The inflammatory consequences of psychologic stress: relationship to insulin resistance, obesity, atherosclerosis and diabetes mellitus, type II

Med Hypotheses. 2006;67(4):879-91. doi: 10.1016/j.mehy.2006.04.008. Epub 2006 Jun 15.


Inflammation is frequently present in the visceral fat and vasculature in certain patients with cardiovascular disease (CVD) and/or adult onset Diabetes Mellitus Type II (NIDDM). An hypothesis is presented which argues that repeated acute or chronic psychologically stressful states may cause this inflammatory process. The mediators are the major stress hormones norepinephrine (NE) and epinephrine (E) and cortisol together with components of the renin-angiotensin system (RAS), the proinflammatory cytokines (PIC), as well as free fatty acids (ffa), the latter as a result of lipolysis of neutral fat. NE/E commence this process by activation of NF(kappa)B in macrophages, visceral fat, and endothelial cells which induces the production of toll-like receptors which, when engaged, produce a cascade of inflammatory reactions comprising the acute phase response (APR) of the innate immune system (IIS). The inflammatory process is most marked in the visceral fat depot as well as the vasculature, and is involved in the metabolic events which culminate in the insulin resistance/metabolic syndromes (IRS/MS), the components of which precede and comprise the major risk factors for CVD and NIDDM. The visceral fat has both the proclivity and capacity to undergo inflammation. It contains a rich blood and nerve supply as well as proinflammatory molecules such as interleukin 6 (IL-6), tumor necrosis factor alpha (TNFalpha), leptin, and resistin, the adipocytokines, and acute phase proteins (APP) which are activated from adipocytes and/or macrophages by sympathetic signaling. The inflammation is linked to fat accumulation. Cortisol, IL-6, angiotensin II (angio II), the enzyme 11(beta) hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase-1 and positive energy balance, the latter due to increased appetite induced by the major stress hormones, are factors which promote fat accumulation and are linked to obesity. There is also the capacity of the host to limit fat expansion. Sympathetic signaling induces TNF which stimulates the production of IL-6 and leptin from adipocytes; these molecules promote lipolysis and ffa fluxes from adipocytes. Moreover, catecholamines and certain PIC inhibit lipoprotein lipase, a fat synthesizing enzyme. The brain also participates in the regulation of fat cell mass; it is informed of fat depot mass by molecules such as leptin and ffa. Leptin stimulates corticotrophin releasing hormone in the brain which stimulates the SNS and HPA axes, i.e. the stress response. Also, ffa through portal signaling from the liver evoke a similar stress response which, like the response to psychologic stress, evokes an innate immune response (IIR), tending to limit fat expansion, which culminates in inflammatory cascades, the IRS-MS, obesity and disease if prolonged. Thus, the brain also has the capacity to limit fat expansion. A competition apparently exists between fat expansion and fat loss. In "western" cultures, with excessive food ingestion, obesity frequently results. The linkage of inflammation to fat metabolism is apparent since weight loss diminishes the concentration of inflammatory mediators. The linkage of stress to inflammation is all the more apparent since the efferent pathways from the brain in response to fat signals, which results in inflammation to decrease and limit fat cell mass, is the same as the response to psychologic stress, which strengthens the hypothesis presented herein.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Atherosclerosis / complications*
  • Atherosclerosis / immunology
  • Diabetes Mellitus, Type 2 / complications*
  • Diabetes Mellitus, Type 2 / immunology
  • Humans
  • Inflammation / complications
  • Inflammation / immunology
  • Insulin Resistance / physiology*
  • Models, Immunological
  • Obesity / complications*
  • Obesity / immunology
  • Stress, Psychological*