A new book by Mary Beth Albright, a Correspondent and Editor at The Washington Post, caught my attention. Eat & Flourish: How Food Supports Emotional Well-Being delves into research on the relationship between food and mood. We’ve all heard of being “hangry”! Food also has the power to nourish the mind. The publisher, Countryman Press, kindly provided an excerpt from the book to share here on how inflammation and emotional well-being connect. I learned a lot from the read – And hope you do too.
Book excerpt on connecting inflammation and emotional well-being
Excerpted from Eat & Flourish: How Food Supports Emotional Well-Being by Mary Beth Albright. Copyright © 2022. Used with permission of the publisher, Countryman Press. All rights reserved.
Inflammation comes from your body fighting something that the body perceives as potentially harmful. The body fights threats through the immune system, a network of defenses that includes some of your organs, cells, tissues, and chemicals that your body makes. When the immune system detects a threat, it calls up its resources—the parts of the immune system—to address the threat.
One immune-system resource your body uses is your white blood cells, which are the body’s soldiers in the war against infection. Blood can get to most parts of the body, so blood cells are an effective way to travel. But when a lot of blood goes to one area of the body due to a perceived threat, that area has a lot more happening in and around it than before the threat arrived. And the body reacts to these increased resources: blood vessels get larger so more blood can come into the area. Because there is so much blood in one place, the area swells and gets warm or hot to the touch—a phenomenon commonly known as inflammation. This is your immune system at work.
The immune-system effects of expanding blood vessels and areas feeling warm or hot are also ways our bodies respond to emotions. That’s because the release of cortisol—which can happen when you’re afraid or angry—activates the body’s immune system and can cause inflammation. This can be really helpful when we need a rush of blood to quickly run away from a threat. As an acute stress response, inflammation is fantastic because it means that part of your body is healing through resources rushing to the area that needs help immediately. But chronic inflammation—constant activation of the immune system—can be a huge health problem.
Our body’s automatic responses and the world we live in today are a mismatch. Today, threats often do not require the cortisol our bodies produce to help us escape—you can’t run away from traffic, quizzes in school, or meetings with your grouchy boss. And to make things worse, modern threats are everywhere and constant. When our bodies go through the physical effects of stress often, we can have chronic low-grade immune system activation. And chronic immune system activation often means chronic inflammation, which can create damaging changes to the brain. Because chronic inflammation anywhere in the body, it turns out, has effects that can permeate the boundary between blood and the brain, known as the Blood-Brain Barrier (BBB).
We know now that the BBB is not a solid barrier; it’s made up mostly of cells which are tightly packed together, meaning that certain small molecules—including molecules that can be toxic to the brain—can make their way to the brain. It’s not impenetrable; it’s semipermeable. Most blood vessels in the brain are safe within the BBB, protected from toxins circulating throughout the body. It’s also true that the only way molecules can get into the brain is if they somehow bypass or pass through this barrier (which is both good and bad news, as it’s tough to get the large molecules of antioxidants and potentially beneficial antidepressant drugs through this barrier). But research shows that inflammatory compounds in the blood (which can be triggered by food) can break the BBB and cause inflammation in our neural cells that directly impact mental health.
The chemicals that immune-system activation and inflammation send circulating through the blood can damage the brain. One side effect of inflammation is increased cytokines in the blood. Cytokines are a group of substances that are a by-product of the immune system’s process, including inflammation. Until recently, neurons were thought to be protected from cytokines by the BBB. Now research shows that at least some cytokines can pass the BBB and spur brain inflammation. Also we now know that there is no BBB in some regions of the brain—for example, in the circumventricular organ of the hypothalamus, which regulates mood, emotion, and appetite.
Inflammation can actually change how the brain operates and our emotional well-being, as a host of scientific evidence shows:
» Less inflammation can lead to more and healthier neurons. Research shows that inflammation may affect neurogenesis, or the creation of new neurons and other brain cells. Furthermore, in overfed mice, the brain’s immune cells—known as microglial cells, which usually clean up dead neurons—can start eating live neurons.
» Depressed people have higher levels of interleukin, a cytokine that reflects how inflamed our bodies are.
» When people take antidepressant medication, one frequent result is less body inflammation.
» One study shows that children who had physical inflammation at nine years old were more likely to be depressed at eighteen.
Increasingly, research shows that chronic inflammation and depression have a bidirectional relationship, that inflammation often occurs in people with depression, and people with depression often have high levels of inflammation. We don’t know to what extent inflammation causes mental health issues, or mental health issues cause inflammation, or both—it’s a bit of a chicken and egg problem—but we know the connection is there.
Anti-inflammatory foods include beans or legumes, tomatoes, nuts, olive oil, leafy greens, fatty fish (sounds like ingredients for an amazing salad, to be honest). Spices can be antiinflammatory; turmeric is a spice of particular interest recently because it (along with oregano) has the highest level of antioxidants. Turmeric’s active ingredient is curcumin, which, in a meta-analysis, was protective of the brain and effective in reducing symptoms of depression. Keep tea in your pantry too; black tea can help reduce cortisol levels, and green tea has an amino acid that helps with dopamine production.
On inflammation and emotional well-being
Is this information new to you? Inflammation can change how the brain functions – wow! Mary Beth Albright is sharing important health information with a wide audience.
I am definitely going to continue to drink black and green tea daily. I also plan to be more conscious about what foods I eat in the New Year.
Did you realize the power of anti-inflammatory foods?