Stress causes inflammation

If your body was a post office, the picture hanging on the wall -- Public Enemy Number One -- wouldn't be heart disease or cancer.

It would be inflammation.

Chronic inflammation can cause or worsen both diseases and more, not to mention increase your risk of any number of other conditions up to and including an early death.

And while chronic inflammation can be caused by everything from food to illness to aging, one common source we all face is stress -- and a new study shows how quickly stress can cause chronic inflammation levels to soar.

Volunteers were asked to give a speech as part of a job interview in front of two stern interviewers in lab coats. Sure enough, the stress of that speech caused an increase in levels of the chronic inflammation marker C-reactive protein, or CRP.

Afterward, half of the volunteers were told to think about neutral activities such as shopping and shown photos of these types of activities -- and their CRP levels quickly returned to normal.

The other half, however, were told to keep thinking about that speech. And for them, CRP levels continued to rise for a good hour after the speech.

The difference between those volunteers and you (or me) is that once the experiment ended, they all went about their ways and never had to think about the stressful speech again.

But out in the real world, our sources of stress aren't as easy to get over. They stay with you -- sometimes every waking minute of the day (they can even invade your dreams).

And that's when those CRP levels really start to climb.

That's why it's critical to get a handle on your stress levels -- but don't turn to anti-anxiety drugs and other medications. Instead, stick with the tried and true: exercise, time with loved ones, and prayer are all proven stress-busters.

And when you find yourself in a situation that's giving you stress day after day, maybe it's time to stop looking for a way to manage that stress and find a way out of the situation instead.