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What is Inflammation?
If you’ve ever gotten a cut or a splinter in your finger, you’ve probably noticed that your finger swells up, turn bright red, and feels tender to the touch.
Your finger gets red and swollen because more blood is flowing to the site of injury. And it’s carrying a microscopic army of disease-fighting agents, immune cells, to attack any germs trying to invade the body through the injury.
It may not look great or feel comfortable, but inflammation means the immune system is doing its job, which is to protect the body against infection and disease.
When Inflammation Runs Amok
The inflammation response is triggered when immune cells release chemicals called cytokines. But when these chemical signals run amok, they can cause inflammation to flare up in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Inflamed and tender joints can lead to arthritis. Inflamed blood vessels put us at risk for cardiovascular disease, heart attack, and stroke. Inflamed airways in the lungs block our airflow, decreasing our ability to get life-supporting oxygen and remove toxic waste from the blood.
Inflammation can also trigger another problem called oxidative stress. This is when the body can’t get rid of nasty little critters called free radicals fast enough. So they start hanging out in places they don’t belong, beating up on our body cells, damaging our DNA and causing general mayhem.
Inflammation and oxidative stress have been tied to a lot of diseases:
- Heart disease and disease in the arteries;
- High blood pressure;
- Neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s; and
Sometimes we develop inflammation and oxidative stress in the brain. To add insult to injury, free radicals interfere with the production of important brain chemicals, like serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine.
Inflammation and pro-inflammatory cytokines can really mess with the brain circuits involved in motivation and emotional regulation.
 This means that an inflamed brain is often droopy, sad, and fearful.
Inflammation is an important cause of mental disorders like depression and anxiety. But it works both ways: inflammation increases the risk of depression, but feeling stressed and depressed can release more cytokines and increase the risk of inflammation. This vicious cycle explains why those with other inflammatory disorders (e.g. chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder, cardiovascular disease) often get depressed as well. And interestingly, one of the things that anti-depressant drugs do is decrease cytokine levels.
What Causes Inflammation in the First Place?
A whole bunch of stuff, actually.[1,3] Inflammation is a natural body function, but it can get amplified in the body when the cytokine signal for it gets amplified. Sometimes this happens through circumstances beyond our control, like
- Medical illness; or
- Exposure to disease-causing germs and toxins.
But (and don’t miss this point – it’s important), we actually do have control over a lot of pro-inflammatory factors. These include:
- Too much stress (or not handling stress well);
- Lack of exercise;
- Lack of sleep; and
- Lack of sun exposure (the resulting vitamin D deficiency is thought to trigger inflammation).
Poor Diet is a Culprit, Too
An inflammatory diet has lots of sugar (including sugary drinks), salt, refined carbohydrates like white bread and pasta, unhealthy fats, and red meat. These increase cytokine levels [6,7].
It’s low in green leafy and yellow vegetables and healthy fats like olive oil.[3,8] Research shows that the more of these foods a population eats, the higher levels of inflammation they experience.
What Does an Anti-Inflammatory Diet Look Like?
Research shows that it’s filled with whole grains, beans and legumes, nuts, vegetables, fruits, healthy fats, moderate amounts of fish and poultry and very little red meat. These foods are rich in fiber and phytochemicals with antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.
Anti-inflammatory herbs and spices include cinnamon, cumin, ginger, oregano, rosemary, and turmeric.
And the good news is, changing our diet can treat inflammation pretty quickly. Just one month of dietary changes, including slashing fat and sugar and increasing fiber, decreased inflammatory markers in the blood by almost 40%.
So here are two ACTION STEPs for this week:
- Try to remove one or two inflammaotry foods from your daily diet. This could mean cutting back on sugary sodas or mid-afternoon chips.
- Try adding one or two more anti-inflammatory foods into your breakfast, lunch, or dinner. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but these same foods have come up repeatedly over the past several weeks of this Food and Mood series. So, chances are you’ve been steadily increasing these foods, anyway. If so, good on you! Keep going! If not, it’s not too late to start. Your body and brain will thank you, and you will reap the benefits in less time than you think.
 Felger J. C. (2018). Imaging the Role of Inflammation in Mood and Anxiety-related Disorders. Current neuropharmacology, 16(5), 533–558.
 Berk, M., Williams, L. J., Jacka, F. N., O’Neil, A., Pasco, J. A., Moylan, S., … & Maes, M. (2013). So depression is an inflammatory disease, but where does the inflammation come from? BMC medicine, 11(1), 200.
 Pasco, J. A., Nicholson, G. C., Williams, L. J., Jacka, F. N., Henry, M. J., Kotowicz, M. A., … & Berk, M. (2010). Association of high-sensitivity C-reactive protein with de novo major depression. The British Journal of Psychiatry, 197(5), 372-377.
 Maes, M., Ombelet, W., De Jongh, R., Kenis, G ., & Bosmans, E. (2001). The inflammatory response following delivery is amplified in women who previously suffered from major depression, suggesting that major depression is accompanied by a sensitization of the inflammatory response system. Journal of affective disorders, 63(1-3), 85-92.
 Maes, M., Song, C., Lin, A. H., Bonaccorso, S., Kenis, G., De Jongh, R., … & Scharpé, S. (1999). Negative immunoregulatory effects of antidepressants: inhibition of interferon-γ and stimulation of interleukin-10 secretion. Neuropsychopharmacology, 20(4), 370.
 Simopoulos, A. P. (2002). The importance of the ratio of omega-6/omega-3 essential fatty acids. Biomedicine & pharmacotherapy, 56(8), 365-379.
 Levitan, E. B., Cook, N. R., Stampfer, M. J., Ridker, P. M., Rexrode, K. M., Buring, J. E., … & Liu, S. (2008). Dietary glycemic index, dietary glycemic load, blood lipids, and C-reactive protein. Metabolism, 57(3), 437-443.
 Lucas, M., Chocano-Bedoya, P., Schulze, M. B., Mirzaei, F., O’Reilly, É. J., Okereke, O. I., … Ascherio, A. (2014). Inflammatory dietary pattern and risk of depression among women. Brain, behavior, and immunity, 36, 46–53.
 Pendyala, S., Walker, J. M., & Holt, P. R. (2012). A high-fat diet is associated with endotoxemia that originates from the gut. Gastroenterology, 142(5), 1100–1101.
Dr. Pamela Coburn-Litvak has published research articles on exercise and stress in Neuroscience and Neurobiology of Learning and Behavior. Her latest book, Leaving the Shadowland of Stress, Anxiety, and Depression, was published in 2020.
After receiving a Ph.D. in Neurobiology and Behavior from the State University of New York at Stony Brook, she served as both Assistant Professor of Physiology & Pharmacology and Special Assistant to the Vice President for Research Affairs at Loma Linda University in Loma Linda, California. She then joined the Biology department at Andrews University and developed courses in human physiology as well as the neurobiology of mental illness. She also founded Rock @ Science LLC, a company that specializes in health and science education and web development. She co-developed the brain and body physiology segment of the Stress: Beyond Coping seminar with its creator, Dr. William “Skip” MacCarty, DMin.
Dr. Coburn-Litvak currently lives in California with her husband. Their two daughters are mostly grown and attending school elsewhere.
When she’s not studying or teaching about stress, she enjoys stress-relieving activities like puttering around the garden, taking nature walks with her family, knitting, cooking, and reading.