Motivation is a tricky beast to pin down. Sometimes it seems like you might be fired up one day and then sputter out the next. Or you could set some solid goals and yet never find the push you need to start working toward them.
Although motivation can be complex in terms of potential factors, a recent study suggests it might not all be about willpower. It could be about the amount of inflammation you have in your body instead.
In that study, researchers looked at the role of inflammatory cytokines — a type of molecule put out by the immune system as a way to fight infection and trauma. When your body experiences sickness or injury, inflammation helps direct immune system resources to that area for healing.
But when you experience ongoing, chronic inflammation unrelated to the healing process — for example, elevated inflammation because of poor food choices, stress and sleep problems — then it can have an effect on your release of dopamine. That’s the chemical related to feeling happy and rewarded.
The researchers noted that chronic, low-grade inflammation reduced dopamine levels and led people to feel less inclined to expend energy for future rewards. In other words, their motivation dwindled rapidly.
Anything that saps a willingness to put out more effort is a big problem, and if inflammation is decreasing dopamine production, that makes it even worse. In that situation, it’s likely someone might turn to short-term fixes to increase dopamine. One of the fastest ways to do that? Eat sugar.
Sugar intake can take many forms, from cakes and candy to highly processed grains, and the more you eat, the more your brain becomes dependent on that short-term dopamine surge. That’s why so many people struggle with breaking the treadmill of sugar addiction, because the brain starts to crave those neurochemical surges and creates withdrawal symptoms like cravings when it’s taken away.
Making the cycle more problematic is the fact that as you increase sugar to feel that dopamine rush, you’re also raising inflammation levels, even with moderate consumption. As the recent study noted, that can keep your motivation low and make it much harder to take on positive, long-term changes like good diet habits and regular exercise.
In light of this research, it may be worth considering a shift toward anti-inflammatory eating and behaviors if you’re feeling particularly unmotivated. Reducing inflammation as a starting point could lead to a much better, steadier amount of brain regulation, according to Ontario-based naturopathic doctor Olivia Rose.
“Taking action through positive steps, little by little, can add up to big changes when it comes to your inflammation levels,” she says. “That can have a ripple effect that helps you continue to make those good decisions.”
Although it may be tempting to do a large-scale inflammation overhaul — “no more sugar, ever! Exercise for two hours a day! Sleep nine hours a night!” — it’s much better to start your anti-inflammation campaign with smaller steps. After all, as the recent research noted, you might be lacking motivation, so more manageable actions are crucial.
That might mean taking an extra break at work tomorrow, to decrease stress and overwhelm. You could opt for a piece of fruit instead of a candy bar for your mid-afternoon slump. Maybe have beer or wine a few times a week instead of every evening, since alcohol can increase inflammation for some people. Put good bedtime habits in place for better sleep quality. Schedule time tomorrow for a brisk 15-minute walk.
All of these shifts can have an effect on inflammation levels. As you put them in place, hopefully your motivation begins to creep higher, letting you cultivate more ambitious goals in terms of food, stress, sleep and exercise.