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Our moods and motivations are dictated by a number of factors—and according to new research, inflammation is one of them. Scientists at Emory University found that our brain's dopamine system (the engine behind our motivation) is directly affected by inflammation. Chronic, low-grade inflammation, to be exact.
This new paper proposes this dopamine-motivation-inflammation connection is "an adaptive mechanism to help the body conserve energy," meaning when our immune system is elevated, our levels of dopamine and motivation drop.
"When your body is fighting an infection or healing a wound, your brain needs a mechanism to recalibrate your motivation to do other things so you don't use up too much of your energy," says Michael Treadway, an associate professor in Emory's Department of Psychology, who studies the relationship between motivation and mental illness. "We now have strong evidence suggesting that the immune system disrupts the dopamine system to help the brain perform this recalibration."
If you're not an inflammation expert (aka you're not a doctor), this research essentially says that if you have chronic, low-grade inflammation, your dopamine levels are being compromised, and you'll feel less motivated to do activities that require energy (think work, exercising, etc.).
This isn't entirely shocking, given what we know about inflammation—it's the source of a lot of health conditions, including diabetes, heart disease, obesity, hypertension, and cancer. Inflammation can be latent or difficult to detect, but as Amy Shah, M.D., says, "If you have symptoms like headaches, bloating, joint pain, rashes, fatigue, weight gain, allergies, asthma, or mood issues—you are most likely inflamed."
Scientists plan to do more research about this theory, as they see major implications for treating psychiatric disorders. Specifically, they hope to garner more insights into how inflammation contributes to motivational impairments in people with depression, schizophrenia, and other medical disorders.
"If our theory is correct, then it could have a tremendous impact on treating cases of depression and other behavioral disorders that may be driven by inflammation," says co-author Andrew Miller, a professor at Emory's School of Medicine and the Winship Cancer Institute. "It would open up opportunities for the development of therapies that target energy utilization by immune cells, which would be something completely new in our field."
What does this mean for you? Well, if you are constantly stressed, or struggle with obesity or metabolic syndrome, there's a strong chance you have low-grade inflammation. So consider this a call to action—talk to your doctor about inflammation, whether or not you have the harmful kind, and why. Only then can you take the measures needed to calm your inflammation (and hopefully up your motivation).