Inflammation: Physiological process behind this two edged sword

Author : Jyoti Sehrawat Dabas, Director @ INFS, Doctor of Naturopathy

Inflammation is our body’s response to threat. In physical injuries, the immune system triggers cellular repair of the wound and the injury is healed in a few days. But what if the threat is a mental threat perceived by the brain. When faced with a life and death situation where a mentally and physically alert body raises our chance of survival, we are thankful of the physiological process that runs behind making this happen. The situation is not so bright when chronic stress comes into the picture.



The HPA (Hypothalamus- Pituitary-Adrenal) Axis that exists in the body, relays to the adrenal glands to release cortisol which suppresses the immune system.


In response to a signal of threat, our immunity system releases pro-inflammatory substances which gear the body to respond to the threat. Some of these are cytokines, glucocorticoids and catecholamines. Cytokines are proteins that help in directing cell activity. They regulate essential functions such as cell genesis (creation), energy metabolism, cell division and even cell death. Others like Glucocorticoids are steroid hormones that suppress immunity response of the body. They are produced in the body to balance the effects of an active immune system so that they don’t go overboard. They are also synthetically produced in labs to lower body’s response to its own immune system like in cases like that of asthma. Finally, Catecholamines (like epinephrine, dopamine, etc) which affect the heart rate, blood pressure and other sympathetic nervous system components that ready the body to provide a suitable response to the stressor.


A person under stress is more susceptible to infections like common cold because of an already suppressed immune system. In a study done at Carnegie Melon University, it was found that individuals who were under stress produced more pro-inflammatory chemicals than others in the study. An overload of pro-inflammatory chemicals is not good for the other cells of the body as it accentuates the response in the cells leading to adverse effects. Stress induced glucocorticoids lead to cell death in the brain which might results in short-term memory loss and learning impairment due to stress [1]. An over expression of pro inflammatory markers in the brain in early adult life can increase the risk of certain psychiatric troubles in later life including depression and schizophrenia [2]. Earlier it was believed that the brain has fixed number of neurons which cannot be replaced when they die. Another and now widely accepted concept of neural plasticity, states that the brain is being moulded in adult life too. New neurons are susceptible to adapting/ responding to environmental circumstances like stress, drugs, learning, etc which changes a person’s behaviour as they progress through life.


Environmental factors that affect immunity including stress which alters cell integrity and longevity. These changes at cellular level impacts an organism’s system functioning (e.g. increased heart beats, upset digestion, lowered metabolism). As recently postulated, it can also lead to psychological changes in mood, behaviour and increases susceptibility to psychiatric disorders like depression amongst several others.


Inflammation and its perpetuator chronic stress, should be identified early and lifestyle choices should be made to handle such situations. Usually it requires attitude adjustment and being mindful of the emotional response to events in the day. Many practices like deep breathing, meditation, self reflection are helpful in soothing the excited sympathetic nervous system [3]. Cellular health is critical for a healthy and long life.



1:Sapolsky RM.,Romero LM, Munck AU. How do glucocorticoids influence stress responses? Integrating permissive suppressive, stimulatory and preparative actions. Endocrine Reviews..2000; 21:55-89

2.Musaelyan K, Egelan M, Fernandes C, Pariante CM, Zunszain PA, and Thuret S. modulationof Adult HippocampalNeurogenesis by Early-Life Environmental Challenges Triggering Immune Activation.Neural Plasticity.2014

  1. Nidich S. et al. A randomized controlled trial on effects of the Transcendental Meditation program on blood pressure, psychological distress, and coping in young adults. Am J Hypertens. 2009 Dec;22(12):1326-31. Epub 2009 Oct 1.


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