Inflammation often gets hate for wrecking havoc on our health. And it’s true, inflammation can cause problems. But it’s not always a bad reaction. Sometimes we need it to heal.

Inflammation, the body’s release of destructive cells, is a double-edged sword in our body. Short bursts of inflammation are crucial for preventing infection in a wound. Inflammatory cells come out, do their job, then disappear,” explains William W. Li, M.D., a Boston-based internal medicine physician and author of Eat to Beat Disease: The New Science of How Your Body Can Heal Itself.

In addition to rising after you get, say, a papercut, inflammation also spikes after a long run, a tough track workout, or a challenging strength routine. That soreness you feel is both a sign of exercise well done and of tiny tears in your muscles. These tears lead to some acute inflammation, which alerts your body’s white blood cells to find that site and help the healing. With proper rest, fuel, and hydration between workouts, your body will restore itself and reboot even stronger than before.

But without enough recovery time between sessions—or in the presence of other inflammatory elements over the long-term, including smoking, excess alcohol consumption, overwhelming stress (a key factor that people tend to neglect), or consumption of foods with high amounts of fat, added sugars, or sodium—the body enters a state of chronic inflammation, “where these cells continue to swarm around our body,” Li says.

It’s this chronic inflammation that can become a problem for our health. And it’s not just about how we take care of our physical bodies that matters for taming inflammation. Your mental health plays a role too.

Here’s what to know about stress and inflammation, the downsides of chronic inflammation, and what to do about both.

What’s the link between stress and chronic inflammation?

Chronic inflammation can harm healthy cells, tissues and organs, and may lead to internal scarring and damage to previously healthy cells. Ultimately, this can lead to the development of a slew of potentially disabling or life-threatening illnesses, including cancer, heart disease, dementia, or type 2 diabetes, Akil Palanisamy, M.D., an integrative medicine doctor in San Francisco and the author of The T.I.G.E.R. Protocol: An Integrative, 5-Step Program to Treat and Heal Your Autoimmunity.

Beyond the cells at the “scene of the attack,” our gut is involved in the chronic inflammation conversation as well. If we could peek inside our intestines and colon, we’d find “about 39 trillion ‘good bacteria,’” Li adds, which are involved in everything from digestion to immune support to decreasing chronic inflammation. Talk about multitaskers!

It makes sense that the foods, drinks, and drugs you consume affect those gut cells because they come in such close contact with each other. But what’s the link between stress and this inflammation? To understand that, we need just one more anatomy lesson. There’s a long nerve, called the vagus nerve, which runs from our brain to our gut.

“The vagus nerve is one of the biggest connectors between our mental health and gut health. If you’ve ever felt butterflies in your stomach because you were nervous or excited, then you’ve experienced this gut-brain connection,” says Caroline Thomason, R.D., a Warrenton, Virginia-based registered dietitian.

While it’s not always top of mind, this gut-brain pathway is constantly responding to our emotions, positive or negative. The positive ones are not viewed as villains. But the negative ones—including anger, fear, sadness, and anxiety—communicate to the body, “I’m stressed!” which prompts the release of hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol, adds Haley Perlus, Ph.D., a sport and performance psychologist in Denver. These hormones can increase inflammation levels.

When elevated over time, the downstream effect of high stress, via emotional or physical causes, is chronic inflammation. At the doctor’s office, this can show up in blood work as elevated levels of an inflammation-related biomarker, CRP, or by way of elevated blood sugar or cholesterol, Thomason says.

As frustrating as it sounds, this means that feeling angry after not having a strong final 10K training run or feeling anxious about whether you’re going to wake up on time for the race can not only lead to a sleepless night, but it can also encourage even more inflammation that can do some serious harm to your body. This is particularly true if you’re constantly living in that stressed-out state.

How can you recognize stress that may contribute to chronic inflammation?

Because depression, anxiety, and stress tend to be more chronic negative emotional states than those shorter-term negative emotion examples of anger and sadness, it stands to reason that these conditions can lead to more chronic inflammation. An October 2021 study in the American Journal of Psychiatry found that four key areas correlated with higher levels of chronic inflammation:

  • Feeling bothered by things
  • Feeling hopelessness about the future
  • Feeling fearful
  • Feeling as if life has been a failure so far

“One or more of these negative feelings were shown to be present in folks who also had elevated inflammation in their body,” Thomason summarizes. In the case of anxiety, the sensation of a real or perceived threat puts the body in a continual state of stress, according to a November 2018 study in the journal Depression and Anxiety.

“The opposite is true as well, although not as well understood or appreciated. Inflammation in the body can affect mental health,” Palanisamy adds.

Just like you may train on a looped route, this inflammation-emotion connection goes around and around. Chronic stress, anxiety, and depression can cause changes in mood and alter decision-making abilities. For example, under frazzled conditions, it might seem more natural to order a cheeseburger and fries than a quinoa bowl with veggies that might usually be your go-to. Eating inflammatory foods can damage the gut microbiome, and in turn, the healthy gut bacteria.

“The damaged gut microbiome is less able to lower inflammation, so inflammation can further rage in the body,” Li says.

How can you adjust your lifestyle to curb stress-related inflammation?

All of this is pretty, well, stress-inducing, right? Well, similar to how that rest day is exactly the Rx your body needs to bounce back as a stronger runner, the best way to respond to all this worrying science is to not let it ruffle your feathers.

“If emotions contribute to inflammation, then it follows that emotional regulation is one of the solutions to lowering inflammation levels,” Thomason says.

Here are four ways you can improve your emotional state and inflammation levels all at once:

1. Focus on the moment

Focus on being aware of what you’re feeling, sensing, and observing throughout the day. Perlus confirms that that’s all it takes to be better at mindfulness and emotional regulation. An August 2021 study in Trends in Psychology suggests that mindfulness can aid in reducing the overall stress burden we feel, even when we’re experiencing negative emotions. “Being aware of our emotions allows us a little more space before we react to the emotion we are experiencing,” Thomason says.

2. Maintain your regular workout schedule

Regular physical activity, interspersed with rest days as programmed, lowers mental stress, anxiety, and can support what Li calls a “reset” of an anguished or negative mindset. “Exercise has numerous physical and mental health benefits, including improving mood and reducing inflammation levels,” Perlus says.

3. Seek out alternative ways to relieve stress

Each person has a different set of self-care strategies that feel soothing, according to Palanisamy. Depending on your personal stress-less style, breathing exercises, quiet down time, meditation, yoga, prayer, or counseling may help “calm contemplation, clear the mind, and help lower inflammation-fueling emotions,” Li says. It may take some trial and error to find what works best for you. So try out a few options and see how it feels and how it affects your mindset.

4. Consume feel-good foods

When possible, steer clear of inflammatory foods and drinks like excess alcohol, refined carbohydrates, added sugars, trans fats, red meat, and processed meat. Instead, load up on anti-inflammatory foods, placing a high priority on anything high in fiber and plant-based. Li says that “dietary fiber is a prebiotic that feeds your gut microbiome, encouraging the growth of healthy bacteria that can lower inflammation and improve mood.”

The bottom lime on stress and inflammation

There’s a lot more to learn about the hidden universe inside our bodies, but researchers are learning more each year about the complex way negative emotions can promote chronic inflammation—and vice versa. Mental health and physical health are very much two sides of the same coin, and this relationship is a prime example.

“Emotions are a normal part of life, and cultivating a healthy relationship with one's emotions—by not suppressing them, but finding healthy outlets for expression—is what I recommend to all of my patients,” Palanisamy says.

This is a new, complex area of research. As we continue to learn more, and as you continue to experience a barrage of emotions, use our tips for how to feel better emotionally and physically to stress less. And if you could use some extra support, “I encourage folks to seek guidance from a counselor, dietitian, or their gastroenterologist for more personalized advice,” Thomason says.

Headshot of Karla Walsh

Karla Walsh is a Des Moines, Iowa-based freelance writer and level one sommelier who balances her love of food and drink with her passion for fitness. (Or tries to, at least!) Her writing has been published in Runner’s World and Fitness Magazines, as well as on,,, and more.

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