieving stress.
  • Organisation – if you're feeling overwhelmed, it can be beneficial to mark out your time in a diary. This will ensure you get tasks completed, whilst also ensuring you have space to relax.

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Choose stress-relieving foods

Did you know that diet can influence your mood and stress levels? Try including some stress-relieving foods in your diet to see if you feel a difference:

  • B vitamins – these are needed to produce feel-good hormones such as dopamine. As an added bonus, B vitamins also support nerve and muscle function.
  • Magnesium – this is a natural stress-relieving mineral, plus it contains anti-inflammatory properties to help combat the effects of stress.
  • Vitamin C – this is thought to have a role in regulating levels of cortisol, the stress hormone.

For more on this topic, take a look at our blog '12 foods to fight stress'.

Adopt an anti-inflammatory diet

If stress is worsening symptoms of arthritis, fibromyalgia, or another muscle and joint issue, you could try incorporating anti-inflammatory foods into your diet in a bid to combat the problem. Some tasty options include:

  • Blueberries – these contain quercetin, a flavonoid that's useful in combatting inflammation.
  • Spinach – this has a high flavonoid content which makes it another potent antioxidant.
  • Turmeric – this contain curcumin, a natural anti-inflammatory.

Again, this is a topic we have written about extensively here on the A.Vogel website. So, if you want to know more, take a look at Nutritionist Emma Thornton's blog '10 foods that can help to fight inflammation'.

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