Inflammation, Cortisol, and Stress: the Mind-Body Connection
Inflammation has received a lot of press in recent years, and for good reason. It is defined as a localized physical condition in which part of the body becomes reddened, swollen, hot, and often painful, especially as a reaction to injury or infection. The inflammatory response is a process by which the immune system is protecting our bodies from infection by bacteria, viruses, or injury – all things that may cause harm. So, in this sense, inflammation can be a good thing. In fact, it is how our bodies naturally function, and it is necessary for us to survive.
It is when this process becomes chronic that we get into trouble. It is not meant to persist for very long, but when it persists for months, or even years, this can lead to major health problems. What are some common causes of chronic inflammation? It is usually a result of diet and lifestyle. Too much fat in the diet, eating too much animal products and too little plant foods, smoking, eating too much sugar, stress, obesity, lack of sleep, and inactivity. Inflammation is also seen in autoimmune disorders, in which the immune system is off balance, and mistakenly attacks our own healthy body tissues, not being unable to distinguish what is foreign from what is our own. In Chinese medicine, this is a sign of an imbalance of the body’s systems.
One of the major causes of chronic inflammation is stress. Cortisol is a steroid hormone produced by the adrenal glands, located on top of your kidneys. It is released in response to stress. It functions to reduce inflammation in the body, and also suppresses the immune system. Why does the body do need to suppress the immune system? Envision this: let’s say you are a prehistoric person being chased by a tiger. You can either stay and fight, or run for your life. This has been termed the ‘fight-or-flight’ response. When you are in this situation, your body has short-term priorities to keep you alive, and the immune system can wait. In modern times, we experience this same stress response when we have been cut off in traffic, or when we have had an argument with a friend or coworker. However, it is not socially advisable to fight or run in these cases, and since we are forced to keep these emotions bottled-up, they end up affecting our health. The level of cortisol in your system does not decrease like it should when you are relaxed. The constant high level of cortisol can cause the immune system to be desensitized to it. The result is a weakened immunity, which can lead to health problems such as getting a cold or flu often, or even to cancer.
Increased cortisol also causes the blood sugar level to rise. If you are running from a tiger, you had better have enough fuel to power those muscles so you can survive. But if you are sitting in traffic, running is not the appropriate response to stress, and the blood sugar level stays high. Over time, this can lead to things like metabolic syndrome and diabetes.
So, what is the answer? There are many things you can do to reduce the stress and increase health. The trick is to find what works for you. Here are a few suggestions: eat a well-balanced healthy diet, get plenty of sleep, meditation, exercise, a hobby that relaxes your mind, spend time with friends and family.