There’s a lot we still don’t know about mental illness and it seems as if every week there is new information opening our eyes to its causes, triggers, and even the most effective and appropriate ways to treat it. Oftentimes, these new findings can be revelatory and maybe even shocking, like a recent body of data that suggests there’s a link between chronic inflammation and mental illness.
It definitely seems odd that inflammation could have any connection to a psychological condition like depression or PTSD. But once we start to dig into how inflammation works, the link actually starts to make sense.
“In my practice, I see a relationship between inflammation and mood symptoms every day,” says Ellen Vora, MD, a holistic psychiatrist. “Anybody suffering from autoimmunity and mental health issues should understand that the systemic inflammation and immune dysregulation occurring in their body as part of their autoimmune disease is likely impacting their brain and therefore their mood.”
Yes, chronic inflammation is often incredibly uncomfortable and it, therefore, makes sense that this would affect your mood. But suggesting an arthritis flare-up could lead a person into legitimate depression still seems like a stretch, doesn’t it? Well, what doctors and researchers are beginning to understand about the two runs much deeper than getting cranky over achy joints.
Inflammation is the body’s natural response to fighting off potential infections and bacteria. Your immune system releases chemical messengers called cytokines, the messengers within your body that regulate inflammation. According to Dr. Robert Zembroski, MD, a specialist in functional medicine, those cytokines can wreak havoc on neurotransmitters and affect the amygdala, which is a part of the brain that plays a heavy role in regulating and processing emotions. This can lead to triggering anxiety, depression, and even hallucinations in some people. Research is backing these findings up by revealing higher levels of inflammation in people suffering from things like depression, suicidal thoughts, and PTSD.
“Dysfunctions in the amygdala have been well-known and well-documented to create OCD, anxiety, [and] fearful thoughts,” Zembroski says.
The flip side of this cause and effect research is found in case studies in which patients are experiencing a reversal or absence of mental illness symptoms when their immune system is rebooted through treatment of other illnesses, like chemotherapy for one leukemia patient that was featured in the New York Times. In that 23-year-old man’s case, a bone marrow transplant was followed by the disappearance of schizophrenia.
So does this simply mean inflammation is the cause for something like depression? Of course not.
“I don’t think we can blame anyone mood disorder or mental illness on any one factor,” Zembroski says. “I think people — not only people but doctors and health care providers — really have to focus on underlying roots and reasons why people may have inflammation and autoimmune issues.”
Of course, it doesn’t hurt to give attention to your inflammation if you find yourself experiencing both, though. Certain foods, for example, have been found to trigger both mental disorders and inflammation. And the same goes for some of their prescribed natural remedies, like proper exercise.