Can Anxiety Cause Inflammation In The Body?

We hear the term inflammation used in connection with a variety of different illnesses, but what is it exactly? In short, it's your immune system kicking into gear to fight off an irritant, according to (via National Library of Medicine). Telltale characteristics of inflammation include swelling, redness, warmth, pain, and loss of function in the affected area.

Germs, chemicals, injuries, and certain health conditions are just a few of the many things that can prompt inflammation in the body. Some examples of such health conditions include dermatitis, bronchitis, and rheumatoid arthritis. While these are all physical health conditions, there is some evidence that suggests a link between inflammation and some mental health conditions, as well.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) reports that more than 40 million American adults are affected by an anxiety disorder. In addition to feelings of intense worry or dread, anxiety can physically affect the body in the form of headaches, sweating, fatigue, digestive discomfort, and more. Is inflammation another way in which anxiety can affect us?

Anxiety and biomarkers of inflammation

Scientists cannot say definitively whether anxiety causes inflammation or, conversely, whether inflammation may influence the development of anxiety disorders. However, some research indicates a potential connection between the two. For example, researchers from a 2013 study published in Translational Psychiatry looked at 2,288 people between the ages of 18 and 65 who had been recruited from the Netherlands Study of Depression and Anxiety. The study included participants with a current anxiety disorder diagnosis, remitted anxiety disorder, as well as individuals who were not diagnosed with anxiety. The study findings revealed that men with current anxiety disorders displayed higher biomarkers of inflammation.

A 2021 study published in eClinicalMedicine found similar results but with some notable differences. Tracking health data from 144,890 participants recruited from the UK Biobank study, the researchers found that greater concentrations of C-reactive protein, a biomarker of inflammation, were correlated with participant scores of depression and anxiety symptoms, but more so with depression than anxiety and more predominantly in women.

Two-way relationship between anxiety and inflammation?

While more research is required, experts from a 2018 scientific review published in Current Neuropharmacology summarized some of the potential mechanisms at play in the relationship between anxiety and inflammation. The researchers noted that the release of inflammatory proteins has been shown to affect the reward centers of the brain, as well as fear-related brain areas, resulting in slowed motor activity, decreased motivation, and anxiety in patients.

While these findings could make the argument that inflammation may influence the development of anxiety disorders, a 2020 scientific review published in the International Journal of Molecular Sciences also explores the opposite scenario. The researchers highlighted how stress has the ability to alter our immune system, which can cause neuro-inflammation and interruptions of the autonomic nervous system. These pro-inflammatory conditions can cause changes in the brain associated with symptoms of anxiety. With continued research, scientists hope to explore the possibility of using inflammation treatment methods as a means of potentially treating patients with anxiety disorders.