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Scientists find link between negative emotions and inflammation

Links between emotional states (like anger, anxiety, and depression), brain function and inflammation
Links between emotional states (like anger, anxiety, and depression), brain function and inflammation
Photo credit: Philip Bitnar / Koukej Makak Production on Flickr (cc)

Finally, scientists are closing in on the mind-body connection. In new groundbreaking research, they have discovered yet one more link between emotional states (like anger, anxiety, and depression), brain function and inflammation - in other words - how stress and pro-inflammatory cytokines damage the blood vessels supplying the heart and brain.

In a May 5, 2014 press release, “How Does Stress Increase Your Risk for Stroke and Heart Attack?,” researchers report their findings of the underlying neural circuitry in the current issue of Biological Psychiatry.

Dr. Peter Gianaros, Associate Professor at the University of Pittsburgh and first author on the study, had previously completed research that examined how growing up in disadvantaged circumstances may lead to chronic medical conditions as an adult. He found that if you grow up in stressful conditions (taking into account good and bad stress) your brain either gets stuck in a rut or because of stress at that tender age your brain may have missed a few developmental steps. In both cases, stress makes more of the stress hormone cortisol which causes inflammation in the body.

The interesting point in this study is that the part of the brain that is involved in emotion and the regulation of emotions is the same part of the brain that regulates inflammation in the body.

Dr. Gianaros and his colleagues recruited 157 healthy adult volunteers who were asked to regulate their emotional reactions to unpleasant pictures while their brain activity was measured with functional imaging. The researchers measured levels of inflammation in the bloodstream and found that individuals who show greater brain activation when regulating their negative emotions also exhibit elevated blood levels of interleukin-6, one of the body's pro-inflammatory cytokines, and increased thickness of the carotid artery wall, a marker of atherosclerosis.

"These new findings agree with the popular belief that emotions are connected to heart health," said Gianaros. "We think that the mechanistic basis for this connection may lie in the functioning of brain regions important for regulating both emotion and inflammation."

Though not part of the study, there are a few research backed ways to reduce inflammation in the body:

Omega-3 Fatty Acids

In a study, “The importance of the ratio of omega-6/omega-3 essential fatty acids” it was shown that omega-3 fatty acids suppress the production of pro-inflammatory cytokines in patients with cardiovascular disease with a 70% decrease in mortality, breast cancer, rheumatoid arthritis, and patients with asthma.

Curcumin and Ginger

In the study, “Curcumin protects against acute liver damage in the rat by inhibiting NF-kappaB, proinflammatory cytokines production and oxidative stress,” curcumin which is found in the curry spice turmeric, not only prevents acute liver damage and acts as an antioxidant but also inhibits NF-kappaB activation so the production of proinflammatory cytokines is suppressed.

In the study, “Ginger--an herbal medicinal product with broad anti-inflammatory actions” there is the first evidence of ginger modulating the biochemical pathways activated in chronic inflammation.

“The anti-inflammatory properties of ginger have been known and valued for centuries. During the past 25 years, many laboratories have provided scientific support for the long-held belief that ginger contains constituents with anti-inflammatory properties. The original discovery of ginger's inhibitory effects on prostaglandin biosynthesis in the early 1970s has been repeatedly confirmed. This discovery identified ginger as an herbal medicinal product that shares pharmacological properties with non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs.”


In the study, “Yoga reduces cytokine levels known to promote inflammation, study shows,” regularly practicing yoga exercises may lower a number of compounds in the blood and reduce the level of inflammation that normally rises because of both normal aging and stress. The study showed that women who routinely practiced yoga had lower amounts of the cytokine interleukin-6 (IL-6) in their blood.

Dr. John Krystal, editor of Biological Psychiatry says. "As we identify the key mechanisms linking brain and body, we may be able to also break the cycle through which stress and depression impair physical health."

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