When you’re experiencing anxiety, it’s difficult to pinpoint where exactly it’s coming from. It’s easy to assume it has something to do with life circumstances or imbalanced hormones, but the source of your anxiety may actually be inflammation. In fact, you may not even realize how many of your everyday habits can actually play a role in how inflamed your body is and how your mental health reacts in return.
Studies have found that higher levels of inflammation lead to increased anxiety. “One theory that is gaining traction is that stressors that are accumulated in life (both psychological and physical) end up affecting the immune systems of people as they age, and result in the development of anxiety disorders as well as other physical problems we know that inflammation can strongly contribute to,” clinical psychologist Dr. Julie Gurner tells Bustle. “These include cardiovascular problems, some cancers, intestinal problems, and immune system struggles.”
To help minimize how anxious you are, it can be useful to pay attention to your habits, as some can lead to more inflammation in your body. By addressing these issues, you may be able to alleviate some of your anxiety. Here are seven ways that inflammation could be causing your anxiety, according to experts.
Chronic stress increases inflammation by changing gene activity of immune cells. “This is the bad type of inflammation to have,” says Dr. Gurner. “Although some inflammation is good for you and helps you heal from acute injuries, chronic stress and that resulting inflammation is linked to a range of problems in the body, from cardiovascular problems to depression and anxiety.” Work on reducing your stress through activities such as yoga or meditation, which have been shown to reduce inflammation.
Sleep loss and lack of sleep increases the markers of inflammation in your body. “Although most people generally understand that they don’t function at their best with chronic sleep deprivation, most don’t understand that they put themselves at risk over time of a number of physical and psychological struggles,” says Dr. Gurner. “Make sleep a priority, and say no to things that interrupt it.”
Having a sedentary lifestyle increases the inflammation throughout your body, which can lead to mental health issues such as anxiety, says Dr. Gurner. “Just 20 minutes of moderately paced walking has been enough in studies to show reduction of inflammation markers in the body. Anybody can do the type of exercise required to help control inflammation levels, and if you live or work in a city, just bumping up the pace of your daily stroll might be enough to help get one component of reducing inflammation on track.”
“Many gut disorders are highly associated with inflammation, and keeping those at bay can be a great preventative step to help reduce inflammation system wide,” says Dr. Gurner. Get enough good gut bacteria through foods like yogurt and other fermented foods such as kimchi and sauerkraut.
“Talk to your doctor about taking a solid probiotic that might help bolster you further,” she says.
“We’ve long known the link between what we eat and the inflammatory process, and some foods you love are unfortunately fanning that flame,” says Dr. Gurner. “Foods that tend to increase inflammation include things like sugars (sodas, candy), fried foods, refined carbohydrates (white breads, pastas, etc.), red meats, and processed foods.” Eating food that is good for your heart is often good for your mental health as well. “Olive oil, nuts, green leafy vegetables, and fish are usually seen as solid choices in helping to reduce inflammation throughout your system,” she says.
Your smoking habit may have more of a detrimental effect on your mental health than you realize. Research has found that nicotine activates certain white blood cells called neutrophils that release molecules that lead to increased inflammation. Speaking to a health care professional about how to prepare for the physical and mental withdrawals of nicotine is a great first step toward breaking a nicotine addiction.
Drinking too much alcohol can also cause inflammation that leads to anxiety as well. Studies show that alcohol consumption can lead to gut health issues — particularly intestinal inflammation — especially in large amounts. Limit the amount of alcohol you drink to keep your inflammation at bay.
Avoiding habits that cause inflammation may be able to help improve your mental health and alleviate some of your anxiety.