Stress, Inflammation and the Brain


The term stress is used for the symptoms of distress that occur when an excessive load or an intense environment overwhelms the adaptive resources of a person and their reaction be it physical, emotional, spiritual, biochemical or behavioural, creating symptoms and damaging health.

Stress can come from any situation, experience, or thought and can make us feel frustrated, irritable, angry or anxious. What is stressful to one person may not be to another. Seemingly small triggers can have major biochemical consequences.

Stress reactions are often developed in childhood. Acute stress affects the brain as stress hormones bind to receptors in particular regions of the brain that encode memory (the hippocampus and amygdala), so that years later, we often remember stressful events as if they happened yesterday. Prolonged, uninterrupted, unexpected, and unmanaged stresses are among the most damaging.

Chronic stress is one of the major preventable contributors to inflammation and immune dysregulation, which left unmanaged can go on to cause a variety of dis-eases.


Inflammation is the body’s attempt at self-protection. It is part of our innate immunity. The aim being to remove harmful stimuli, including damaged cells, irritants, toxins, or pathogens and begin the healing process. Inflammation involves pain, redness, immobility, swelling and heat.

Silent inflammation is the precursor of chronic inflammatory conditions and is mainly triggered by stress, poor lifestyle choices, obesity, insufficient exercise, a diet high in simple carbohydrates and trans fatty acids and inadequate sleep.

Chronic inflammation is long-term inflammation, which can last for several months or years. Chronic inflammation initiates a variety of diseases, including Alzheimer’s, depression, cancer, heart disease, diabetes, obesity, allergies, arthritis and auto-immune disease.

Inflammation is basically the precursor to all disease!

Common causes of inflammation

  • Stress and unmanaged chronic stress – long term elevated cortisol
  • Deficiency of cortisol and/or low DHEA caused by weakened, exhausted adrenal glands
  • Low grade chronic infections (gum, sinus, etc.)
  • Chronic non-infectious inflammatory reactions (auto-immune, allergies)
  • Free radical overload and antioxidant activity
  • Sedentary lifestyle, obesity, poor gut function
  • Nutrient deficiency
  • Lack of sleep
  • Loneliness

Stress, Inflammation and the Brain

Cortisol (the main stress hormone) stimulates inflammation, raises insulin levels, supresses immunity, elevates blood pressure, breaks down muscle and increases abdominal fat.

Chronic exposure to stress hormones damages and shrinks the hippocampus, changing brain function and altering memory.  Amygdala damage is common in conditions such as fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome. Chronic stress results in high cortisol and insulin resistance, both having an effect on brain function. Insulin resistance occurs in the brain where there are insulin receptors, so when there is insulin resistance the brain, particularly the hippocampus, fails to function properly. This is why dementia is referred to type 3 diabetes.  Insulin helps the brain burn sugar – our main fuel supply. With insulin resistance this process is inefficient and it affects cognition.  The more body fat you have, the more glucose you store, and the more insulin resistance you become.  Muscle mass is therefore effective against stress and inflammation. Exercise is also protective for the brain as it boosts feel good chemicals and decreases toxic ones.

Glutamate (the most common excitatory neurotransmitter in the brain) is implicated in the abnormal brain chemistry of chronic stress and inflammation. Exposure to chronic stress increases glutamate – a neurochemical that, in excess in the brain, causes depression and anxiety, and contributes to migraines, strokes and seizures. Stress increases the levels of glutamate which destroys the cells of the hypothalamus, that produce dopamine and regulate appetite – causing the classic symptoms of depression, lack of joy, increased eating and weight gain because the hypothalamus becomes leptin resistant.

The immune response, whether it’s due to stress or other factors, creates an inflammatory cascade that inflames the brain via the central nervous system, resulting in inflammation in the brain and the cerebral circulation. Though the inflammatory responses are induced in the body, the cognitive and emotional effects are enabled through the central nervous system. Memory, mood, activity, pain, depression, dementia and fatigue can all be a result of the body’s inflammation affecting the brain. Inflammation spurs on the release of pro-inflammatory cytokines which cause a diverse array of physical and physiological symptoms, including mood and brain function.

Neural sensitivity to social rejection prompts an inflammatory response similar to that of physical injury. When this response becomes the norm for your body, it becomes a low level feature in your physiology and inflammatory ctyokines are constantly released. Once sensitised, social relationships and difficult social situations trigger inflammation – anxiety, IBS, insomnia, depression, and fatigue.

Diet has a massive impact on brain and cognitive function. We produce more neurotransmitters in our intestines that we do our brain, therefore it is easy to see how gut health impacts cognitive health. Research reports that a large percentage of people who have mental health issues like depression, anxiety, and panic attacks also have gut issues and when you clear up the GI issues you can almost always clear up the anxiety, panic attacks and depression. Two of the most inflammatory foods are gluten and sugar. According to Dr, Rodney Ford “the brain and the associated nerves are the number one site for gluten-related disorders” According to Dr Alessio Fasano “Gluten is not digestible by any human” And sadly this digestibility may have no or little consequence symptomatically for many people and go unnoticed for many years until it becomes a problem. Mayo Clinic have demonstrated the relationship between gluten sensitivity and dementia. There is also a direct relationship between blood sugar elevation and Alzheimer’s.  Both of these foods cause inflammation and have negative effect on many organ systems. A diet rich in good fats, fruits and vegetables is the best type of diet one can adopt for optimum health.

Treatment options

The aim of treatment is to treat the source – be it stress, trauma, inflammation, infections, toxins or nutritional deficiencies for example.    Change and transformation is the key aspect. Continuing to do the same thing and behave the same way and expect to generate a different result is, in a sense, madness. To adapt to stress means you must change! Be it the food you are eating, the way you respond to a situation, your deep seated fears and old unresolved issues you have swept under the rug thinking that they will somehow no longer be a problem. It takes energy to keep these events under lock and key in the subconscious mind and is a source of constant energy drain. Sadly most of us are unaware of the stimuli that affect our physiology – which is why Kinesiology and its innate intelligence is so apt at getting to the core of the issue – be it a food, an emotion, and event or a hidden pathogen lurking in the lumen of your intestines.  Our life is more in sync when our brain and body’s biochemistry is balanced. Make sure you invest in your health every day.