“I always like to remind parents that our job is not to make our kids happy.”
Reducing inflammation through lifestyle habits is always a worthwhile objective—and giving your mind and body the chance to rest regularly is one of the easiest ways to start, says Maggie Berghoff, a functional medicine nurse practitioner and author of Eat to Treat.
According to Berghoff, both mental and psychological stress and anxiety can trigger inflammation. What’s more, heightened physiological inflammation (linked to a range of lifestyle factors, including foods) is linked to higher rates of mental and psychological stress.
Because the relationship between stress and inflammation is a two-way street—or what Berghoff refers to as a “chicken or the egg type of situation”—she says that stress reduction tactics are a key tool in the longevity-boosting toolkit. And to that end, the functional medicine expert is here to arm you with accessible, easy ways to stay mentally and physically *chill.*
How do stress and inflammation go hand in hand?
According to Berghoff, the longer your body experiences episodes of severe stress, the more damage it can cause. “Inflammation in one area in the body can quickly spread to, or influence, the inflammatory response of another area in the body,” Berghoff explains. In the short term, this might come in the form of headaches, irritability, negative thoughts, restlessness, fatigue, and digestive issues. But in the long term, Berghoff says chronic inflammation (whether linked to one’s mental health or not) can lead to serious illnesses, such as arthritis, asthma, cardiovascular issues, and autoimmune concerns.
In other words, chronic inflammation not only affects the body physiologically, but it can also begin to trigger additional reactions, such as psychological stress (and the longer your body is in a state of inflammation, the worse the outcome will likely be). “Depression, anxiety, and other symptoms of psychological stress are often linked to inflammation in the body. It’s the body’s response to external stressors,” Berghoff says.
“Depression, anxiety, and other symptoms of psychological stress are often linked to inflammation in the body. It’s the body’s response to external stressors.”
Research shows there’s a link between stress-related increases in C-reactive protein (CRP) (a protein made by the liver that increases with inflammation), pro-inflammatory cytokines (signaling proteins that help control inflammation in your body), and depression.
To put it simply: Stress can lead to inflammation in the body (and! vice! versa!), and chronic inflammation may lead to poor mental health outcomes. As such, finding ways to cope with stress and reduce inflammation in your body can be a helpful step towards feeling your best, Berghoff says.
3 ways to reduce psychological stress to help keep inflammation at bay
1. Make a few lifestyle changes, starting with what you eat
Berghoff suggests starting by noting what you can soothe, especially when stressful situations are inevitable. “When going through a stressful era—or if you anticipate that one is coming up because of a work schedule or otherwise—take time to really check in with yourself periodically and make sure all your other stressors that you can handle are reduced or eliminated,” she says.
Since psychological stressors may fall outside of your control, Berghoff says pivoting and focusing on consuming nutrient-dense foods can help manage some aspects of inflammation. This includes foods rich in omega-3s (like salmon, walnuts, seaweed, and chia seeds). “Omega-3s also support the function of neurotransmitters that are linked to mood regulation, like serotonin and dopamine, and can also improve the body’s stress response to keep your mood stable even in high-pressure situations.”
Berghoff also points out that vitamin C-filled citrus fruits like oranges, lemons, limes, and grapefruit can help ease stress levels. Adding a handful of leafy greens to your eggs or smoothie is a great way to support cortisol and blood pressure levels, too. On the other hand, reducing alcohol and added sugar, which can potentially heighten inflammation levels, is a great place to start.
2. Manage your sympathetic nervous system more effectively
When stress levels begin to rise, Berghoff says you’ll want to check in with your sympathetic nervous system. “The sympathetic nervous state is that ‘fight or flight’ survival mode state, and is activated when we’re under stress. Being in fight or flight mode for a prolonged period causes inflammation in the body, so the goal is to activate the parasympathetic nervous state, which will bring your body back to balance and help it to heal,” she says.
One of Berghoff’s favorite ways to achieve this is by practicing box breathing. “Breathe in for five seconds, hold for five, exhale for five, hold for five, and repeat. Do this three times; really focusing on your whole body just releasing that stress, and it will help reset your body and mind,” she says. The simple breathing exercise helps to decrease an elevated heart rate that, in turn, helps regulate stress. In addition to box breathing, Berghoff suggests journaling, red light therapy, sauna sessions, gentle yoga classes, or walking in nature.
“Being in fight or flight mode for a prolonged period causes inflammation in the body. The goal is to activate the parasympathetic nervous state, which will bring your body back to balance and help it to heal.”
3. Do everything in your power to achieve a “stress less” mentality
Of course, easier said than done. “I get it. Personally, I used to stress over so many things that truly did not matter in the greater scheme of life. But to me, it mattered tremendously and made me sick with worry, anxiety, and indecision,” Berghoff says. Eventually, she found that shifting her perspective to the bigger picture and practicing meditative breathing exercises helped her feel more in control.
With time, rather than worrying about what nail polish color to choose or ruminating over skipping a workout, Berghoff started to cut herself a little slack when it came to things she really shouldn’t be overly concerned about. “I realized that I just cared too much about things. And when I took on a different mindset acknowledging these things truly don’t matter, it helped everything.”
When you can, and when it’s available to you: Take a deep inhale, have a snack, and care a little less. With luck, in time, science says that your stress levels—and anxiety-induced inflammation—will tarnish.
An RD’s guide for eating to help reduce inflammation: