EMOTIONS and their Impact on Inflammation in the Body

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A small study, published in the journal Emotion, found that people who experience a diverse range of positive emotions might reduce systemic inflammation in their bodies. Since inflammation is at the source of most chronic disease, inducing/experiencing positive emotions could be viewed as a (now evidence-based) therapeutic intervention.

In the study, researchers asked 175 participants, aged 40 to 65, to keep a log of their emotions for 30 days. The people recorded how often and how strongly they experienced 32 different emotions; 16 which were positive and 16 that were negative. Six months later, each participant was tested for markers of inflammation and had blood samples taken. Below are the emotions that were tracked in the study.

16 Positive Emotions

  • Enthusiastic
  • Interested
  • Determined
  • Excited
  • Amused
  • Inspired
  • Alert
  • Active
  • Strong
  • Proud
  • Attentive
  • Happy
  • Relaxed
  • Cheerful
  • At ease
  • Calm

16 Negative Emotions

  • Irritable
  • Sluggish
  • Upset
  • Scared
  • Afraid
  • Distressed
  • Jittery
  • Nervous
  • Ashamed
  • Guilty
  • Hostile
  • Tired
  • Sleepy
  • Blue
  • Sad
  • Drowsy

The results surprised the researchers. While there was some speculation that positive emotions would decrease inflammatory levels, the role of emotional diversity was the surprise.  It was discovered that the participants who experienced a greater variety of the 16 positive emotions on a day-to-day basis had lower inflammation than the rest of the group, even after accounting for body mass index, demographic characteristics, medical conditions and other factors.

And the lower levels of inflammation held true even when compared to people who had experienced positive emotions for a similar amount of days but had a smaller range of them. When it came to lowering inflammation, positive emotional diversity mattered more than simply feeling happy.

An intriguing finding is that diversity in emotions did not affect the impact of negative emotions. Apparently, diversity in emotions mattered only when they were positive.

The study’s researchers suggest that the benefits of this emotional diversity come from preventing an overabundance or prolonging of any one emotion from dominating an individuals’ emotional life.”  

Take-Aways to Use on Your Healing Journey

Lower levels of inflammation are critical in reducing the risk of and healing from chronic disease. It is believed that an overactive immune system is what causes inflammation. We’ve known for quite some time that certain foods and environmental toxins building up in the body are constantly signal our immune systems to deal with their undesired presence. This creates chronic inflammation which, over time, damages tissues and cells including your blood vessels and organs right down to the DNA.  Damaged DNA is a hallmark of cancer. Anything we can do to lessen this state of systemic inflammation/immune response is a healing intervention.

Most of us already know what foods are inflammatory (and cancer causing or driving) so eliminating these foods (foods that have been highly processed, factory farmed, containing high refined sugars, HFC, preservatives, artificial sweeteners and colors, GMOs etc.) is key to decreasing inflammation and healing from (or preventing) cancer. The same holds true for eliminating similar toxins from our household cleaning and self-care products. There are many articles available, including several of my own, that go into great detail about decreasing the internal and external toxic load on the body.

But here are four often overlooked ways to decrease inflammatory markers that are grounded in harnessing the power of your mind and heart to support healing of the body.

  1. Meditation and Prayer
    We can use intentional thought, spiritual connection and the immersion into imagined and desired positive states to help shape our physical brain structures (neuoplasticity) and create more default states of positive thoughts, feelings and expectations. These practices have been shown to decrease stress, pain and cortisol levels. Although beyond the scope of this article, there is much literature available documenting the benefits of mindful meditation and prayer for those dealing with cancer (and other dis-ease). They also provide “how-to” instructions.
  2. Setting attainable appealing life goals that foster motivation and positive anticipation and purpose. It is most effective to set goals that will require some stretching and growing, but that can also be broken down into smaller action items, so you celebrate your hard work as you reach milestones throughout the process. On a cancer journey, this is especially important because those “whys” and accomplishments along the way can sometimes make the difference between choosing to keep going or not.
  3. Exercise and movement in general improve health and when properly executed, decrease inflammation through multiple mechanisms. But yoga, as a specific form of movement/exercise has a positive evidence-based effect on your emotions. Engaging in yoga release a “feel good” neurotransmitter, gamma-aminobutryic acid (GABA). Higher levels of GABA reduce anxiety while promoting calmness.
  4. Fostering an intentional choice for happiness. This is when we, moment to moment, make choices that lead to happiness and- when we notice that we have (unconsciously or even deliberately) defaulted to other less serving but perhaps more patterned emotional states, we consciously choose to shift to something more positive. A gratitude journal is a great tool to support this shift. It has been found that when we deliberately look for things in our lives for which to be grateful, we gradually reset our internal scanner to find more such and less of the ancient survival-driven impulse to find anything/everything that could possibly be a threat to us. This practice has both immediate and long-term positive impact on our wellbeing.

Decreasing inflammation is key for healing. Just as you engage professional services to help you decrease the toxins in your food and environment, consider the support of a mind-body therapist or coach to help you harness the power of your mind and heart for emotional detoxification and to create a larger pallet of positive emotional states with which to better navigate the challenges, stressors, fears and uncertainties.


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Emotion © 2017 American Psychological Association 2018, Vol. 18, No. 1, 3–14 1528-3542/18/Emodiversity and Biomarkers of Inflammation   Anthony D. Ong, Cornell University and Weill Cornell Medical College, Alex J. Zautra Arizona State University, Lizbeth Benson, The Pennsylvania State University,  Nilam Ram The Pennsylvania State University and German Institute for Economic Research (DIW), Berlin, Germany

Am Psychol 2001 Mar; 56(3): 218-226 PMCID: PMC3122271, NIHMSID: NIHMS305177 The Role of Positive Emotions in Positive Psychology The Broaden-and-Build Theory of Positive Emotions, Barbara L. Fredrickson

Integr Cancer Ther. 2006 Jun;5(2):98-108. Mindfulness meditation for oncology patients: a discussion and critical review. Ott MJ1Norris RLBauer-Wu SM.

Indian J Psychiatry. 2009 Oct-Dec; 51(4): 247–253.  doi:  10.4103/0019-5545.58288 PMCID: PMC2802370 Prayer and healing: A medical and scientific perspective on randomized controlled trials ,Chittaranjan Andrade, Professor of Psychopharmacology and  Rajiv Radhakrishnan,