Stress is pro-inflammatory. Stress alters how cortisol works. When you’re stressed, you have more cortisol in your system (to help you respond to all the tigers your limbic system thinks are about to attack you). When there’s chronically more cortisol in your system, your body tissues lose sensitivity to cortisol and then those tissues can’t regulate inflammation as they are intended to do.
People who are under stress really are much more likely to have symptoms of IBS. For instance, a study of over 1700 nursing and medical students (people who we know are stressed out!) showed that their rate of IBS was double or triple the rate of IBS in the general population. Not only that, but over 40% of the females in this group of high-stress students suffered from IBS. Those that had IBS also had significantly higher anxiety, depression, stressful life events, and sleeping disorders. Interestingly, they also spent more time sitting rather than standing or walking compared to the other people in the study, and they missed more meals and ate more processed foods.
Some studies suggest that the kind of stress we’re talking about here is “big” stress—the kind related to clinical anxiety and depression, and not the ordinary kind that comes from daily, more run-of-the-mill stressors. One study suggested that it may be that for women, clinical anxiety and depression are what predict IBS symptoms, but for men, work-related stress is what brings on IBS.
Consider Your Cortisol Levels
Evidence strongly points to stress both as a significant contributor to IBS flare-ups as well as to the constancy and severity of IBS symptoms. One explanation for this is cortisol, the hormone released when a person experiences stress. When cortisol release is signaled during stress, gastrointestinal functioning changes. This change stimulates the immune system to release pro-inflammatory cells that can create low-grade inflammation in the gut.
In most of the population, cortisol helps reduce this kind of inflammation but in IBS patients, levels of pro-inflammatory cells remain high. When your body constantly reacts to stressors as if you’re being chased by a tiger, it’s likely that either your stress response is a problem or that there are a LOT of tigers around. The interaction between stress responses and the immune system seems to be what makes IBS symptoms worse.
When looking to reduce anxiety and stress, you may think that your only options are taking an anti-anxiety medication (something like Valium, or a similar addictive benzodiazepine or an anti-depressant, some of which exacerbate anxiety) or simply suffering.
Smile – there are other options:
Adaptogen herbs are herbs that have been shown to help the body’s response to stress, and to help prevent or reduce the exhaustion phase of the physiological and psychological stress response. A huge number of clinical research studies show that adaptogenic herbs have a wide range of positive effects on your body, all pointed to protecting the body from damage by stress.
For example, Eleutherococcus senticosus (AKA Siberian Ginseng) stimulates your immune response so you are less likely to get sick as a result of stress, boosts your mood so you are less likely to get depressed, and it improves functioning of the liver, heart and blood pressure among other things. Rhodiola rosea is another adaptogenic herb known for improving clarity of the mind and alertness, relieving fatigue even during stress, improving memory, and boosting endocrine system functioning. Ashwaganda (Withania somnifera) also reduces fatigue, anxiety, cloudy thinking and nervous exhaustion.
A number of different adaptogens are available to help you better manage the effects of stress on your body, but you should always seek the advice of your doctor before taking any herbs or medication. When looking for adaptogens be sure to choose a quality preparation. There are many adaptogens available that are not prepared for maximum potency. This is true particularly when it comes to the judicious use of herbal medicines.
Some people have trouble respecting boundaries because they don’t know how to listen. Take charge by being clear and concrete.
– Dr. Alison
A poor diet, concurrent with stress (stress can include depression) combine to create even worse conditions than either one would create on its own. A poor diet plus stress is not merely additive in its negative impact on depression. A part of the reason for that is that stress creates an even poorer metabolic response to unhealthy meals than you would normally have if you weren’t depressed.
Your food choices are important
Your food choices are important! They affect your moods in addition to affecting inflammation and the activity of the vagus nerve, the long nerve that extends from the brain throughout some of the body. And vagus nerve activity also turns around to affect inflammation. Here the effect is good: stimulating the vagus nerve can decrease inflammation. Stimulating the vagus nerve also helps relieve depression. The vagus nerve is also involved in the healthy digestion, absorption and metabolism of nutrients1…which in turn further influence inflammation, and depression. If you aren’t already dizzy from reading this paragraph, you are seeing that the connections here are incredibly multilayered.
Gut health is central to your overall level of inflammation
Here are yet more layers: your gut health is absolutely central to your overall level of inflammation. Not only is there a correlation between depression and gastrointestinal inflammation, but an increasing number of clinical studies point to the usefulness of probiotics, omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin D and the B vitamins in the treatment of inflammation for the body, for the brain, and for depression.2
Inflammation and depression are linked
To sum up, inflammation and depression are inextricably related. Inflammation also appears to underlie a whole host of other disorders. As far as your health goes, it may be that inflammation is not just one of many risk factors—it may be that it is the one risk factor that underlies all the others.
Don’t leave the body out of your depression treatment plan
At this point it should be clear to you that treating depression is best done by using the body in addition to the mind. Leaving the body out of any depression treatment plan simply goes against the empirical evidence. Understanding the pervasive impact of the body on depression can be incredibly hopeful to folks who struggle. Rather than relying on medication that may not be helpful, and comes with a number of unwanted side effects, you can have a great deal more power over your mental health by Fixing your physiological health.
1. Kiecolt-Glaser JK.Stress, food, and inflammation: psychoneuroimmunology and nutrition at the cutting edge.Psychosom Med. 2010 May;72(4):365-9. Epub 2010 Apr 21.
2. Feher J, Jovacs I, Balacco G. Role of gastrointestinal inflammations in the development and treatment of depression. Orv Hetil. 2011 Sep 11;152(37):1477-85.