How to Reduce Stress-Induced Inflammation in 5 Simple Steps - Dr. Michael Ruscio, DC

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Do you want to start feeling better?

Yes, Where Do I Start?

How to Reduce Stress-Induced Inflammation in 5 Simple Steps

The Diet and Lifestyle Changes That Can Help You Better Tackle Stress and Inflammation

Key Takeaways:

  • Stress is a big factor (along with infections and autoimmune issues) in creating chronic inflammation in the body.
  • Knowing how to reduce stress-induced inflammation can ultimately reduce your chance of getting sick with diabetes, heart disease, and other conditions.
  • The #1 place to start is by boosting your gut health with an anti-inflammatory diet. 
  • A second great strategy to tackle stress-induced inflammation is to take a probiotic supplement.
  • You’ll also fight stress and inflammation by exercising, getting outside in nature, and learning meditation/mindfulness techniques.

Being under stress can make us feel anxious and overwhelmed — I’m guessing you know the feeling, because I know I do. Unfortunately, however, stress can also have physical consequences, silently creating chronic inflammation in your body. 

As if that wasn’t enough, stress-induced inflammation is particularly insidious because it can lead to a self-perpetuating cycle of stress, inflammation, and more stress. Over time, ongoing low-grade inflammation can contribute to [1]: 

  • Inflammatory bowel disease 
  • Rheumatoid arthritis
  • Metabolic diseases like cardiovascular disease and diabetes
  • Cancer

While this can all sound scary, I’m not here to elicit fear. Because what’s exciting is that you can effectively cut through this stress-inflammation cycle, starting today.

In the following paragraphs, I’m going to break down how to reduce stress-induced inflammation into 5 achievable diet and lifestyle steps.

But before we get to this, let’s take a brief look at what drives chronic inflammation and how high stress levels can add to the problem.

Stress and Inflammation Backgrounder

While acute inflammation is a natural immune system response (for example, when the skin around a paper cut gets hot, red, and sore), chronic inflammation is far more damaging to health.

Common drivers of an inflammatory response include infections that linger, autoimmune conditions, obesity or too much weight gain, and poor diet and gut health. However, stress also has a big influence, affecting both the development of inflammation and how much it impacts your body [2, 3]. 

Here’s what some research tells us about the relationship between stress and inflammation. 

  • A meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials found that people exposed to physiological stressors (e.g. extreme cold or noise) developed both inflammation and anxiety, and the higher their levels of inflammation, the greater their anxiety [4].
  • An observational study suggested that long-term psychological stress (such as relationship stress), might change certain inflammatory cells in the body, making them react more strongly to more stress [5].
  • Two clinical studies found that chronic stress contributes to an inflamed and leaky gut, and that this can have a negative impact on cognitive function [6, 7].

Overall, these studies reinforce the idea of a two-way relationship in which stress can create inflammation, and inflammation can, in turn, stimulate another stress response. 

Let’s now look at 5 effective steps you can take to turn this situation around and reduce stress-induced inflammation for good.

1 – Eat a Gut Healthy Diet

An anti-inflammatory diet helps with chronic inflammation at the most fundamental level as it assists in keeping the gut wall healthy, thus preventing the gut permeability (leaky gut) that can be so problematic to health.  

The issue with a leaky gut is that it can allow partially digested food particles and bacterial pathogens into the bloodstream, which can trigger autoimmune reactions and further inflammation and stress [8, 9].

The Mediterranean diet (lots of fish, vegetables, nuts, and olive oil) is a good place to start when you’re figuring out how to reduce stress-induced inflammation, as it has proven anti-inflammatory effects. It is also protective against cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes, and cognitive decline [10, 11].

However, there is no single anti–inflammatory diet that suits everybody, and the Mediterranean diet might not work for you if you’re sensitive to many of the foods it allows. After all, an inflamed gut can become reactive to a wide range of foods, even if most people consider them healthy.

If you have symptoms that continue after trying a Mediterranean diet for a couple of months, you might need to consider a more structured anti-inflammatory diet plan based on your symptoms. For example,

  • For symptoms such as fatigue, brain fog, and autoimmunity: Many of my patients have benefited from a Paleo diet, which removes more of the potentially inflammatory foods connected with these symptoms. 
  • For symptoms that are mainly  gastrointestinal, like stomach pain, wind or bloating, or you have irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or inflammatory bowel disease (IBD): The low FODMAP diet is more suited to helping with these symptoms [12].
  • For those with an extremely sensitive or reactive gut, which may indicate a high level of inflammation: You may benefit from a total reset with an elemental diet (a nutritionally-balanced liquid diet) [13]. Since we’re focused on how to reduce stress-induced inflammation, it’s also good to know that an elemental diet may have a minor positive effect on stress [14].

The bottom line is that it is always best to start with the least restrictive anti-inflammatory diet and listen to your body while formulating the best one for you.

2 – Take Probiotics

When you have found an anti-inflammatory diet that works for you, taking a probiotic (friendly gut bacteria) supplement is the logical next step to support your gut and tackle both inflammation and stress.

High-quality research has found that probiotics may be able to help:

  • Reduce mental distress [15
  • Reduce perceived stress [16, 17, 18
  • Reduce inflammation [17]

These attributes are naturally very helpful for helping with stress management and the impact of stress-induced inflammation.

Research also shows that people who have gut dysbiosis (unbalanced or unhealthy gut bacteria) are at a higher risk of developing a leaky gut when exposed to significant stress [7]. 

