Your Lack of Motivation May Be Caused by Chronic Inflammation

If you suffer from a lack of motivation, the culprit may be chronic, low-grade inflammation. A new paper has proposed that chronic inflammation may reduce dopamine, which is a problem because dopamine plays a major role in motivation.

Key Takeaway

Breaking down your day into a series of small tasks is an effective strategy for maintaining your motivation throughout the day. A new paper has found that chronic, low-grade inflammation may reduce dopamine, which is a problem because dopamine plays a major role in motivation. Diet and stress are major contributors to chronic inflammation. In this article, we offer some ideas for improving diet and reducing stress.

There are simple lifestyle changes that we can make to reduce our risk of dementia and disability in later life. These include managing blood pressure controlling cholesterol, keeping blood sugar normal, getting physically active, eating a healthy diet, losing extra weight, quitting smoking, maintaining social relationships, and managing depression and hearing loss.

In an earlier post, we learned how one way to keep your motivation high throughout the day is to keep your dopamine levels remain elevated. Dopamine is released when we expect a reward, such as completing a task successfully. Research using monkeys has found that the dopaminerigic neurons code for whether you've been successful on a task or not and this activity lasts for several seconds until the next task. This means that when you've completed a task successfully, you're more likely to succeed on the next task, because dopamine levels have remained high. Conversely, if you've failed on a task, you're more likely to fail on the next task, because dopamine levels remained low. To maintain motivation, then, rather than focusing on a big goal that you may or may not successfully complete, break down your day into a series of small tasks that you know you can succeed at. This doesn't mean that you're not working on your goal: You're just working in smaller bites that maintain elevated dopamine levels, and hence your motivation.

But, there is "growing evidence that chronic, low-grade inflammation directly affects the brain’s dopamine system, which drives motivation." The theory is that "this connection among dopamine, effort, and the inflammatory response is an adaptive mechanism to help the body conserve energy."

Michael Treadway from Emory University, the first author on the paper, says that: “When your body is fighting an infection or healing a wound, your brain needs a mechanism to recalibrate your motivation to do other things so you don’t use up too much of your energy.” And it does this by disrupting the dopamine system. When you think about it, it makes sense: Healing takes energy and your body has to get the energy from somewhere. In this case, by using the dopamine system to reduce the effort you would have otherwise expended on other tasks.

Chronic Inflammation May Also Contribute to Impulsivity

Chronic, low-grade inflammation may affect behaviour in other ways too. There is evidence that it can make us more impulsive, and make it more difficult to self-regulate. Christopher Bergland reviews some recent studies on the psychological repercussions of chronic, low-grade inflammation.

What Are Some of the Things you can do

  • One of the major contributors to chronic inflammation is diet. Not just poor diet, but also allergies and sensitivities to particular foods. I particularly recommend the autoimmune protocol for a couple of reasons: This diet has received empirical support for reducing symptoms, and even clinical remission in most participants, of inflammatory bowel disease, and reducing symptoms of Hashimoto's thyroiditis and C-reactive protein (a marker of systemic inflammation). The second reason is that Dr. Sarah Ballantyne, PhD, knows what she's talking about: She's a medical biophysicist and you can find tons of well-researched information on her website.
  • Prolonged stress alters the effectiveness of cortisol to regulate the inflammatory response because it decreases tissue sensitivity to the hormone, so it's important to manage your stress and build resilience. Here are some ideas for managing stress and building resilience.
  • But, you still need to get some work done. I can't stress enough that organizing your work day into small tasks that you can be successful at will help to maintain your motivation.

Research is showing increasingly that optimizing our physical health is one the most important things we can do for our brain health, including our cognitive performance and psychological health. That's because we're a mind-body system and we can't have a healthy mind without a healthy body. Below are more articles on how the body affects the mind and brain.


Treadway, M. T., Cooper, J. A., & Miller, A. H. (2019). Can’t or won’t? Immunometabolic constraints on dopaminergic drive. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 23, 435-488.

Image by Leterrier, NeuroCyto Lab, INP, Marseille, France

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