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Stimulation of Systemic Low-Grade Inflammation by Psychosocial Stress

Rohleder, Nicolas PhD

doi: 10.1097/PSY.0000000000000049
Review Articles

Psychosocial stress is an important precursor of disease and reduced quality of life in humans. The biological pathways between stress exposure and pathophysiological processes underlying disease have received substantial scientific attention, although the roles of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis and sympathetic nervous system remain insufficiently understood. Recent attention has focused on chronic systemic low-grade inflammation as a promising pathway because elevated inflammation often accompanies chronic psychosocial distress. These alterations of inflammatory activity play a key role in the pathophysiology of diseases that are adversely affected by chronic distress, such as cardiovascular disease. Transient increases in systemic inflammation are observed in response to acute psychosocial stress, with larger responses among individuals reporting adverse psychosocial states or conditions such as depression, lower self-esteem, or lower self-compassion. Recent evidence shows that lower subjective social status and perceived purpose in life are associated with sensitization of inflammatory stress responses to repeated stress exposure. The aims of this selective review article are to summarize current knowledge of the role of acute and chronic psychosocial stress on low-grade inflammation in humans and to discuss potential relationships between inflammatory responses to acute psychosocial stress and long-term development of disease.

From the Department of Psychology and Volen National Center for Complex Systems, Brandeis University, Waltham, Massachusetts.

Address correspondence and reprint requests to Nicolas Rohleder, PhD, Department of Psychology and Volen National Center for Complex Systems, Brandeis University, 415 South Street, MS062 PO Box 549110, Waltham, MA 02454. E-mail:

Received for publication January 24, 2014; revision received January 25, 2014.

Copyright © 2014 by American Psychosomatic Society
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