Inflammation and its Relation to Psychoneuroimmunology



Inflammation: The Body’s Natural Response to Trauma and Stress

One of the body’s critical immune responses is inflammation, especially when dealing with acute trauma. This may come as a surprise to some who perceive inflammation as a negative sign. For instance, when someone experiences an injury, such as a twisted ankle, and inflammation sets in, many rush to take action by following the RICE rules—rest, ice, compress, and elevate—in hopes of reducing or eliminating inflammation.

According to Patton and Thibodeau (2014), when tissue cells sustain damage, they release inflammation mediators. These mediators play a crucial role in the redness and warmth experienced during inflammation, as they cause blood vessels to widen and blood flow to increase. This essential process enables white blood cells, the immune system’s defenders, to swiftly reach the injured area. In acute situations, inflammation can be a blessing, aiding in the body’s healing and maintaining balance. However, chronic inflammation can have detrimental effects on one’s overall health and well-being.

This brings us to the concept of Psychoneuroimmunology, explored in the clinical paper titled “Stress, Food, and Inflammation: Psychoneuroimmunology and Nutrition at the Cutting Edge” (Kiecolt-Glaser, 2010). Psychoneuroimmunology, as defined in the dictionary, is “the study of the effects of psychological factors on the immune system.” The clinical paper sheds light on three major illnesses—diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and cancer—which collectively account for 70% of all deaths in America. What ties them together is inflammation, a common underlying factor. Chronic inflammation can also be linked to dietary choices, lifestyle, and stress.

Let’s take a step back and delve into the sources of inflammation beyond acute trauma, exploring how they relate to the field of psychoneuroimmunology.

The Dietary Influence on Inflammation: One Person’s Food Is Another’s Poison

Scientific studies underscore the significant impact of diet on inflammation. The foods we choose to consume can either promote our health or contribute to harm, and to add a layer of complexity, not all foods react the same way in every individual. This phenomenon is aptly captured by the phrase, often attributed to the Roman poet Lucretius, “one man’s meat is another man’s poison.” Nonetheless, there are certain foods that are universally recognized as promoters of inflammation, regardless of individual variations. These culprits include refined starches, sugars, saturated fats, and trans fats—many of which are prevalent in the Standard American Diet (SAD), characterized by its reliance on processed and pre-packaged foods. The SAD diet is often synonymous with the “Westernized” diet.

Conversely, there are crucial elements missing from this diet, such as omega-3 fatty acids, antioxidants, fresh fruits rich in fiber, vegetables, and whole grains. Antioxidants found in fruits and vegetables have demonstrated a strong association with reduced oxidative stress. Meals rich in antioxidants may exhibit anti-inflammatory properties, even when saturated fats are part of the meal. These dietary choices play a pivotal role in determining whether our food serves as a source of wellness or an instigator of inflammation.

The Complex Relationship Between Inflammation and Depression: A Chicken-and-Egg Scenario

Research has unveiled an intricate connection between inflammation and depression, suggesting that diets high in inflammatory substances could exacerbate depressive symptoms, thereby creating a feedback loop that perpetuates inflammation. Conversely, diets like the Mediterranean diet, rich in healthy fats such as avocado and olive oil, vegetables, fish, and whole grains, have demonstrated the potential to reduce inflammation and offer protection against depression. This begs the age-old question: Which came first, the chicken or the egg?

In this context, a Standard American Diet (SAD) high in inflammatory elements could set the stage for increased inflammation, which, in turn, promotes the onset of depression. However, depression itself can lead individuals to disregard healthy dietary and lifestyle choices, pushing them toward the consumption of inflammatory foods, thereby perpetuating the cycle of inflammation. This scenario perfectly illustrates the role of Psychoneuroimmunology in health.

Depression can originate from various psychosocial stressors, such as socioeconomic disparities, exposure to distressing news on social media or television, or the experience of past or present trauma. These stressors encompass a spectrum of social factors, thoughts, and emotions that collectively contribute to the complex interplay between inflammation and mental health.