Working to maintain a healthy gut microbiome (by taking probiotics and eating an anti-inflammatory diet) may therefore help buffer the effects of stress on your gut. 

Which Probiotic?

You may have heard or read that you need to take a particular probiotic strain for a specific benefit. However, these claims are often motivated by commercial interests.

The truth of the matter is that any quality probiotic is better than no probiotic. That said, I’ve had many of my patients do better when they mix it up with a variety of probiotic strains. If you haven’t had much success with just one probiotic type, taking two or three at the same time (which you can do conveniently with these triple sticks) could be beneficial to your health or well-being.

3 – Move Your Body!

I don’t know about you, but during the stressful COVID-19 lockdowns, I found that regular exercise was a lifesaver.

Research has since shown that people who worked out during the pandemic had less anxiety, depression, and stress, plus a better quality of life [19]. So, I wasn’t imagining the benefits! 

The sweet-spot amount of exercise for coping better with the stressful situation of lockdown was 30–40 minutes 3–5 times per week. This amount of exercise is likely to be about right for reducing stress-induced inflammation, too.

Which Exercise Type?

When it comes to the best type of exercise for dealing with inflammation and stress, a combination of moderate zone 2 aerobic training and resistance training (like lifting weights) is optimal, especially if you throw in some high-intensity interval training (HIIT), too. HIIT is when you alternate moderate zone 2 exercise with short periods of all-out exercise that pushes your heart rate closer to (80% or more of) its maximum.

For example: 

  • HIIT training, such as jogging interspersed with some sprints, had moderate positive effects on perceived stress and mental health in the general population [20].
  • Strength training, aerobic exercise, and a combination of both had small to moderate reducing effects on inflammatory markers in elders, particularly those with chronic diseases [21].
  • Aerobic exercise significantly reduced inflammatory markers like CRP, TNF-alpha, and IL-6 in people with chronic inflammation associated with type-2 diabetes [22].

I always say that the best sort of exercise is the sort that you enjoy, and will therefore stick to, so don’t get too hung up on getting the exactly “right” amount or type of exercise. Anything is better than nothing! 

A quick word of warning from my own experience, though: it is possible to work out too long and too hard, which is what happened to me. 

Just because some exercise is good doesn’t mean that a lot is necessarily better. If you’re exercising a lot more than the average person, I recommend checking in with your body to see if you have symptoms of exercise burnout, which could actually increase symptoms of stress-induced inflammation rather than reduce them.

4 – Embrace Nature

You may have also noticed how trees, parks, and green spaces can make you feel more zen, even when the weather isn’t fantastic! 

Although not much research has looked at how time in nature affects stress-induced inflammation specifically, some preliminary evidence suggests that nature exposure interventions may support a balanced immune system by limiting inflammation and strengthening the immune system [23]. 

On the other hand, there is good evidence showing that time outdoors can improve our response to stress and have calming effects. For example:

  • A large review that took in a variety of different studies found that people who spent time in nature had less anxiety and depression afterward [24]. 
  • Another review found that after time outdoors, people not only felt less stressed, but they also had objective measures of lower stress, including improved cortisol and blood pressure levels, a calmer sympathetic nervous system (lower fight or flight response), and reduced activation of the amygdala (the emotional processor of the brain) [25].

However you spend time outdoors should increase your inner peace. But if you can, try doing your daily exercise outdoors to double the positive impact on stress-induced inflammation.

5 – Practice Meditation and Mindfulness

Speaking of zen, there are various meditation and mindfulness practices that can take your ability to deal with stress-induced inflammation to the next level.

Namely, high-quality evidence shows that:

  • Meditation can reduce stress markers, including blood pressure, heart rate, CRP, triglycerides, and TNF-alpha in many different populations [26].
  • Meditation, yoga, and other mind-body practices like Tai Chi and Qi Gong significantly reduced CRP (a marker of inflammation) and had potential benefits for correcting immune system dysfunction [27].
  • Stress-reducing techniques, including mindfulness, meditation, or cognitive behavioral therapy, had a small, short-term impact on reducing inflammation, especially in individuals with high psychological distress [28].

Many people find the idea of meditation and mindfulness a bit intimidating and don’t know where to start. But at its simplest, meditating can be just taking time out from the distractions around you and focusing on breathing in and out.

The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health says that to get started with mediation, you just need [29]:

  • A quiet, distraction-free setting
  • A comfortable posture (sitting, lying down, or walking)
  • Something to focus on, such as your inhalations and exhalations, an object, a sound, or a guided meditation via an app
  • An open mind and attitude that allows thoughts to come and go without judgment

At first you will probably feel a bit strange, but with time you’ll almost certainly reap the benefits of a daily mind-body practice. Even as a beginner, your stress and inflammation levels will likely start to fall.

Taking the Stress Out of Stress-Induced Inflammation

Knowing how to reduce stress-induced inflammation means you’re empowered to take action. And whether you adopt one, two, or all five of the recommendations in this article, each one is a step in the right direction.

If you feel compelled to delve deeper into the connection between gut health and stress-induced inflammation, I’d also recommend reading Healthy Gut Healthy You. I wrote it with the aim of distilling all the research on the subject, together with my personal and clinical experience, into a practical guide for improving gut health.

For more in-depth help with any health issues, gut inflammation-related or otherwise, you can also reach out and get an appointment with one of our experienced functional health practitioners.

The Ruscio Institute has developed a range of high-quality formulations to help our patients and audience. If you’re interested in learning more about these products, please click here. Note that there are many other options available, and we encourage you to research which products may be right for you.

➕ References
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