Are You in a Shameflammation Spiral?
Will Cole, IFMCP, DNM, DC, is a functional medicine practitioner and New York Times–bestselling author. His new book, Gut Feelings: Healing the Shame-Fueled Relationship between What You Eat and How You Feel, is available for preorder now.
Throughout my years of treating patients in my telehealth functional medicine clinic and helping them get their bodies and minds back to vibrant health, I’ve seen the way that negative thoughts and emotions, chronic stress, and unresolved trauma can subtly and systematically sabotage health, similar to the way that chronic inflammation does.
This link between emotional and physical health—often referred to as the mind-body connection—is (unfortunately) largely ignored by the conventional health care system. Yet research frequently confirms the significance of this connection with studies showing that mental health issues like anxiety, depression, and PTSD are connected to physical health factors such as diet, inflammation, and the health of the gut microbiome.
I see the phenomenon of emotional suffering affecting physical health so often that I decided to give it its own name: shameflammation.
Shameflammation is twofold (hence the name)—a combination of shame and inflammation, with each one deeply affecting the other. In my experience with patients, shame is a common emotion found in people with unresolved past trauma and chronic stress, and it can make us feel overwhelmed, anxious, hopeless, and disconnected from our intuition. Studies show that shame can have a significant impact on our ability to stay healthy, heal from illnesses, and make healthy choices. And some researchers describe shame’s influence on our health as “insidious, pervasive, and pernicious.”
Inflammation is a topic I speak about a lot as a functional medicine practitioner. In a healthy individual, this lifesaving biological process is a protective response when you sustain an injury or encounter a pathogen, such as a flu virus or harmful bacteria. The inflammatory response helps destroy the invasive threat and return your body to a state of calm. However, in our modern world, inflammation has become chronic due to unhealthy diets, toxin exposure, and emotions like chronic shame, stress, and unresolved trauma. These all can be triggers for inflammation, which can further perpetuate mental health problems like brain fog, depression, and anxiety.
Signs of Shameflammation
Anxiety, depression, PTSD, and other trauma disorders are common signs that your emotions are negatively affecting your health. But I also consider an extensive list of emotional and physical signs to determine whether shameflammation is affecting my clients’ health because 1) the effects of shame (and other emotions) extend beyond mental health, and 2) your physical health impacts your mental health just as much as the mental impacts the physical. These signs may include:
Unexplained chronic pain
A disconnection from your intuition, especially
Digestive distress (persistent constipation, diarrhea, bloating, etc.)
Weight loss resistance
Sudden weight loss
Lack of motivation
Feelings of being overwhelmed, especially with food
Getting shameflammation under control requires getting our gut-feeling connection back in sync. We can do this by focusing not only on the foods that are kind to our gut but also on the practices that are friendly to our mind, like self-compassion.
A fascinating study published in the scientific journal Brain, Behavior, and Immunity looked at the relationship between mental stress, the brain, and inflammation and found some unexpected results on the influence of self-compassion. The researchers had 41 healthy adult participants do something that most of us would sweat at just the thought of: doing math and public speaking. Afterward, the researchers took blood samples from the participants and found that the longer they performed math problems or spoke in public, the higher their IL-6 (inflammation) levels were. And on the second day of problem-solving and public speaking, stress and IL-6 levels spiked even higher than on the first.
But it turned out that people who had the highest levels of self-compassion—the ones who had the greatest amount of self-acceptance—had the lowest IL-6 (inflammation) response to the stress. This indicates a powerful message: Stress, shame, inflammation, and shameflammation may be inevitable to some degree, but our relationship with ourselves in the present moment contributes to the degree that we’re negatively impacted by the challenges we face.
In many instances, the antidote to shameflammation is a process of slowing down, getting still, and reconnecting with yourself. The protocol I put together for the book includes mindful practices—self-compassion, breathwork, gratitude, meditation, somatic work—and foods like nourishing and grounding soups and stews to cultivate an inner grace and lightness to start nurturing your gut-brain connection and heal your relationship with yourself, your body, and food. When you do this, it begins a beautiful process of shifting and realigning the paradigm—you begin to view health and healing as a form of self-respect.
As I often tell my patients: You can’t heal a body you hate. That journey to loving, grace-filled, nourishing wellness doesn’t happen overnight, but it’s so worth it.
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