Stress and its Impact on Health Behaviors: Unraveling the Connection

Stress can significantly disrupt crucial health behaviors, as previously mentioned, with regard to food choices. However, another vital health aspect susceptible to stress’s influence is sleep. Emotional stressors or negative emotions often lead to disturbances in sleep patterns for many individuals. These disruptions can trigger the release of interleukin 6 (IL-6), a pro-inflammatory cytokine. Ironically, IL-6, in its misguided attempt to assist the body, inadvertently exacerbates inflammation due to the stress-induced strain caused by sleep deprivation.

Furthermore, certain lifestyle stressors, such as caring for a family member with dementia or a chronically ill child, contribute to chronic inflammation. These situations are associated with heightened oxidative stress and increased production of pro-inflammatory cytokines. It’s important to acknowledge that individuals in these circumstances cannot simply stop caring due to the stress they experience. Fortunately, there are dietary and lifestyle interventions that can help mitigate the effects of stress and inflammation, offering a ray of hope for improved well-being.

The Role of Omega-3 Fatty Acids in Stress Management and Inflammation

Numerous studies have illuminated a connection between increased fish consumption and reduced instances of clinical depression. This correlation is attributed to the elevation of omega-3 (n-3) intake, which has demonstrated its ability to mitigate depressive symptoms effectively. Omega-3 is predominantly found in fatty fish varieties like salmon, herring, sardines, and mackerel. Additionally, it can be obtained from supplements, walnuts, chia seeds, and flaxseeds, either in oil or ground form.

Omega-3 is particularly beneficial in counteracting the inflammatory response triggered by high-fat meals. High-fat diets can induce low-grade endotoxemia, leading to an increase in inflammatory antigens. A pertinent example showcasing the impact of omega-3 and its connection to Psychoneuroimmunology can be found in the clinical paper titled “Stress, Food, and Inflammation” (Kiecolt-Glaser, 2010). This study focused on a group of medical students, dividing them into two categories based on their n-3 serum levels and omega-6 (n-6) to n-3 ratio.

The group with lower n-3 levels or a higher n-6 to n-3 ratio exhibited higher pro-inflammatory cytokine production during exams compared to the group with higher n-3 levels. This study underscores the influence of diet, particularly n-3 intake, on the extent of the pro-inflammatory response in stressful situations. Furthermore, supplementing dietary changes with positive lifestyle factors such as meditation, altering one’s perspective on stress, engaging in gentle exercise, maintaining a journal, practicing intermittent fasting, and nurturing social connections with friends and family can contribute to stress reduction and the mitigation of pro-inflammatory responses.

In summary, inflammation can serve as a beneficial response in acute situations but poses risks when it becomes chronic. Dietary choices wield significant influence over the body’s inflammatory response and overall health. Moreover, social stressors can impact dietary decisions, leading to stress and depression. Unfortunately, this often results in a detrimental cycle where individuals facing social stressors may prioritize unhealthy food choices, contributing to inflammation and illness.

The good news is that there are dietary and lifestyle interventions available to disrupt this vicious cycle. When working with clients to improve their diet, it is crucial to simultaneously address behavioral aspects, as diet and behavior are intertwined and mutually influential components of overall well-being.

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Disclaimer: The information provided is for general informational purposes only and should not be considered a substitute for professional medical advice. Always consult with a qualified healthcare provider for medical guidance and assistance tailored to your specific needs.

Collins, W. (2012) Collins English Dictionary [Digital Edition] Retrieved from
Goehler, L., Lyte, M. & Gaykema, R. (2007). Infection-induced viscerosensory signals from the gut enhance anxiety: Implications for psychoneuroimmunology. Brain, Behavior, and Immunity. 21(6):721-726. doi: 10.1016/j.bbi.2007.02.005
Kiecolt-Glaser, J. (2010). Stress, food, and inflammation: Psychoneuroimmunology and nutrition at the cutting edge. Psychosomatic Medicine. 72(4):365-369. doi: 10.1097/ PSY.0b013e3181dbf489
Patton, K. & Thibodeau G.(2014). The Human Body In Health & Disease 6th Edition.Maryland Heights, MO: Mosby.