The evidence against chronic inflammation continues to grow.
By this point, you probably already know that inflammation is behind many types of physical pain. Inflammation causes your sore throat when you have strep; it causes pain in your joints if you have rheumatoid or psoriatic arthritis; and it causes a painful rash if you’re infected with shingles.
Inflammation is a byproduct of the immune system; it’s technically a sign that your immune system is doing its job—protecting your body against illnesses or other harms. When it detects a threat, such as a virus, it dispatches white blood cells to the area, which release chemicals that cause inflammation. This inflammation creates a hostile environment for the pathogen, but it also causes pain, redness, swelling, and stiffness for you. (Learn more about inflammation is here.)
But researchers are continuously learning more and more ways that inflammation affects the body. In fact, a study released July 2019 found that inflammation may also affect your emotional regulation.
Using functional MRI exams (fMRI), the researchers assessed the brain images of study participants of about 90 young adults. Additionally, the researchers measured inflammatory markers, such as the presence of interleukins and tumor necrosis factor proteins—both of which are substances released by the immune system that lead to inflammation.
Here’s what the researchers found: Those with the highest levels of inflammation had lower functional connectivity shown on their brain scans. This reduction in brain connectivity was found in areas that control emotional regulation and executive function (the decision-making part of the brain that controls discipline and organization).
In other words, someone with chronic inflammation may be more prone to emotional instability and impulsivity.
To make this connection more interesting, doctors already know that this relationship is reciprocal: Chronic stress can fuel inflammation. This link could explain why people under chronic stress (e.g., homelessness, poverty, discrimination, or serious illness) are more likely to engage in risky behaviors, such as drug use and alcohol abuse.
If you’re struggling with your mental or emotional health, talk with a doctor on managing inflammation and stress. While stress is unlikely to be the sole blame of your issues, it can have a significant influence, and managing stress could make a bigger impact than you’d think.
Executive function & self-regulation. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University. (Accessed on September 20, 2019 at https://developingchild.harvard.edu/science/key-concepts/executive-function/.)
Nusslock R, Brody GH, Amrstrong CC, Carroll AL, Sweet LH, Yu T, et al. Higher peripheral inflammatory signaling associated with lower resting-state functional brain connectivity in emotion regulation and central executive networks. Biol Psychiatry. 2019 Jul 15;86(2):153-62.
The brain and our immune system: working together. Bethesda, MD: National Institute on Drug Abuse. (Accessed on September 20, 2019 at https://www.drugabuse.gov/news-events/latest-science/brain-our-immune-system-working-together.)
What is inflammation? Cambridge, MA: Harvard Health Publishing, 2017. (Accessed on September 20, 2019 at https://www.health.harvard.edu/heart-disease-overview/ask-the-doctor-what-is-inflammation.)