The Link Between Chronic Inflammation and Mental Health
Chronic inflammation is a symptom you’ll see in a variety of different diseases, including asthma, rheumatoid arthritis, ulcerative colitis, inflammatory bowel disease and tuberculosis—and that’s just to name a few. But did you know that inflammation may also play an important role in the development of depression?
Simply defined, inflammation is an immune process. And it’s a healthy one—to an extent. The immune system helps to protect the body from disease and injury by rolling out inflammatory processes. Those processes release protective molecules to fight off any invaders, clear out damaged cells and help the body heal. But sometimes this process is hijacked, becoming pathological in its own right. And, ultimately, chronic inflammation can result in a host of diseases.
“More and more, we are finding that chronic inflammation can pair up with a certain genetic susceptibilities and it results in symptoms that we know as diseases. Depression is no different,” says Madeleine Castellanos, a functional medicine psychiatrist based in New York City. “When you have different imbalances in your body and in your life, in terms of vitamin and mineral deficiencies, gut bacteria and stress, that can result in too much inflammation and that can lead to depressive symptoms.”
Doctors have long seen a correlation between infection and depression. Individuals with infections often look a bit like depressed patients with symptoms of sadness, irritability, and lack of joy. And recent studies have found that individuals who have high inflammation markers like c-reactive protein (CRP), a protein released in the liver during the inflammatory process, show lessened connectivity between brain regions that help facilitate motivation and overall enjoyment of life. Simply stated, important parts of the brain can no longer communicate effectively, which leads to a symptom called anhedonia, or the inability to feel pleasure or joy.
Castellanos says this makes sense. “People want to think that disease is the result of some linear thing,” she explains. “But the body is a lot more like a web with a lot of different processes interacting all the time. When you tug on part of that web, and injure it, like you see with increased inflammation, everything else is going to change and move. And that can result in changes to sleep, hormones, and, yes, even mood.”
Castellanos says patients who are feeling depressed should speak with their care providers about inflammation and its role in depression. Especially since there are plenty of simple lifestyle changes that people can make that can help reduce inflammation—and, in turn, depressive symptoms—and assist any other treatment that may be prescribed.
“Things like maximizing micronutrients, reducing sugar, perhaps going on a ketogenic diet, making sure you’re getting enough zinc, exercising, good sleep,” she says. “These are things you can do to reduce overall inflammation in the body, reduce your symptoms, and, over time, help yourself to feel better.”
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