Understanding Inflammation – Part 1

By Lindsay Kent
BeautyFit Blog

Inflammation is a common term that encompasses both acute and chronic conditions in the body. Acute inflammation occurs when the body experiences an injury or illness and then produces the hormonal response to healing, removing the intruder. For example, when you accidentally cut your skin, your body immediately produces hormones and chemicals to heal the wound and defer infection.

Chronic inflammation is much more complicated and is a silent instigator of dangerous conditions, including heart disease, cancers, anxiety, and depression. Often times, people associate their illness or disease with a physiological malfunction of the body on a strictly cellular level, but research is now discovering that chronic psychological stress and anxiety are, if not catalysts for the development of illness and disease, large contributors.


Inflammation in the body is controlled by the hormone cortisol, and when cortisol is not able to perform its normal functions, inflammation begins to develop. Prolonged periods of stress, in particular, affect cortisol and its ability to regulate the body’s inflammatory response by decreasing the tissues’ sensitivity to it. Essentially, the immune cells become dulled to cortisol’s regulatory effects, and the inflammation begins to develop out of control.

In a study conducted at Carnegie Mellon University, in Pittsburgh, researchers subjected 276 healthy adults to a prolonged, intensive, stressful interview and then exposed them to a virus that causes the common cold. The subjects were monitored in quarantine for five days for signs of infection or illness. The scientists found that the prolonged stressful event plus being exposed to the virus made the subjects’ immune cells unable to respond to the hormonal signals that normally would fend off the virus.

The study also illustrates that the greater the body’s inflammatory response to the virus—in this case, the common cold—the greater the symptoms felt. The symptoms experienced during a cold are not from the virus itself but from the body’s inflammatory response. Someone who is experiencing chronic stress produces pro-inflammatory cytokines, chemical messengers that deregulate hormonal function and encourage the progression of illness.

Additional research has found that chronic stress induces alterations in bone marrow that target cells to become pro-inflammatory. Gene activity is changed before they enter the bloodstream in order to fight trauma or infection, but it happens when the body is not currently experiencing either of those things, which leads to further inflammation.

The connection between mental health and the body’s physical response to it is a growing field of research, and it will continue to produce important information and treatments for some our most deadly illnesses and viruses. In the meantime, there are some simple strategies you can use for dealing with stress, feelings of anxiety and being overwhelmed, overtired, and/or overworked.

1) Make sure your body gets adequate REM sleep.

2) Eat a diet that’s rich in micronutrients and low in acidity and trans and saturated fats. Omega fatty acids help to reduce inflammation in the body, along with vitamin D and plant-based compounds.

3) Do exercise for both physical and emotional relief as part of your everyday routine. In addition, breathing techniques and activities that induce calmness, such as meditation and yoga, have shown huge stress-reduction benefits.

4) Get a handle on time management by planning your days and prioritizing activities.

5) Choose people and environments that favor a calm, peaceful response.

In Part 2, I’ll discuss more about anti-inflammatory foods and how to get more of them in your diet.

Have you visited the Digital Muscle Nutrition Blog Lately?

Lindsay Kent, Master Personal Trainer.

About the Author

As the captain of a Junior Olympic volleyball team, Lindsay Kent loved testing her limits and digging deep to push herself to the next level. Fitness and nutrition were such an ingrained part of her lifestyle that fitness was the obvious career choice. She’s a professor at the International Sports Sciences Association (ISSA) College of Exercise Science and also owns her own training business, Lindsay Kent Fitness. She holds the designation of Master Personal Trainer, with specialty areas in Fitness Nutrition, Strength and Conditioning, Exercise Therapy, Youth and Senior Fitness, and Athlete/Functional training. She is a spokesmodel for ISSA, writes for various fitness publications, and is a BeautyFit sponsored athlete.


Reference – Sheldon Cohen, Denise Janicki-Devens, William J. Doyle, Gregory E. Miller, Ellen Frank, Bruce S. Rabin, and Ronald B. Turner. Chronic stress, glucocorticoid receptor resistance, inflammation, and disease risk. PNAS, published online April 2, 2012.