Cognitive behavior therapy the best non-drug treatment for inflammation, study shows

LOS ANGELES — People are usually quick to go straight to medication to reduce chronic inflammation, but that isn’t always healthiest choice for everyone. A study finds there may be a surprising way to ease these symptoms without using drugs — therapy.

Researchers from UCLA, UC-Davis, and San Diego State University examined over 4,000 individuals who took part in 56 clinical trials looking at the impact of psychotherapeutic interventions on immune health. The results reveal cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) is the most effective technique when it comes to benefiting the immune system.

Researchers assessed the different strategies commonly used to treat depression and anxiety which might also improve biological processes and physical health. The trials included CBT, CBT plus medication, grieving and bereavement support, psychoeducation, and several others. Researchers also looked at the differences between group versus non-group therapies and the length of these sessions.

Positively impacting proteins?

The study finds pro-inflammatory cytokines are the most affected by psychotherapy — specifically CBT. Pro-inflammatory cytokines are proteins which help the immune system by triggering inflammation as a response to possible diseases and infections. Unfortunately, persistently elevated protein levels can cause chronic inflammation. This opens the door of negative possibilities such as heart disease, cancer, anxiety, depression, and even increase suicide risk.

“People automatically go to medication first to reduce chronic inflammation, but medications can be expensive and sometimes have adverse side effects,” UCLA’s Dr. George Slavich says in a university release. “In this review, we wanted to know whether psychotherapies can also affect the immune system and, if so, which ones have the most beneficial effects over the long term.”

Researchers say it’s vital to understand how the body reacts to non-drug treatments versus medication when it comes to chronic inflammation. Taking drugs comes with the risk of experiencing side-effects that could raise the risk of premature death.

“There are many people who would prefer to use non-drug interventions for improving their immune system function,” Slavich adds. “In some cases, they can’t take certain medications because of medical reasons, and in other instances the medications they need are too expensive. And then there are people who simply prefer a more holistic approach to improving their health.”

CBT can ward off inflammation for months after treatment

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) focuses on the idea that anyone can develop healthier patterns of thought and do away with self-destructive and unproductive ways of thinking and reacting to the world.

“Out of all of the interventions we examined, CBT was the most effective for reducing inflammation, followed by multiple or combined interventions,” the director of the UCLA Laboratory for Stress Assessment and Research concludes. “Moreover, we found that the benefits of CBT on the immune system last for at least six months following treatment. Therefore, if you’re looking for a well-tested, non-drug intervention for improving immune-related health, CBT is probably your best choice.”

The study is published in JAMA Psychiatry.